21st Century Learning: Goal or Journey?

Judging by the huge number of event announcements I get on my Twitter feed, talking about 21st century learning is big business. Live speakers, webinars, courses, books—you name it and it’s there in quantity. The phrase is one of the new buzzwords in education and it gets discussed a lot, which is surprising for several reasons. First we are well into the 21st century. At the time of writing, the century is actually 10% over. It’s in its teens and one would think that by this age much of its personality would have developed by now.

Maybe that’s stretching it.

Have you seen any of the cards? Sometime around 1900 a series of painted cards (called En L’An 2000, do an image search with the name if you want to seem examples) was produced in France. These cards were supposed to depict what the world would be like in the year 2000. The images show people using flying machines and engaged in various fanciful automated processes. In their day, the cards were no doubt judged brilliant and visionary. Seen through our modern eyes, however, they are just laughable. The producers got some of the ideas right; flight is common and, yes, we have automated many of the unwanted laborious tasks we face. That said, the producers just could not see past the many biases of the day. The clothing and makeup styles are clearly from 100 years ago and none of the icons of the electronic age are there to any significant degree. This is not to laugh at the producers. All told they did an excellent job. It’s probably even safe to say that some of their predictions may have affected the future by serving as inspiration. They could not have predicted the future, though. How could they? The theory behind most of the technological advances—let alone the engineering—was, at that time, completely unknown. Relativity, quantum theory, the standard model—all unknown. More importantly, who could have predicted the huge social changes that brought us where we are today? The producers never really had a chance.

Now to the present: in talking about 21st century learning, there’s often an implication that we are to prepare students for the future so the task to many becomes that of predicting it; the future. As has probably been just made clear, that’s not an activity likely to result in any accurate or useful results. We are simply too bound up in the values and biases of our own past to be able to let go enough to see very far ahead.

So is it pointless, then? Is it a waste of time trying to prepare students for a future that we cannot even fathom?

Maybe not. Start by reflecting on the fundamentals. It’s useful to listen to people talking about the subject. If you do you will likely make two discoveries. First, there’s quite a divergent conversation going on; it seems to be about a lot of things and second, there’s not a lot of listening. In particular it seems like the ones doing the most talking are in no mood to listen to, or respect, the views of others. The loudest voices seem quite assured that THEIR view is the right one and that we will all be fine if we just do it their way. Some samples of what you may hear include:

  • More attention is needed in utilizing individualized (constructivist) teaching methods. There’s too much teaching to the ‘middle’ of large groups.
  • We need to stop pandering to individual needs and ensure that the basics are taught to the point of recall.
  • We need to have increased reliance on various emerging technologies, particularly a fusion of the Internet and mobile electronic devices.
  • There should be an increased focus on various skills and literacies, particularly emerging ones.
  • Students need more effective instruction in various disciplines—math, science and engineering are mentioned a lot.
  • It is time for a renewed focus on the arts. There is too much focus on the world of work and we have to prepare students for life, not to be slaves to industry.
  • There’s too much in the curriculum. We should trim it all down and focus on the r’s and c’s.
  • We need to ditch the institutional model of schooling. This is not the 19th century.
  • If we don’t buck up we are headed for financial and social ruin. Look at how low we score next to the other OECD countries.

There’s more. The list goes on but you’ve seen enough. All of these items are backed by extensive research and discussion. The problem is that there is no agreement out there. There are alliances—groups often find common ground on sets of these beliefs and work hard to promote their cause, some better than others. But the fact remains that, in the end, there are many voices and there is little agreement.

Who is right? More importantly, how do we determine that? If we are to focus our limited resources on one of them then what is it to be?

Maybe the whole idea of a ‘right’ path for education in this century is fundamentally flawed. When trying to decide what is appropriate in education it is generally useful to see the enterprise as having several purposes, listed in no order of importance:

  1. preparing workers to create a vibrant economy,
  2. preparing citizens to create functioning social institutions,
  3. and, finally, preparing people for the many parts of life that are outside the bounds of ‘work’ and ‘duty.’

You may or may not agree with the delineation but look again at the bullet list above. Notice that most of the bullets apply to only one—and not all—of the three views. This raises an important question: are those ‘loud voices’ coming at the whole thing one-dimensionally? Consider the OECD. It spends a huge amount of time and energy on studying educational achievement. Since its focus is on economic development, can it be blamed for putting STEM education ahead of everything else? But that does not mean we should put all of our energies toward STEM and abandon the arts because, as has been noted, economic development is only one lens—albeit an important one–and not the ‘be all and end all.’

I mentioned that there were several problems with talking about 21st century learning. One has now been made clear: we can’t really see far enough to predict, with certainty, what the students need. The second, by now, is also coming into focus.

Or rather, perhaps going out of focus might be a better phrase. Twenty-first century learning is not one thing. In its simplest form, perhaps, it is many, but it may even be stretching it too far to say that implies that those ‘things’ exist in a form that can be nailed down and delineated for once and for all. In as much as there are many values, divergent  societies, competing priorities and varying amounts of available resources it is likely that 21st century learning is something that can never be completely articulated for once and for all.

But do we have to?

Every day, in every school, a great conversation occurs between teachers, students, parents/guardians and other participants in the venture known as education. It often takes the title ‘21st century learning’ but regardless of the title it is always about the interaction that happens between teachers, students and the curriculum. It is ultimately about why teachers have jobs and why students attend school and it is ongoing. That is the important part. While the conversation does have a goal in mind—learning—it is not about a singular state of being. It is rather about the pursuit of an important goal and not necessarily about the goal itself. See this way, there is no one right answer or framework that adequately describes 21st century learning in the absolute sense. There are many and we should expect them to vary widely and often.The goal remains, however, and the conversation and, ultimately the shaping—however temporary or individual—of our vision of it is likely the most important task we all face, as educators.

In the end the truths we obtain may only be valid in the shortest temporal sense, the smallest geographic sense and the narrowest scope but they will be useful and the pursuit of them will be perhaps the most defining item if we, too, are to be considered learners.