21st century learning – what do you think it is?

I recently attended an education forum where the main focus was on the role of technology in 21st century learning and education. The typical 21st century skills were shown. Personally I am not a big fan of 21st century skills because I don’t think these skills are unique to this century. To be able to collaborate, innovate, communicate, etc, have always been important skills, even back in the 12th century. 21st century learning is certainly not about interactive whiteboards and learning management systems. One of the speakers at the forum showed two photos of teaching that really got the room thinking. What exactly is the difference between the photo on the top and the photo on the bottom?

teacher teaching from a blackboardteacher teaching from IWB

While technology certainly plays a large role in education, I think for effective learning to occur in the 21st century and beyond relies on how teachers, educators and society perceive how technology is shaping knowledge and content.

Our current education and schooling system is built upon the premise that content is  scarce. When mass education started, content was difficult to access. Content was recorded in books that were expensive and only a limited number of these books were printed. Only a small number of people had access to this content and this is why children had to be crammed into a classroom to learn this content from someone who knows it. You had to memorise content because it is so difficult to find again. You memorise it or copy it so that you have access to it later on.

Now that we’re in the 21st century, do we still need an education and schooling model that is based on content being difficult to access? We now have YouTube, Wikipedia, Khan Academy and various other online resources that makes content available 24 hours a day, regardless whether you are in the city or rural areas or whether you are at home or on the train. Even children in developing countries have access to this. So why are we still making students come to a particular room at a particular time to access content that they can access online anytime anywhere?

Some people will at this point jump to the conclusion that a computer cannot replace a teacher. I agree. Just having access to content doesn’t make you understand that content. What teachers need to do is to develop students’ abilities in identifying what their learning needs are, how to find the resources for these needs and how to decide whether the resources are suitable. Teachers will need to help students clarify their understanding and develop students’ abilities in assessing and evaluating their own progression. In addition, teachers will also need to develop students’ abilities to collaborate with a global community.

And here’s where I think strategies such as the flipped classroom, games based learning and problem based learning come in. They are about learners owning their own learning processes in an environment where knowledge is at their fingertips and the teacher is not the source of all knowledge that just tells learners what they need to know. Unless teachers truly grapple with the concept that knowledge is now widely accessible to anyone and that learning can happen anywhere anytime (often without them being there), it doesn’t matter how much we talk about 21st century learning, how many interactive whiteboards we install or how many laptops are made available to schools, teachers will still transmit knowledge like the 19th century.

10 thoughts on “21st century learning – what do you think it is?

  1. In Queensland we have this amazing “C2C” push on curriculum at the moment. Even though ICTs are embedded in many of the units the emphasis is still on the teachers pushing out the content. The kids don’t have time to reflect or have choices wrt choosing strands of enquiry that they might like to take. It’s pretty awful actually. Some teachers are taking the view that the only way to get through it all is “direct teaching” and you hear teachers talking about “covering concepts” – the whole point about using digital pedagogies to personalise learning is being missed! The 19th century model lives on despite all of the IWBs and laptops and other devices!

    • The question is how we can move teachers from 19th century to 21st century learning. How many of those “I’m a 21C learner” videos need to be shown? How many keynotes by expensive North American presenters showing picture of kids playing with iPads do we need to show? Obviously what we are doing isn’t working for the majority of teachers.

  2. Change is always hard to accept. Most people are afraid of change because they are afraid of being left behind. This is actually a result of the very teaching system which you stated needs to be changed.The teaching system teaches knowledge and know how but (as you mention) does not teach how to learn and how stay up to date with your knowledge is a world that is evolving and advancing ever so fast.

    sure is room for teachers. As people get to more advanced levels of education the knowledge does become much harder to find.

    Today the number of kids diagnosed with learning disabilities is more 50% of the students. now think about that for a moment. The current educational system has defined that more the 50% the students have a problem fitting into the system and the solution is to give the students treatment instead of treating the system which obviously does not fit the needs of most of its population.

    We need to focus on teaching learning skills much more than teaching knowledge.

  3. Im not a teacher, but I am concerned at the way our kids of today really don’t have much of an idea about spelling and grammar or even maths. I’m 57 now, so I started school in 1960, so I think I’m one of those kids that used up most of his memory back then remembering everything, “Parrot Fashion” you might call it. Times tables for instance. Ask a lot of kids some simple maths questions to do in their head, and they’re stumped.

    I’m old fashioned and still think a lot of the old ways have it all over these modern methods.

    Also in reply to Josh Welss, I fully agree with the part about about kids with learning problems. My daughter started having trouble in early Primary School and they kept putting her up every year and said she’d be fine. In High School, we were told at the school that some kids just aren’t meant for school. We found her a job half way through Grade 9 and she thrived at her new workplace, no thanks to the Education System.

    • Thanks for your comments, Bob. I agree with you that the “basics” like spelling, grammar and maths are very important. However I think they can be learnt in context of themes that students find relevant. For example, students might run a mock business at school to learn how to add, subtract, etc. This is more important in the later years of schooling such as early high school years where many students have outgrown the need for the “parrot fashion” strategy.

  4. Awesome post Alice! I tend to agree with your commentary. CHris Betcher recently posted in G+ these thoughts on this …. if you like 21C outcomes …

    Learn to create networks for their own personal learning
    Learn to manage the information overload that comes with life today
    Learn to work collaboratively across boundaries of time and place
    Learn to build and structure content to be informative and persuasive
    Learn to make information work for them
    Learn to use information legally and ethically

    Did you catch them? What do you think?

    • Those are more in line with what I think 21C learning is. However, I think we need to see them being implemented in the classroom. Many teachers realise that 21C learning requires different teaching and learning strategies, but they need to see what does it actually look and feel like in the classroom. Does it look like problem based learning, games based learning, etc? And can we also successfully have students develop these 21C outcomes in traditional schooling structures?

  5. Hi Alice , fascinating conversation. Can you give me a reference for games based learning i have lots of disengeged boys and maybe we can reconnect this way.

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