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The Elephant in the Room of 21st Century Learning

By David Perkins

Today's educators face a small world paradox: the smaller our common world gets, the larger and more complicated our personal worlds become. Globalization, digital technologies, and cheap and fast modern transportation make the common world we and our children occupy 'smaller', thereby putting more places and jobs and products and channels and websites and cultures and friends, and, yes, responsibilities at everyone's fingertips. An average person in 14th century France inhabited a relatively simple personal world with maybe three sides: farm, village, and the church. Today ordinary individuals construct amazingly complex personal worlds with many facets. The game has truly changed.

To help learners thrive in their personal, professional, and civic roles, educational reformers in various states and nations have proposed dozens of visionary frameworks for what we should teach, under labels like 21st century skills or 21st century learning. These frameworks foreground broad skills or competencies important to engaging our small/big world - for instance learning to learn, creativity, entrepreneurship, collaboration - and often emphasize contemporary content, such as global awareness or environmental understanding.

All to the good, but there is an "elephant in the room," a big conspicuous but largely undiscussed problem: What should we do with tired content? Many traditional curricular topics, even when reasonably well learned in a schoolish way, do not speak powerfully to the lives today's students are likely to live. After the exams are over, mountains of information and understanding erode in the acid rain of time and multimedia and general busyness. Much of what learners happen to remember plays no intellectual or practical role in life. What great insights or pivotal decisions have most of us drawn lately from let's say quadratic equations, the steps of mitosis or meiosis, Boyle's law, the wives of Henry VIII, or the contrast between Italian and Elizabethan sonnets?

If only we could shrink some topics, we could expand others that offer much more. For instance, basic statistics and probability generally get little attention compared to quadratic equations and multiple linear equations, but they come up constantly in public policy, economic reports and forecasts, health and insurance decisions, investing, and gambling. If only we could reframe some topics, we could get more value out of them. For instance, pivotal historical moments like the French Revolution could be taught not so much as stories of what happened but rather as a lenses through which to look at a range of contemporary and past events.

The many worthy 21st century learning frameworks largely ignore the elephant. Urging attractive additions and extensions to content-as-usual, they address hardly at all what to get rid of and how. And no wonder...the elephant fights back! The gridlock of textbooks, testing, college admissions standards, and more makes forthrightly shelving traditional topics politically and practically perilous.

Well, but we have to do something! Radical restructuring or incremental change?... I don't know! Perhaps a way can be found to shove the elephant out of the room. Or perhaps we should simply establish momentum in the deep teaching of a range of plainly worthwhile ideas and skills, which in turn would encourage incremental decisions to nudge this or that foot of the elephant back. One way or another, we have to acknowledge the elephant for what it is - huge and gray and testy (pun intended).

David Perkins is the Carl H. Pforzheimer, Jr. Professor of Teaching and Learning in the Technology, Innovation, and Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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