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Defining 21st-Century Learning

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We write often about 21st century schools and learning. Think there is general understanding about those terms. But, we take comments from our readers seriously and here's a comment that gave us pause.

Every time I read an article, reminding us of the paramount importance of making sure our student develop 21st century skills, I wait for a comprehensible list of those new and critical skills and abilities, and every time I'm left waiting.

The comment created a conversation between the two of us. Exactly what do we mean by 21st century education and how do we respond? It is important that we do not allow the phrase '21st century skills' or '21st century education' become just another vague buzz term like 'paradigm shift'. So we will endeavor to offer our definition of '21st century skills' here and invite your thoughts comments as well.

Mastering the academic subjects and skills that were defined and included in the centuries past remain foundational.  But, overtime, educators abandoned the McGuffey readers but still taught reading in new ways. A parallel process may be instructive. Our reader went on to say:

The content areas are ... not new, and certainly not 21st century...English and language arts, foreign languages, visual and performing arts, mathematics, economics, science, social studies (geography, history, government, and civics), and even tech and computers...are clearly so 20th century.

Exactly. And, we are widely still measuring in 20th century ways. The 20th century is foundational. Educators have learned from a century of teaching and learning. Subject content is valuable. The content knowledge of those teaching them is valuable also. What makes creates a 21st century shift is the manner in which teaching and learning takes place, the emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math, and the relationship subjects have with each other. Engineering and technology are two 21st century shifts.

More, Earlier, Developmentally Appropriate
In the past century they may have been offered as elective classes for academically successful students who were interested in those subjects. In this century, we are called to introduce these concepts as early as kindergarten with the intention of reaching more students and peaking interest in them among all students.

Engineering concepts, introduced in even the earliest of grades, respond to this century's demands.There are several reasons for this. First, it is clear that there are many more jobs that demand highly skilled employees in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. Helping to prepare students, all students, to be able to make a choice to enter these fields is our responsibility. A 21st century responsibility is for educators is to design and provide learning opportunities that help students successfully develop concepts and skills in these fields. Students who get through elementary school weak in math and reading are typically not the students found in higher level high school classes.  Inclusion or exclusion begin at the elementary level, especially in those STEM subjects required for the 21st century workforce. But, it is not just about subject areas.

Planned, Skilled Problem Solving
Schools that have embraced problem solving as a practice demonstrate the difference from last century to this.  There was a step into group work last century and often 19th century one room schools did group work across grade levels. So, that, in and of itself, isn't new. Some will share the challenges from students and parents about the fairness for group-shared grades, given some do more work than others or offer specific skills. Yet, there was a beginning. Now there is a different need because it isn't an isolated educational notion about how children learn best, It is also a phenomenon increasingly found in the workplace. Teams with cross field professionals are found in many places. As far back as the space program's beginning in the 1960's and the solution of the problems faced by Apollo 13 illustrate the gradual entry of new workplace teams. Schools are catching up, slowly. This century both the subjects and how they are connected and taught is the difference. That is what informs the shift. Again from our reader's comment...

Promoting understanding of academic content at much higher levels? No, we've been doing that all the time. Global awareness? We've done that since we moved out of isolationism (Great migrations, the Silk Road, the Crusades, exploration and conquest of the Americas, and so on). Financial, economic, business and entrepreneurial literacy. Sorry, that has always been the focus of American education. Civic literacy? Maybe, we really need to work on that one, but it's not new.

Develop All Students
We agree that educators have been promoting understanding at higher levels but we have not been successful with too many children. All students can reach higher levels if we make more sense out of what and how teaching takes place. That sense making, relevancy, is a 21st century endeavor.  So, too, are critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, and communication. In order for students to build these skills, we have to provide them with learning opportunities to develop these skills. Problems must be relevant to the lives of the children. And, before we ask students to solve a problem that calls for engineering and technology, teachers must become masters of those concepts and subjects.  If you are thinking about the discreet subjects offered in high schools across the country now, we have not made our message clear. 

Inter- and Trans-Disciplinary Learning
Even in the earliest of grades (and throughout life) , problems are solved using  multiple 'subjects'.  Solving a drainage problem on the school grounds can become a robust elementary level project in which experts in the field are called in to partner with the teachers and students lending their expertise.  Science, technology, engineering, math and English and graphic design are all potential aspects of skills involved in the lessons.  Math and social studies and ELA standards braid their way into the project as students research, consider, communicate, experiment, reflect and report. Rather than beginning as a "unit of study", this century learning begins with "problems for study". It unfolds as educators unpack the skills and information and partners needed to solve these problems.

Locally Defined
The talents and limits that exist within the faculty will mostly be different from school to school but there are also some similarities. Developing teachers in early grades to understand mathematical concepts that underlie engineering and technology, and their application, is most likely a common challenge.  For the higher grades, not only will there be challenges when the subject area silos are broken down, but the time and training needed in order to blend, for example, history, art, writing, researching, and communication genres will push at schedules, contracts, budgets and comfort levels. This demands 21st century thinking about how time is used for training and teaching and learning. It demands attention to the physical structure and school design.

Professional Development
Teachers and their leaders must be prepared to model and teach how to handle the glut of information, the Internet, fake news, alternative facts, and problems with new and creative solutions. In order to be leading a school in this century teachers and leaders must be learners themselves and be ready to invite a creativity in their practice that has been missing as we have struggled to measure performance on tests.  

And, finally, more now than ever, 21st century educators must be prepared to help students explore ethical issues and discover their own guidelines and understand and practice how to listen to others who may disagree with them. Ethics are a central feature of this century's workforce especially because of the growth of scientific innovations. Ethical discussions and development, embedded into existing and changing curriculum, is an essential 21st century demand.

21st Century Characteristics
What makes a 21st century learning environment different from the century past is not easily described but has central ideas. Students will always need to attain a body of skills and knowledge that prepare them as informed citizen graduates. Here are some of the 21st century characteristics that welcome students into exciting learning environments where all succeed:

  • Science, technology, engineering and math integrated into all grades, with a vertical plan for implementation
  • Blending subjects in order to develop students as comprehensive problem solvers
  • Developing teacher skills to create inter- and trans-disciplinary learning environments with their colleagues and with business and higher-ed partners
  • Moving from information delivery to discovery and problem solving
  • Including ethical decision making
  • Allowing all of the above to inform how schools handle the use of time
  • Removing the barriers of old mindsets that limit children and separate learning into content areas
  • Inviting partnerships with business and higher education to join in the teaching and learning process

 Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

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