Learning in the 21st Century (First of a series)

These days there are many documents and reports circulating about 21st Century learning and outcomes. For example, here is a classic programmatic statement: “Within the context of core knowledge instruction, students must also learn the essential skills for success in today’s world, such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication and collaboration.” 

BUT, and it is a big but, this has always been the ambition of most schools, most teachers and most governments. Who doesn’t want their students to be good communicators? Would any school suggest that problem solving is unimportant? Collaboration has always been celebrated as essential to learning.

So, is this just rhetoric? Are these just convenient descriptors without any real content or are they essential and new aspects of the learning process?

Context is crucial here. Can schools built on a mid-twentieth century industrial model of education promote critical thinking in the 21st century?

Can twenty to forty students sitting in a classroom develop the insights needed to meet and challenge not only their own points of view, but also those of others?

In 1828, the Yale Report (a foundational document in the history of American education) appeared and here is a brief quote from page six: “From different quarters, we have heard the suggestion that our colleges must be new-modeled; that they are not adapted to the spirit and wants of the age; that they will soon be deserted unless they are better accommodated to the business character of the nation.”

Sound familiar? Have our schools ever been able to meet the needs of the age? I doubt it. More often than not education and learning are sources of dispute, mediators in the culture wars or progenitors of conflict. These are not bad characteristics, it is just that learning, for better or worse is not about information, schools or responding to what teachers suggest or talk about. The social space of schools is much like social media, places of conversation where the unintended outcome is often far more important than any of the artifice used to frame conversations in a specific way.

The hubris of educational institutions is that they believe they are central to the lives of their students and are the hubs around which learning takes place. For the most part, learning is neither clear (as to intent — you may want to learn, but everything from the emotional state that you are in to the classmates and teachers you have muddy the waters) nor is it linear. The lack of linearity drives policymakers crazy. They have forgotten of course that play is central to learning and deficiencies in the understanding of information and knowledge cannot so easily be cajoled into positive outcomes. In fact, the drive to constrain the inherently chaotic nature of learning leads to examinations and modes of evaluation that measure not what has been learned, but how effectively students can play the outcomes games required of them.

Part Two will examine the specifics of outcomes and the expectations of policymakers.