What’s In a Name?!

Schools around the United States, as well as throughout the world, are discussing “21st century education.” Some are getting on with it, and some are spending considerable time just debating the name of the movement. The version of the phrase which seems to cause some folks the most consternation is “21st century skills.” From what I gather, some people get irritated because few, if any, of the skills named in any such list have just now become important simply because it is after January 1, 2001. [Some distractors even want to debate the actual start of the 21st century!] Of course…these skills have ALWAYS been important, but they are increasingly important now.

As for me, I say that those who want to spend time debating the best moniker to unite us all under a mutually agreed-upon banner are distracting the real essence of what students, educators, parents – ALL LEARNERS – should be discussing. Forget about the name! It is simply a categorical title to get us all talking about a set of shared language, shared knowledge, and shared values. Let’s spend our time talking about what’s best for learning in the 21st century…at least for the next 80 or so years! Can we just get on with what really matters?!

My vision, simply stated, for 21st century teaching and learning:

  • The 20th century is thematically characterized by the Industrial Age. My vision for 21st century education accepts that learning is not about assembly lines, production widgets, efficiency, and adult convenience. Learning is integrated! Let’s really examine sending our most precious commodity (see…our language is even habituated from an Industrial Age !) – CHILDREN – down an assembly line of siloed instruction in math, science, history, English, etc. The brain is a beautifully complex network of integrated systems. It is a SYSTEM! So should be school! [see Ken Robinson’s RSA]
  • The 20th century is thematically characterized by “sit and get” instruction. My vision for 21st century education accepts that learning is project-based. Before people seat us in rows and columns of desks among four walls, we learn through “projects.” After formal schooling, we learn through projects. Learning is project-based! Context precedes competence. And there is a spectrum of “project-based.” The most advanced projects are those that integrate the all-too-departmentalized subjects, those that develop from STUDENT-learner QUESTIONS and INQUIRY instead of teacher-driven decisions, and those that make a real, authentic, relevant difference in this world – a world that begs for problem identifiers and problems solvers who recognize that great ideas emerge in “coffee houses.” [see Kiran Bir Sethi’s TED talk, Linda Darling-Hammond, Steven Johnson’s TED talk and/or RSA]
  • The 20th century is thematically characterized by an overemphasis on assessment OF learning. My vision for 21st century education accepts that assessment is FOR learning. Assessment is FOR learning! We need to utilize assessment carefully and thoughtfully to maintain a strong, healthly lifestyle and attitude about learning. Autopsies are for dead people, and they don’t offer much assistance to those on whom the service is being performed. If we only do one thing for learners in the 21st century, we should assist their (OUR!) development of the growth mindset over the fixed mindset. [see Robert Marzano, Tom Guskey, James Popham, Rick and Becky DuFour, Bob Eaker, Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, Alfie Kohn, Bill Ferriter, Joe Bower, Jonathan Martin, George Couros, and the list goes on, etc.]

“What?!” you say. “He didn’t even mention technology. What a fool!” Technology is just a tool to help us accomplish the three points above…it is a means, not an ends, even in our digitially-dominated world.

Let’s get on with it already! It’s about LEARNING!

6 thoughts on “What’s In a Name?!

  1. Pingback: Great NYT Piece: “Education Needs a Digital-Age Upgrade” « It's About Learning

  2. Pingback: So What do Students Need to Learn? « Center for Teaching

  3. Bo: This is precisely where we need to go and be in this transformational time. I’m not sure how to get my response here to Juliet’s committee, or to Thad, Jill, and Whit who are hard at work on the “VISION” statement for Nelson’s and Jeff’s committee. Your vision MUST be incorporated into the draft! Please! So, I would appreciate your passing along my perspective to that group if you don’t mind. At the moment I am enroute to Philadelphia for a conference. Bill

  4. Bo:

    The points we have discussed throughout this whole conversation are the three you expressed so well. We are going around in circles.

    Learning is integrated (systems)
    Learning is project-based (collaborative)
    Assessment is for learning

    I would add something around space. It seems to me the image of an industrial age education has attached to it a certain physical space. The “21st Century” education will result in space being used more creatively. Don’t know if it fits with the tight three points you write about.

    Here is my view of technology. It comes from a Steven Jobs quote that Garr Reynolds uses:

    “What a computer (technology) is to me is it’s the most remarkable TOOL that we have ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our mind.”

    I agree with your conclusion and all the comes before it.


  5. Bo,

    I’m not sure if you’ve had a chance to see Wesch’s new video (Rethinking Education), but if you haven’t, it’s a must. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Xb5spS8pmE&feature=player_embedded

    He opens the video with the following two quotes:

    “The university is structured like an assembly line…turning out uniform products with predetermined values determined by the producer.” — Mark Taylor

    “The school system, custodian of print culture…is the homogenizing hopper into which we toss our integral tots for processing.” — Marshall McLuhan

    And then prompts the viewer — through a brilliant set of questions — to think about what is the “thing” that we can build** to prepare students for today’s world. My response — like yours — “let’s get on with it already!”

    **Wesch includes the phrase “from the ground up.” It’s something I’m contemplating for a later blog post that has to do with the ideas about greenfield schooling (ideas that Hess presents in his book, Education Unbound) vs. working with what’s already in place.

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