The Journey to 21st Century Learning for All Students

By Jacqueline Burke


I remember clearly the first day I recycled anything.  A bin had been delivered to our house, and I found myself squinting at the bottom of a plastic container to determine if its fate was the landfill or an exciting new purpose, when I realized, “My children will never know a world without recycling.” The thought was stunning to me, and I recall that moment of clarity:  the world I knew was changing. I feel much the same awe as I think about education today: straddling the line between past and future, we are on the cusp of transformation.

Our world has changed dramatically in just the past two decades, yet for the most part, our educational systems haven’t kept up with the pace of change. Many of the current structures in education were designed when America was the manufacturing capital of the world, when the workforce skills that were valued were having a defined set of knowledge and the ability to follow routines that were logical and linear and led to predictable, repeatable outcomes (Pink, 2006). But our economy has quickly shifted from manufacturing to service. Today, nearly 80 percent of the workforce is employed in the service industry (Johnston, 2012), and the skills these workers need are much more dynamic. Those who thrive in a service economy are well equipped with effective communication skills, strong social skills, and creative, critical thinking to respond to unpredictable situations.

Educators must also rethink their traditional role as the “keepers of knowledge.” Knowledge is all around us. Anyone with a smartphone or an internet connection, can access information in a matter of seconds.  At the same time, new knowledge is being generated at an unprecedented rate.  When I began teaching in the early 1990s, knowledge was doubling about every 10 years. Today, knowledge is increasing exponentially, doubling at a rate that is measured in hours, not years (Schmidt & Cohen, 2013). Thus, the value of knowledge has shifted from “remember and repeat” to “locate, evaluate, and effectively use.” And the focus is increasingly on taking action—using knowledge in unique ways to think critically and create authentic, outside-the-box solutions for a world that is in a cycle of innovative change never before experienced (Dolezalek & Freed, 2014).

What are the implications for school systems in providing high-quality 21st century educational experiences for all students?  


While there is an important case to be made for designing learning experiences that develop 21st century skills, educators must be thoughtful not to allow the pendulum to swing so far that they lose sight of the importance of academics.  Without deep understanding of rigorous academic content, there is no foundation upon which 21st century skills such as collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and creativity can flourish.

Battelle for Kids is committed to supporting school systems with the design and implementation of 21st century education systems that lead to deeper learning for all students. Deeper learning occurs through the purposeful integration of rigorous academic content with experiences that intentionally cultivate skills, mindsets, and literacies essential for students to become lifelong learners and contributors in our rapidly changing world.  

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Every school system’s journey to 21st century learning will look different, but there are some key questions to consider along the way. 

1. Are students engaging in learning as a social endeavor?

To become skilled collaborators and communicators, students must be provided opportunities to practice and hone these skills. Through social interactions, students organically broaden their learning through the experiences of and interactions with others. Consider ways to intentionally embed these important experiences in the learning environment.

2. Is the curriculum aligned to foster 21st century skills, mindsets, and literacies?

Review existing curriculum to ensure alignment with the system’s vision for 21st century learning and that all students have access to educational experiences that cultivate critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity, and other important 21st century skills. This may mean re-thinking the hard lines between academic disciplines to find connections that foster authentic learning experiences embedded in rigorous academic content.

3. How is technology being used?

It’s important to recognize that access to technology will not automatically result in deeper learning, especially if used only for consumption rather than production. Design learning experiences that not only use technology as a means to access information, but also allow students to connect with the wider world, produce meaningful work, and enrich the experiences in which they engage. 

4. Are there opportunities to build resilience by embracing assessment “as” learning?

Assessment “as” learning puts the focus on the process of learning and engages students in mindful self-reflection and self-regulation. Rather than focus on getting the “right answer,” students reflect on what they did well, what they learned from their missteps, and how they might proceed as courageous learners to adjust their approach in the future. These reflective mindsets empower learners to pursue goals and leverage resources in meaningful ways and sets the stage for life-long learning.

5. How does the role of educators shift in providing 21st century learning experiences for students?

To provide 21st century learning experiences, educators must see their role in a new light. Rather than conveyors of knowledge, they must see themselves as designers of learning experiences, a shift that requires them to balance the role of instructor with those of collaborators and coaches. To do so will require educators to tap into their own 21st century skills, to empower the profession to think critically and collaboratively and to elevate student voice and cultivate student agency.

Like recycling a couple decades ago, I believe we’re on the cusp of a historic transformation in education. Educators, parents, business and community leaders are rallying around the idea that we need to provide a much different educational experience in our schools that prepares all students to be lifelong learners and contributors in the 21st century. Recycling is no longer a novel concept.  My hope is that the 21st century practices we consider so innovative in schools now are also one day universal for every child. 

Jacque Burke is a Senior Director at Battelle for Kids. Connect with her on Twitter at @JacqueB33.  


References:

Dolezalek, S. & Freed, J. (2014).  An American Kodak Moment.  Retrieved from http://www.thirdway.org/report/an-american-kodak-moment.

Johnston, L.D. (2012). History lessons: Understanding the decline in manufacturing.  Retrieved from https://www.minnpost.com/macro-micro-minnesota/2012/02/history-lessons-understanding-decline-manufacturing

Pink, D. (2006).  A whole new mind: Why right-brainers will rule the world.  New York: Riverhead Books.

Schmidt, E. & Cohen, J. (2013).  The new digital age:  Transforming nations, businesses, and our lives. New York:  Vintage Books.