We often hear of school districts heralding an initiative as promoting 21st Century Learning and we often hear people talk about needing to have 21st Century Classrooms or adopting a 21st Century pedagogy. However, as near as I can tell most of the time "21st Century _____" is used it lacks a concrete definition or consensual understanding of what it means. Instead, it becomes a handy buzz word or phrase that can be used to beef up public relations. While everyone talks about it, no one ever defines it. On close inspection, most of the times it is used one can discern that the party using it to describe or promote something doesn't have a firm grasp of what it means either. I propose that this has reached a point where the nebulous nature of this idea is potentially harmful and potentially corrupting of the major decisions our teachers, school administrators, schools, districts, and universities make. If we are going to continue making important and expensive decisions based on the notion of 21st Century Learning we need to have no more than two or three possible definitions of what it means (preferably one definition).

Back in August Wesley Fryer posted an article to his blog that set off a lively debate about electronic whiteboard use. That topic was recently brought up again on the Learning in Maine blog but put into the context of whether electronic whiteboards support 21st Century Education. I highly recommend both of these articles and the comment streams that follow them as they begin to seriously address this question of defining 21st Century Education.

So, what is 21st Century Education and how does it differ from 20th Century Education? How far from the trees do we need to look to see this forest? In August of 2007 I put together a video called Why We Need to Teach Technology in School which attempts to make people think about how technology might be changing education. The video offers no solution, nor does it offer any definition of what 21st Century Education looks like. In many ways I was not sure I could answer those questions at that time. This blog post is an attempt of mine to take this discussion to the next step and try and work out these big ideas.

21st Century Education is defined by what technologies available to us today make possible and what they render obsolete. The technology that effects education the most is networked digital electronics such as computers, the internet, cell phones, portable media players, digital cameras, digital camcorders, etc. and the software developed to use with them. Daniel Pink says that in our new economy everything that can either be outsourced or automated will be. I don't think this is anything new. We have seen this story again and again throughout history. When photography was invented in the 1800s much of the work previously done by painters was automated by the camera. Nearly every time an invention comes along that can get something done more efficiently an industry suffers. This idea has been well explained and detailed by Clayton Christensen and his theory of disruptive innovation.

When the camera was invented it set the art world into a century long identity crisis known as Modernism. Since painting could not primarily be about creating images it had to be about something else. Modernism was all about defining what art is minus the prior dominant attribute of image rendering. This time was marked by many artistic movements, all with their own philosophies, definitions, and manifestos. Examples of this include Impressionism, Expressionsim, Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and Pop Art. All radically different but share the same absence of image rendering being their primary attribute. This is where I think we are with 21st Century Schools.

21st Century Schools are in the middle of an identity crisis. New technologies render unnecessary some major elements of pedagogy that have, since the inception of the industrial revolution, become indoctrinated and so ingrained into what we think of as school that the absence of such pedagogical constructs throws into question whether what we are talking about is school at all. For example, with online digital video and open courseware there is no longer a need for teachers to lecture. In fact, we can take the very best lecturers on a subject, record their presentations, and upload them to YouTube where students can view them at any time. In many ways this is better because if they miss something they can rewind or if they are not ready to watch and listen now they can wait until they are ready. Also, through digital quiz or survey tools students can be pretested to identify what their learning needs are before they take a course. These same digital tools can be used to automate some forms of assessment. So, essentially we can outsource lectures and automate objective assessment. With these learning resources available anytime anywhere there eliminates a need to move all students along at the same pace. There also eliminates the need for all students to learn in the same way or even be physically present with the teacher and other students in the same classroom at the same time.

Online schools have been described by many as being "21st Century." While this is in part true because the school would not be possible without 21st Century technology there are as many learning theories applied to online schools as are applied in traditional classrooms. Many online schools simply take what would have been done in a traditional classroom and put it online so students can attend remotely. I would not use online schools as being the single exemplar of "21st Century Schools." Rather the terms "Online Learning" and "Online Schools" refer to a medium, not a pedagogy. If we use the medium to define 21st Century ______ as most of us have been then that definition will keep changing at a rate that we will not be able to keep up with. An online school can be "21st Century" but not all are.

One thing our pre-digital schools were not very good at was differentiated instruction. Another thing they did not have the proper resources to fully implement was authentic assessment. Research studies done by Caine and Caine (1991), Brooks and Brooks (1993), and many others exploring the effect of constructivist teaching strategies have overwhelmingly illustrated the power constructivist approaches like project-based learning have to promote both achievement and incite intrinsic motivation to learning objectives. Outsourcing and automating things that in the traditional classroom take a lot of time and energy frees the teacher up to be able to facilitate a true project-based, authentic learning, constructivist classroom. It is the pedagogy made possible by 21st century technology that is what defines a 21st Century School or 21st Century Learning. Right now the EdVisions schools like New Country School and Avalon are more pure examples of 21st Century schools.

So, this changes the question to whether 21 Century Education necessitates a replacement of prior models of schooling. I argue no. While Dan Willingham might disagree, I believe there is a kernel of truth behind learning style theories. Most specifically I believe the Theory of Multiple Intelligences by Howard Gardner is important and valid. I believe that students have different learning needs depending upon what subject they are studying. These needs are different for each student. One student may benefit more from a traditional class in Math while learning more in Social Studies by a constructivist approach. Another student may learn Social Studies better in a traditional class and math with project-based learning. It really depends for each individual on what kind of motivation they need and what kind of social environment the individual needs to study a subject.

What I advocate for is blend of the traditional and the 21st Century. I would like to see schools opperate in dual fashion. Think of it as two schools in one (not necessarily a school within a school). Students learning needs and interests can be identified and students can be placed either in a traditional classroom or work indepenedently with the help of an advisor based on whichever learning modality is optimal for each student in each subject.

Cross Posted at Techno Constructivist

Tags: 21st, Century, Christensen, Clayton, Dan, Daniel, Learning, Online, Pink, Reform, More…School, Willingham, constructivism, constructivist, disruptive, innovation

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This was a great post. Very thought provoking and engaging. I find myself sometimes cringing at the thought that we are chasing something that we don't really understand

Love this quote "Online Learning" and "Online Schools" refer to a medium, not a pedagogy. If we use the medium to define 21st Century ______ as most of us have been then that definition will keep changing at a rate that we will not be able to keep up with."

I would hope that you keep connected to your post and add to it. I know that there are a lot of people within and outside of this community who would like to hear what you are doing in education technology.

Lead the discussion!

the digital natives do not see online as necessarily anything special..it just is!

way too many teachers are getting excited because worksheets are now online

their students are not so excited.

21st century skills is a way to demolish the 'traditional' skill set, and to challenge what is being learned and why.

the difficulty with this demolition is the need to acknowledge the current schooling system is about more than education..it is a sorting and ranking machine

hence the 'need' for traditional methods...sit and listen, then respond within a time limit, under test/exam conditions...as this is the only way to deal with the increased capacity for students to learn and to 'go on' to higher levels of schooling

the issue has now become can students be convinced that schools offer something worth having...other than to 'be told' about other peoples learning experiences..book learning is about observing discoveries rather than making discoveries...virtual science compared to 'real' science( which is expensive and not well done by many)...much simpler to provide lists of facts and to have a race to regurgitate in a test

the other aspect of schooling is the chance to lower costs by having an expert online...mutiple intellligences is one of the most mis-understood theories for learning...with very little research to support it....but schools embrace MI and have allowed some students to adopt their 'preferred learning style' to the exclusion of developing other learning styles

the challenge for 21st century skills is to get recognition that they are worth having, and can be measured and assessed as rigorously as memory-based tests...until such time it is another fad/fashion or bright idea with little support from mainstream as it is seen as dis-advantaging their students in a competitive market

until recognition occurs 21st century skills will be left for junior years..where little maths/science is attempted and as the senior years approach, the 'traditional' approaches displace the more enlightened

thereby clearly stating they do not count for much!

assessment and reporting is the key...

the best 1to1 program is where there is one teacher for every student...the computer is merely a tool...it's what is done with the tool which determines whether it is worth doing

much of the online activity is not worth doing
just as many of the current worksheets are not..

they are written from a teachers perspective, not a learners developmental perspective...this is the opportunity provided by such advanced technologies that learners can comment and someone can observe them, and to respond.

watching a video is little help

the point of any lecture is for the lecturer to watch their audience and to respond
the delivery is INTERACTIVE...YouTube will never be interactive

so.. use technology if it improves something, or makes possible things which were previously not possible

Any translation of lecture or worksheet to be more efficient for the teacher may be of no benefit for the learner
1. I would argue that youtube and other social media platforms are more interactive for the audience than most face to face lectures,

2. In many ways homeschooling is very 21st C.
my point was: Youtube postings of lectures are hardly interactive

other uses of online apps may be interactive, depending on the intent and implementation.

just because it is web2, does not make it worth doing.
my original comment was about the digital natives and their needs.
the current education/schooling industry is rarely designed to satisfy those.
usually about industry needs, and post school training.

the danger about MI (and homeschooling) is it becomes self serving and self interested, and the external standards that exams are supposed to enforce are at the other extreme
there needs to be a middle path

far too many discussions about web2 are all or nothing...or about 'the other teachers who don't get it'
I concur with your point about Youtube and interactivity except for the ability to create discussions through comment threads. This alone makes this service interactive though not in the same way as a live lecture.

I also don't think 21st Century pedagogy is about web2 either. A teacher can implement 21st Century pedagogy without a shred of technology.

As for industry needs, I think these are changing as a result of new technologies too. If the purpose of schools is economic in nature then schools need to change to meet the needs of changing industries.

I also believe a middle ground needs to be met. What I advocate for is a 50/50 school. A school where 50% of instruction is offered through traditional instructionalist methods and 50% is project-based and student centered. If we drafted individual learning plans for each student based on their individual learning needs I suspect many of them will benefit from traditional classes in some subjects while others will need a different modality or motivation. This could ensure that we are maximizing motivation and reducing the chance that students will find what they learn in school to be irrelevant.

Web2 is wonderful, fun, cool, and can let us do many great things but it is not what will define 21st Century Education either. I would argue that teachers who try to frame the argument as all or nothing at all also "don't get it." What happens to 21st Century Education when web3 or web4 come along within the first quarter of this century? What then? Will we need to change our definition of 21st Century Education then?

I guess I see two ways to take a middle path. One is to bring everyone back to the middle and integrate a bit of constructivism and progressiveness in to instructionalist design and the other is to let both ends of the spectrum co-exist within the same system. I believe the latter maximizes the benefit from both.
or perhaps the curriculum every time..what are they expected to do? how? with what?

why are exams and standardised tests so well regarded by non-educators?
if most teachers teach as they were taught, until they have a revelation( not necessarily religious-unless you want it to be..) there is a lot of work on how schools operate and which purpose of many will be met by the energies and resources available.

much teacher effort is 'heroic' unsung , unrecognised unrewarded..partly because the imperative and sense of urgency is not shared

many funding agents have the long view 5~ten years..in which time two generations of students have gone through

there is only now! for the students..and for many staff this is where the frustrations come in

it shouldn't be this hard...
How so? I think homeschooling is very 19th Century, protectionist and very narrowing. Kids need to get out of the house.
Homeschooling can be very 21st Century in the same way o nline schools can be very 21st Century. The new tools allow it to be. However, that doesn't mean that homeschooling is necessarily 21st Century. Certainly in many cases it is very 19th, 18th, or even 17th Century.
I see what you're saying...I guess the flip side, public and private education in this country can be very 19th Century or earlier.

As a public educator I believe we need to be allowed to offer hybrid classes that allow part of the curriculum to be face-to-face and part online. If we aren't allowed to do that, we run the risk of becoming irrelevant. I fear too many of my colleagues fear online classes...they aren't going to take away jobs, they're just going to change them. If you don't adopt it, you will be let behind.
I think the future of education lies in a melding of liberal arts education and technical skills. Students need to have the ability to think critically, question, wonder and create more than ever. Many of the jobs our kids will fill haven't been created yet. That broad based liberal arts education that they have needs to be matched up with a technical interest they may have...networking, construction, electronics, engineering...something like that. If students have the ability to think and a basic background in some technical field they will have a good base for a career that will take many twists and turns in our rapidly changing global economy.
I think learner choice is a major element of the future of education. That includes all of these options and more.
I hope learner choice is going to be a big part of the future. We're going to need funding reform to be able to offer these choices.



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