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.