21st Century Learning? Get over it! It’s Already 2012!

@Stephen_Hurley proposed that the writers at VoicEd.ca write exploring 21st century learning and its meaning.  Here are some of my initial thoughts.  They’re a bit jumbled.  Feel free to deconstruct or ask for clarification:

I think the idea/term, 21st century learning is a fairly empty catch phrase used to sell a variety of programs or to rally for change in the education system.  People may do this with the best intentions, and may affect positive change; others might not be so pure.  To do this, they temporarily define the term and apply it to their ideas/programs.  They are free to do this, because the term/concept is an empty shell, free to be inhabited; it is a cart waiting for a horse and a bandwagon waiting for us to jump on, it seems to be an attempt to throw the baby out with the bath water…

I have been perplexed that the phrase is as persistent and wide spread as it seems to be.  Perhaps it is because the idea is free to be adapted, but I have been surprised that a group of educators, focused on innovation and reform as a positive utility, would adopt a single concept so completely and project its reign for a 100 years…what will we have in 2099, 21st century learning as we have it now?

It’s possible that there is something unique in our technological landscape and this pedagogy, but I’m less sure of this then most.  Perhaps “more is different” as Clay Shirky suggests, but perhaps it’s not.  When members of the Oldowan Culture were breaking rocks into tools 2.6 million years ago, they sat in groups.  They helped each other, they collaborated and improved, they gave feedback and shared, they did everything we are asking of our students in their learning and are calling new and innovative under 21st century learning.  Class discussions are asymmetrical, like conversations on SM, and require the same social skills.  When a student is sneaking a peek at answers in their desk and making sure the teacher isn’t going to catch them, they are multitasking.  Is there any skill required in 21st century learning, besides button pushing, that hasn’t existed, as a skill, in the last 5 centuries?

I am further perplexed by our current push to leave the past behind us and innovate.  The present was built on the skills of the past.  We inhabit a world of social media and communication revolution that was constructed from the education system we are so quickly trying to abandon.  I was a product of that learning environment, as were most of us here, yet here we are adapting, using, creating and all without the benefits of a school system designed to include 21st century learning skills – one wonders how we do it?  If people need radically different education to navigate this world, then surely we can’t hope to do so.  Further, with our rapidly changing media landscape, why do the skills 21st “centuriests” are now focused on, have a better chance to prepare students for that unknown future?  Won’t they be outdated as students mature?  It reminds me of Marshall McLuhan’s line “if it works, it’s obsolete.”

Valuing innovation and innovators is a cultural choice and not a universal truth.  Some prefer stability, familiarity, tradition, etc.  Can we in multi-cultural Canadaretool our education system with this cultural tenant so entrenched in the idea of 21st century learning?  Each change in the process seems to create new problems as it solves old ones; it seems to be a zero sum gain/game.  Is each innovation in pedagogy an improvement or just a change?

Instead of focusing our discussion about 21 century learning, it seems to me that we should be focusing on effective learning and teaching.  There are fun, engaging, activities to be created and done with the tools we now have available, but 21st learning seems merely to be “an improved means to an unimproved end.”  The goals for our teaching and student learning, the skills we wish to engender, are the same skills that led to success in the past.  Let’s not focus on the century, that seems like focusing on the technology at the expense of focusing on the learning.  Let’s stop talking about learning in the 21st century and just talk about the skills students need in order to be successful and the many approaches, even traditional approaches, to engender them.  Let’s drop dropping catch phrases to blur our conversations and drop making false dichotomies between the past and the present…


  1. sfriesen /

    Thank you Patrick for this post!
    I have been struggling with what to say and how to say it in regards to 21st Century Learning. You have nailed so much of what I am thinking, especially these two points: get over the turn of the century – we are already in the second decade of it and the skills involved in learning today are the same ones used for many previous centuries.
    However, there are differences that you have not acknowledged. Our brains did not form the same way our children’s are forming. Teachers are no longer the ‘holders of knowledge'; knowing just about anything is just an internet search away. The sheer plethora of information (much of it incorrect) enhances the need of some of those age-old skills. These things must be reflected in the education of today’s students in order to be effective.

    • Does our curriculum and pedagogical focus then need to be more on Media Literacy if nearly everything is accessible through the media (social and traditional/mainstream)? Does it require its own subject? versus a strand of Language? Is the 21st century learning “catch phrase” really about helping students to be better digital citizens (as opposed to traditional teaching just helping them to be better citizens?) Can we help them do this when they know more than we do?

    • Patrick Tucker /

      Thanks for the response. I haven’t really investigated the claim about brains developing differently enough yet. My initial exploration of it, leads me to believe it is suspect. What do they mean by development? It seems too large an evolutionary jump to make so quickly. Surely, it is an over generalization. They didn’t have the same technology to scan the brain when I was young – how have they made this comparison? Is it beneficial and should it be embraced by education? Is it reversible and should be struggled against? Can education be geared to change it back or change it in a better way? Did our previous methods of instruction do this? Too many questions to know what to do with this claim yet, even if it’s true.

      I am partial to media literacy; if 21st century learning pushes us to do more, I am very much in favour if it; however, I’d like a lot of that to be about the social effects and the theory around media rather then just deconstruction…

  2. Neil Lyons /

    I find your point of view refreshing. And challenging. Perhaps many of the ideas that are now covered by the extremely wide umbrella-term “21st Century Learning” were not developed in the 21st (or 20th, or 19th, or 5th), but the pace of change and level of interaction has made teaching and learning those “21st Century Skills” much more important in this century than in previous ones?

    Innovation vs. Tradition is not a new battle. Not all cultures feel the need to adapt, or innovate. But the results are pretty devastating. I don’t know anything about the “Oldawan” culture you wrote about, but I’d be interested to see what happened when the encountered some massive new change — like an ice age, or a new tribe appearing, or Google+ (well, not all hyped changes are all that). Because that is what we are asking students to be able to do. Adapt to change. Adapt to new technologies. New ideas. Adapt faster than at any other time. History is littered with the remnants of cultures that were unwilling to innovate, were unable to innovate, or just unaware of the innovations going on around them.

    I’ve heard a lot about how 21st Century children are “wired” differently than the previous generation. I don’t know if that’s true. I teach grade 7, and they remind me a lot of how I was at that age. Except, when I was trying to learn about something specific, I only had a few resources: the library, the school, my parents. And now? Unlimited resources. Immediately. In various media styles. Amazing.

    No institution seeks to change the status quo. The system is “working”, for it. Schools shouldn’t be trying to manufacture reasons to use new technologies in the classroom. Not should they be trying to develop them. But, they should be simply using the same tools that everyone else in the world is using all the time. YouTube. Wikipedia. Facebook. Twitter. Google. The apps will change, but the use of apps won’t.

    21st Century Learning is simply learning that is based in the 21st Century. Using the tools of the 21st Century. But that is not what is happening in most classrooms, right now. The technology is being stopped at the doors of the school. And that is wrong. And it’s not being done because allowing technology into the school is bad for learning, it’s being done because it will change the way a lot of schools are run.

    • Patrick Tucker /

      Thanks for your comment. I agree that the pace of adaptation has accelerated and might require a response from education to prepare students.

    • “History is littered with the remnants of cultures that were unwilling to innovate.” Perhaps, but history is also littered with the remnants of cultures that were unwilling/unable to do anything once they found themselves hurtling in a disastrous direction. Suggestion: We are hurtling in such a direction. The fetishism of tech is part of the problem. A preparedness/willingness to pull the brake chain and stop the train might be what we need most, or at least the ability to step all the way back and look long and hard at the whole rather dubious game (and anyone who assumes that there will always be a technological solution hasn’t stepped back at all) is what we need, I feel.

  3. Michael Harding /

    Thank you for affirming the work of those who went before you and thank you for understanding the nature of “learning” and the role of “teacher. Good teaching will never be replaced by anything “digital”

  4. Patrick, thanks for pushing us to consider things from a different perspective here. Your perspective should cause everyone to pause for a moment or two (at the very least) and consider the assumptions and beliefs that at the heart of our own ideas about 21st century learning. Your comments have sent my mind spinning a little, and so I will try to reply from as grounded a place as possible.

    I agree that our focus should be on effective learning and teaching, but it could be argued that those are equally empty concepts. We could, in fact, end up with two straw men taking swings at each other. How do we assess effectiveness in teaching, let alone learning. I’m assuming that you’re making a direct connection between the two.

    But I do agree that we can’t allow ourselves to be carried off into the woods by a siren–seductive and appealing–that will leave us no further ahead, whatever “ahead” might mean.

    I also agree that the 21st century learning skills most often cited are not really new. In reading Mike Harding’s recent piece, it is obvious that collaboration, creative and critical thinking were important innovation touchstones back in the 60’s! It is probably also true that people like John Dewey were also trying to propose a different view of teaching and learning decades earlier.

    So what is different about where we are now? Is there anything different? Are students different? Are teachers different? And, if there is a significant difference, how should we be addressing it in our approach to education?

    And when you strip away the technological advances that have been made in the past 25 years, is the social context different enough to warrant a change in the way that we school our children?

    I’m going to spend a little time with the comments that have been made on your post. This is a complex conversation, and I look forward to the discussion. Thanks for your stance and your perspective. It just may serve to offer us a different way of approaching the topic!

  5. I am heartened to see the topic of 21CL taken up by Canadian educationists. Given that the Canadian Council of Ministers of Education and other federal bodies have adopted 21CL as a matter of national security, there’s clearly value in digging in further.

    With that said, I’m somewhat confused by the thrust of this post: There is no mention of 21CL as a neoliberal agenda. There is no mention of 21CL’s corporate backers (e.g., IBM, Dell, HP, Microsoft, Ford, Pearson, etc.). There is no mention of 21CL as an instrument of de-professionalization. There is no mention of the ideological pretexts which make 21CL appear ‘common sense’. There is no attention to how 21CL positions public education as a consumable, like soap or cheese. There is no mention of how teachers are being terrorized by 21CL-themed reforms, they aren’t asking for them.

    Maybe some of these themes will flesh-out as the site develops and expands?

    • Neil Lyons /

      I’m somewhat confused now. I thought I was exploring ideas about what teaching, learning and schools should (or could) look like in this century (which happens to be the 21st). Now, I’m part of a “neoliberal agenda…terrorizing my fellow teachers”?

      Maybe there is some disconnect between what I’m thinking and this “21CL” you’re writing about?

      • Neil, I had a similar reaction when I first started thinking about this a few weeks ago. I started to read some of the references that Mr. Steeves provided, and they do offer an interesting perspective of something into which many of us have jumped through our appreciation of the power of technology. I think that, despite the fact that it may serve to stop us in our tracks, the conversation around the origins and purpose of the various 21st century conversations are important. I, for one, would like to explore this a little more deeply, hear a variety of perspectives, and develop an informed position. And I think, for me, that involves being pushed outside of my comfort zone a little. I don’t know enough about neo-liberalism or neo-conservatism to know from where my passions and influences but I’m interested to hear the perspectives of others and learn from those.

        • Love you saying you want to explore and develop an informed position. Hope I don’t sound too excited, but take some time off, make yourself a cuppa tea, hold on to your chair and listen to what Michael Chapman (dumbing down worker bees)
          has to say.
          It kicked me right out of my comfort-zone and so in disbelief I went afterwards page by page through hundreds of references, UN documents and the conclusion is that he is spot on.
          Dont know why they just tell the teachers what is actually going on, then everyone can be at least on the same page to begin with and the schooling system will work out far more successful for those brains at the top of the system in order to reach their goals.

    • Yes, YES, Mr. Steeves. Remember the UN’s policy of a laptop for every child? Could never work out if that was an educational policy or a marketing strategy.

  6. Joanne MacNevin /

    Hello Patrick,

    I enjoyed reading your post regarding 21st Century learning! I have similar thoughts, though I am not nearly as articulate and clear when expressing them.

    The biggest difficulty I have with 21st century learning is the constant association to technology – I agree there should be a focus on technology, but at the same time, I work in a school system that has no money. For part of the day, I work on a computer that has no access to a printer (I travel between schools). I work on an outdated browser that does not support things like Google docs, and updating the browser requires (as far as I know right now) going through IT. So the access to technology just is not where it needs to be to support 21st century learning as it relates to technology. As such, I have chosen to focus my teaching instead on other skills: collaboration, critical thinking, and strengthening students’ literacy skills.

    Thank you for your post.

  7. 21st Century Education is a name for the new paradigm shift they are making. You are right that something is out of place, in fact there is a whole system consisting of indoctrination of learners and teachers on the go. You might enjoy Charlotte Iserbyt, Berit Kjos, Dean Gotcher on these issues. They can be googled. I have learned a lot.


  1. The 21st Century … and Beyond! | voicEd.ca - [...] of the 21st century and still trying to figure out what 21st century learning should look like. As Patrick …

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