21st Century Learning: The Access Question

What is 21st Century Learning, besides a not-so-clever marketing slogan?

I pondered this a few months back when I came across a post from Heidi Siwak, and she pretty much asked the ultimate question:

“These students are limited by the structure of school and have to pursue their learning goals outside of classroom hours. Why, if they’ve identified how and what they wish to learn next, is this so?”

Many of us are actively asking this question in the year 2012. And we asked it in the year 2011. 2010. 2009. (can you see where I’m going with this?)

I went to school from 1979 – 1992 in a small Canadian city.
There was nothing really remarkable about my experience, except for one year (Grade 6) spent in San Diego when we learned to hide under our desks in case of a Soviet nuclear attack while my Dad studied for his M.Ed at the beach.
I did spend part of my Grade 3 year in a program called ACTAL. My mum drove me across town a few times a week to this program. The difference from my regular classroom was, it seemed, that we’d do projects in this program, and mostly independently. I did one on peregrine falcons, who were nesting in the city that year, and in another one I had to create a business complete with a plan and a set of marketing collateral (mine was the Paws Hotel for Dogs). Little did I know that tapping into that side of my brain and creative flow would result in producing work that I was so proud of! I wasn’t particularly good at art but liked making things. I liked (okay, LOVED) writing, rhyming, and sloganeering, but I had to do it in my spare time.
What I got to do in that “progressive” program – and I believe the year was 1983 – is the kind of stuff that many of us want to see our kids doing today. My 1983 classroom wasn’t set up for it. And neither is my daughter’s 2012 classroom. So instead, she does most of her projects (and certainly any that would involve the use of technology, like building presentations, blogging, research etc) outside of the classroom, in her spare time.  Project based learning supports inquiry, critical thinking, choice, personalized learning, multimedia, outside sources, sharing ideas, and incorporating feedback. The suite of tools are different today but we’re now calling it 21 Century Learning.
The ACTAL program was considered progressive in 1983. And now we clamor for the same thing, for all kids.

And this is what we hear:   that the biggest barrier to 21st Century Learning is access, and is going to be access for some time. The Professional Development budgets aren’t big enough. My East-Toronto school can’t afford to upgrade to wireless. Access – something we can see and know we want, but somehow we can’t reach it. The school board might have a vision, but only some of us are seeing that vision come to fruition. By virtue of sitting in a hallway and doing pretty well on some standardized test that measured my aptitude, I was given access to a completely different experience than the rest of my classmates. I hadn’t done well enough to qualify for the program full time, but I did have a small taste that had a large impact on my life.

I think this is what parents are frustrated with today. Gifted and alternative programs seem to offer the lucky kids a learning experience that is ‘better’. My sister teaches in an experimental Head Start program for 4 year olds that are coded as gifted. It is Reggio Emilia inspired, so it offers an enriched, creative, child-centred approach. Parents in The Community will go to great lengths to get their kids in. The others – well – they have to wait for regular old kindergarten.
I think what we’re asking for when we cotton on to a term like 21 Century is an approach that is more fun, more inclusive of tools, includes more choice, and is more child focused. We want what the smart kids get.  We long for the access to technology as we read with envy about this school or that who’ve been outfitted with iPads, or are using tools like Edmodo or a Edsby to build communication with students and parents. It’s about a more social approach to the content that is taught, and development of the skills necessary to critically consider that content. It’s about concepts and searching, instead of memorization. It’s about assessment that takes effort, improvement, and real understanding into consideration.  It’s an approach that many of us want, with tools many of us would happily help subsidize if we are able to.
It’s not necessarily e-books and digitization of all content (much to the chagrin of educational publishers, who are engaged in a ME FIRST! I’m the most digital! war that really serves nobody except that it gives their marketing departments something to spend their budget on).

I’m a parent of a bright, sparkly child with a thirst for invention. I’ve thought about homeschooling her so that we could take a personal and creative approach to the curriculum and really nurture her instincts. Not because I think I’d do a better job than her teachers, but because of that 9 year old inside of me who so clearly benefited from a different approach and had ACCESS, if only a few days a week and for 1 year.

About Aerin Guy

Aerin Guy is a parent and education advocate. Professionally, she devises crafty and creative marketing strategies for clients seeking out of the ordinary digital campaigns. She connects entrepreneurs in the education technology and social innovation spaces with emerging markets. She consults with progressive people and organizations on social media integration, content and communication strategy, and product development. Her company, SpaceRace, is a full service digital agency. Aerin is currently focused on bringing fabulous technologies to the Canadian education market and is passionate about innovations in teaching and learning. Aerin is a Saskatooner by birth, and now spreads her Prairie cheer throughout the mean streets of Toronto. She can do the Worm, the Running Man, and the Sword Dance. She once won a bag of licorice for being the Most Enthusiastic Square Dancer in Grade 10 Phys Ed.


  1. Thanks for your story Aerin. There is so much to comment on, but I would like to pick up on a couple of your threads. First, I think that the word progressive has become contentious in some circles. There are those who are fighting for the idea that schools should be a place where students are well-versed in basic skills before moving into the deeper thinking, inquiry, collaboration and project-based learning that you describe.

    I, for one, think that, while many of those basic skills are, in fact, essential, they can be learned in the types of educative environments that you describe.

    I think that “access” is a great metaphor to use. So much is packed into it, including the whole equity issue which is hinted at in your piece.

    I think that the realization that students are able to engage in rich and complex learning tasks outside of “regular” school time is a great place to begin re-imagining the role of schools, teachers, curriculum–all the familiar trappings of the traditional schoolhouse. Perhaps we have more access than we think we have. Perhaps its just a matter of “legitimizing” some of the other possibilities that now exist for us.

    Much more to think about. I look forward to further conversation!

  2. I appreciate the attention to 21CL vis-á-vis ‘gifted’ kids! So far as I’m aware, there is /no/ empirical validation for 21CL as a pedagogical frame suited to ‘high-ability learners’. It simply hasn’t been taken up within that field. In OECD + MoE texts, ’21st-century skills’ are equated with ‘work skills’ and ‘vocational skills’. That isn’t quite the ‘bottom line’ that most ‘gifted’ programs aim for … but for everyone else? No problem!

    Further speaking to questions re. access, note in 21CL docs that there’s /no/ attention to consumption patterns? IOW, everyone is constructed as equal consumers of tech and media? But this isn’t the case: Girls use tech differently than boys. And why? Where’s the social analysis? Likewise, do all ethnic groups use tech similarly? How about all age groups? etc.

    21CL is full of these gaps and essentializations. That being the case, I am glad that educators in Canada are holding the agenda up for further scrutiny.

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