Author Archive

“21st century learning” – a new “myth”?

June 15th, 2009

Continuing with the ‘opportunities for thinking about doing things differently’ theme (in the posts below) …

Recently I’ve had to read dozens of different papers, reports and websites on “21st century learning” (for something I’m writing). I’ve been struck by the fact that, while they all talk about the new skills students need, new pedagogies, new forms of leadership, and new technologies, underpinning these things (which are emphasised differently depending on the context), is the assumption that what is distinctive about “21st century learning” is the need to get more people to do harder stuff than in the past. (Very briefly, this usually means developing everyone’s ability to think and learn for themselves, and to articulate/debate this thinking/learning with others to generate new knowledge. )

This is a radical idea – because our current school system was never set up to teach these things to all students (and the ones who were meant to learn these things learned them more by accident than design). Currently we discipline students into disciplines, and, on the basis of their apparent aptitude for this, sort them for various post-school ‘pathways’ (most of which now function very differently from when this system was set up).

So, alongside this idea, in the 21st century learning literature, we usually see arguments for transformation of the existing system (not incremental improvement), and the argument that to be effective this transformation needs to be holistic (not piecemeal), implemented across a number of different systems together, in parallel  (see for example, the Cisco report Equipping every learner for the 21st century

Could this idea – that 21st century learning is, in essence, getting more people to do harder stuff, be the 21st century version of the equal opportunity “myth” that was an organising principle for 20th century thinking about schooling in New Zealand? (The myth idea comes from a 1986 paper by C. E. Beeby).  If it is, perhaps it could function as an organising principle, a way of helping us decide what to do when faced by the glut of ideas, suggestions, techniques, and recipes for success that populate the 21st century learning literature … (In the papers and reports alluded to above, I came across ‘differentiated learning’, ‘self-regulated learning’, ‘enquiry learning’, ‘distributed learning’, ‘co-operative learning’, and ‘learning communities’ – and those are just the ones I remember! How would a school know when and where to use each one? Which is ‘best’?).

If a school was to decide to organise itself — everything, including the curriculum, all teaching and assessment practices, its buildings and spaces etc etc – to scaffold everyone‘s ability to think and learn independently and to create new knowledge, setting aside all of the other functions they currently have, what would that look like? How could they do it? And how could they do it in a way that allows everyone to be who they want to be (i.e. not be assimilated into the dominant group), and be the best they can at whatever that is.

Hard to imagine isn’t it? And of course, all this is easier said than done. Higher order thinking skills can’t be ‘taught’ in isolation/independently of ‘content’, nor are they necessarily able to be transferred to other contexts. Just adding these terms into our vocabularies won’t change anything – just as the talk of ‘key competencies’ hasn’t as yet changed very much. (For a succinct discussion of the issues that need to be considered, see Bereiter & Scardamalia, 2008).

To really do this, we would need new underlying thinking – and new tools for thinking. This thinking would need to be done by everyone involved in education with – and this is important – people from outside the education sector. We need public debate, a new public consensus about how we want our schools to contribute to building the kind of society we want, and what we want our schools to achieve in the ‘bigger picture’ sense (i.e. something more than just basic literacy and numeracy).

Why do we need schools to get everyone to think and learn independently (when we didn’t seem to think this was necessary before)? What is there about 21st century life that is different/more complex than before, and how does this mean that the ‘old’ skills are necessary but no longer sufficient? How can we put together what we know from the past about what is good, and what ‘works’ in education (which is a lot), with what we think we know about (or would like to create in) the world of the future? What, in the current system, will we have to give up (or lose) to do this?

We plan to discuss these questions (and others like them) at a conference being organised by NZCER (to celebrate its 75th birthday) to be held in Wellington (New Zealand) on the 3rd and 4th November 2009. So, if you are interested in all this, mark the date in your diary, and watch this space for more information.


Beeby, C. E. (1986). Introduction. in W. Renwick, Moving targets: Six essays on educatonal policy. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research (pp. xi-xlv).

Bereiter, C. and Scardamalia, M. (2008). Towards research-based innovation. In: Innovating to learn, learning to innovate. Paris: OECD (Centre for Educational Research and Innovation).

See also:

Wagner, T. (2008). The global achievement gap: Why even our best schools don’t teach the new survival skills our children need, and what we can do about it. New York: Basic Books.

Apparently, writing an essay sometimes can be hindered by numerous challenges thus there will be need to seek professional help in order to complete the essay assignment.

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Engaging families and communities in curriculum debates

April 6th, 2009

In the last few years, in New Zealand and overseas, there has been a lot of discussion about how—if at all—public services (like education and health) should be provided in the 21st century. The 20th century model is, for a variety of theoretical and practical reasons, under pressure, and looking increasingly creaky. Ideas about what we want from our public services are changing, and we have the knowledge and/or technologies to provide better services to more people than was the case in the past. At the same time, however, there is a strong critique of universal, ‘one-size-fits-all’ systems, and concerns about affordability, accountability and so on.  We need new ways of thinking about our public services; a new public ‘settlement’ on how we as a community (everybody, that is) think they should work.

There’s now quite a large literature in this area (for a summary, see Parker & O’Leary, 2006). Drawing on more ‘deliberative’ conceptions of democracy, some analysts are arguing for more ‘joined-up’ forms of government, and for different, more dialogic relationships between the providers of public services and their clients/stakeholders.

In education’s case, this would mean different relationships between the Ministry of Education/schools and students/parents/the wider taxpaying community, in a context in which the basic ‘service’ is the curriculum.

This work is acknowledged in New Zealand’s most recent national curriculum document.  The New Zealand Curriculum sets out some ‘bottom line’ objectives to be achieved by all (arrived at via a wide consultation process), while at the same time allowing individual schools a great deal of freedom to interpret these for local needs. Schools are, however, required to consult with their local communities on how this should be done.  This could mean that schools just call meetings to explain to parents what they are doing and why they doing it (to inform them and get ‘buy-in’ so they will support their son/daughter’s learning in appropriate ways). Or, it could mean that schools ask parents and students what they think, that they collect these views, and take them into account in their planning. While these would be good things to do, it doesn’t seem very likely that either of these approaches will produce the deeper changes that are needed if we are to re-invent our schools for the 21st century.

Something new and different is needed.  What could this look like?  How might it differ from current ‘home-school partnership’ models?  To what extent are current school-home interactions really ‘partnerships’? Can these relationships be ‘partnerships’?  If so, what would the partners need to do—or think—differently to make this work?  And so on…

A group of us at NZCER have been thinking about these questions (and others) for a while now.  We’ve just started working with a small group of schools that are thinking about how they want to approach their ‘community consultation’ process.  We’re interested in hearing from schools and/or anyone else thinking about these issues, and in having a conversation about some of the ideas involved.
• How do these ideas link with—and support—other ideas about 21st century learning (e.g. some of the other ideas explored on this site).
• How might they work against them.
• What are some of the pitfalls of ‘community consultation’ processes?
• What do—or could—partnerships look like in this area?
• What really matters in this kind of situation?
What do you think?

Parker, S. & O’Leary, D. (2006). Re-imagining government: Putting people at the heart of New Zealand’s public sector. (Available at

Community engagement

It’s a tragedy – or is it?

February 25th, 2009

The traditional academic curriculum – powerful knowledge for all in the 21st century?

Recently I had to give a talk to a group of secondary principals. I was supposed to be talking about personalizing learning – what it is, why is/could it be good, and what, if anything, it has to do with 21st century learning.

When I was thinking about what I should say, I came up against a problem that has worried me for a long time now. It’s a problem I thought about a lot in the past and left it for a while, but now, in the context of all this talk about 21st century learning, I want to come back to it, to think more—and write—about it again. This problem is a very hard problem (and I don’t know the answer to it – yet), but I think it’s a problem that, because it leads us into some very unproductive (from an educational point of view) blind alleys, is really worth trying to think our way through..

What is this problem? It’s the problem of the traditional academic curriculum. In particular, how and why is it—or should it be—important in schooling? What role does it play in producing (or not producing) equal opportunity? What—if anything—does it have to do with 21st century learning? Does this kind of knowledge still matter, and if so/not, why?

Two stories about the school curriculum debate occur to me as a way of beginning this discussion. The first story is the source of the title of this piece.

The front page headline of a recent[1] Saturday edition of the Dominion Post newspaper read “It’s a tragedy. Teachers fight to save Shakespeare“. According to the text, school principals are “alarmed” that the new curriculum will “axe” Shakespeare and other “basic content” in a drive to make school subjects “achievable” by more students. This, they say, will “dumb down” school children, and we will see schools offering “lightweight courses” that “deprive pupils of key knowledge”.

The second story is about something that happened more than fifty years ago. In his book The biography of an idea, Dr C. E. Beeby (Director-General of Education in New Zealand for more than twenty years) tells the story of a trip he made to Te Araroa in the 1940s to attempt to persuade local Mäori of the merits of a new District High School for their area. This new school would add a ‘top end’ to the existing Native School. It would offer a curriculum emphasizing practical/technical subjects designed to prepare students for agricultural and/or domestic work. This, Beeby argued, would help to keep young people in the local area when they left school. At one hui Beeby was challenged by a kaumätua who asked him if he had learned Latin at school. On hearing the reply—that Beeby had in fact learned it – for six years, the kaumätua simply replied “and look where it got you”. Beeby comments in the book, published in 1992, that fifty years later he still hadn’t thought of a suitable reply.

Putting these two stories alongside each other allows us to see some key tensions in the secondary school curriculum, tensions that have been around for a very long time, and that we seem to have no idea how to resolve. Why are they there, and what could we do about them? Why does it matter that they are there? It is these questions that I want to raise—and invite discussion of—here.

I’ll start with two ways of looking at these competing sets of ideas (but there are many more).

Focusing on ideas about what schooling is for, this tension might look like this:

Idea 1: Schooling provides the conditions for equal opportunity by allowing everyone access to powerful forms of knowledge and powerful ways of thinking. These forms of knowledge and ways of thinking are powerful in themselves, and mastery of them gives access to powerful positions in society…


Idea 2: Schooling is an important way of sorting and selecting people for the roles they will occupy in their lives beyond school.

Or: from another angle:

Idea 1: The knowledge that underpins the traditional academic curriculum has been chosen because it is powerful knowledge. It is powerful knowledge because it is universal, timeless, and objective knowledge: that is, it is powerful for—and applies to—all people in all times…


Idea 2: The knowledge that is the basis of the school curriculum is a selection from all available knowledge. It is a selection that reflects and maintains the values and interests of particular social groups and, because of this, it marginalizes—oppresses even—individuals from other social groups.

Thinking about all this again raises some questions for me: for example…

1. Is the traditional academic curriculum, still powerful knowledge? Is this kind of knowledge still linked with powerful ways of thinking? Does mastery of it still provide access to power? Or has the power shifted in the 21st century?

2. If we think ‘rigor’, ‘standards’ and ‘’quality’ are important, does this have to preclude equality and/or inclusiveness? Why does this issue polarise people?

3. What, in the 21st century, does an ‘educated person’ look like? What sort of person should our education system be attempting to produce? Why? Does this person have the same features as one educated in the 20th century? Do we just need to add some more new things – or do we need new, qualitatively different things? What issues does this raise for the curriculum of the future?

What do you think?

If the number of letters to the editor in the Dominion Post in the days following the appearance of the Shakespeare story is any indication, lots of people really care about these issues.

Do you? If so/not why? Where do your ideas come from? Have you thought about them lately?

[1]  15th November 2008.

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