Home > Shifting schooling > “21st century learning” – a new “myth”?

“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 http://www.cisco.com/web/about/citizenship/socio-economic/docs/GlobalEdWP.pdf).

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.

Shifting schooling , , , ,

  1. Pat Hargreaves
    | #1

    For those interested in learning about unlearning… (what the…?)
    I’ve always foung this keynote from Erica McWilliam in Aus a particularly good read.
    If the link doesn’t work, just google ‘unlearning pedagogy erica mcwilliam’ and you’ll find it easy enough.
    I think she raises some very valid thoughts about the way we approach education through habit – and the ideas behind her ‘seven deadly habits’ is worth consideration.
    Have good one.

  2. davidj
    | #2

    I think the best way to unlearn something is to replace what you want to unlearn with something else, otherwise it tends to remain.

    I know that I find it easy to unlearn or forget something when it is superseded by something new. When I replace a phone number, pin, or computer password for instance, I then find it very difficult to remember the previous one. It’s almost as if my brain categorises things and when something needs to be replaced within a category, I unconsciously over-write the old data with the new.

    Given this, I wonder if we can learn new ways of categorising learning by tagging information as related which may allow the possibility of over-writing particular learning with new learning when we further tag something as now being irrelevant.

    My guess is that overwriting old learning with new learning is easier if the new learning offers obvious advantages. Perhaps we only need to think about those advantages to trigger our brain to comply?

  3. | #3

    That book sounds really interesting Karen, you might like to write a blogposting about it at some stage! The unlearning idea IS really interesting. Funnily enough, I’ve found it all too easy to unlearn many things – (such as various second languages and other things I learned at school and university that I used to know really well and now can barely remember). Yet there are many other things that are incredibly hard to unlearn – even when you wish you could unlearn them! So what does “learning” and “unlearning” mean from a neuroscientific point of view?

  4. Karen
    | #4

    @Pat Hargreaves
    Pat, that’s an interesting idea about people needing the capacity to “unlearn”. I really enjoyed reading The Brain That Changes Itself (about neuroscience) and there is an interesting argument in there that says there’s a process alongside learning that is “unlearning”.

  5. | #5

    Pat, thanks for your very specific and bold list – I hope that other shiftingthinkers might follow your lead and come up with their own lists, or add to yours, or engage with your suggestions above!
    As always, thanks for sharing your thinking on this blog; I encourage other readers to join you in adding to the collective thinking

  6. Pat Hargreaves
    | #6

    And cos I can’t help it… Here’s what schools should do that they didn’t or don’t.

    a) They say learning is about relationships – So match students with teachers where that relationship is most likely to flourish. (Creates union issues and all that – but it is what they should do).

    b) Involve the parents. Not by telling them what the school is doing, but by helping them to educate their own kids. They are the prime educators so it needs to be a schools professional responsibility to help them with this – like doctors and home health.

    c) Give up formal summative assessments. In the end it counts for nothing anyway and is just a crutch for people to say ‘I’m better than you’. (Note: This is not the same as being ‘qualified’ for something).

    d) Get them ready for change, for unlearning and re-learning. They’re going to have to do it anyway.

    e) Get them prepared for gainful unemployment. (The keyword is gainful). Service to others, Fiscal responsibility, that sort of thing.

    Ahh, that’ll do for now.
    When you’ve got these done I’ll let you know if there is anything else.

  7. Pat Hargreaves
    | #7

    I’m no doubt way behind on all the writings and thinking about 21 C thinking etc. However is it a myth?

    Yes and no.

    Yes, as throughout the history of mankind it seems we have always developed our knowledges in a seemingly advancing fashion. (The dark ages was a little blip for a few hundred years). So looking at the long view, any talk of difference over a period of thirty odd years is pretty ludicrous. Learning will advance despite whatever school systems do.

    However, it may not be such a myth if we took it in the view of just the education system.
    I do subscribe to the idea of schools generally being a ‘sorting floor’ for deciding who becomes academic/managerial types versus factory workers and ditch diggers. (I’m painting with broad brush strokes).
    However the need for this has been greatly diminished with the exponential advancement of technology. Basically, we need more academic/managerial/entreupenurs (sp) types and less factory workers.

    In this sense, I’d argue that it isn’t about more people doing ‘harder’ stuff. It is simply about more people being prepared for learning due to rapid (and until now pretty much unprecedented) technological change.

    This preparation might also have to include a readiness for uncertainty and a sense of personal resourcefulness. I can’t remember where I read it, maybe Toffler, but how’s this for a suggestion.

    ” Due to the rapid technological advancements of society, the chief role of future schools should be to prepare people to be gainfully unemployed.”

    I think there is some truth in this. We currently play the ‘ability game’ (Sergiovanni said this somewhere) which pits people against each other. As a result we devalue some people, usually the disadvantaged, and then wonder why we have social issues. Obviously, all of societies ills are not the fault of schools, but they can take some responsibility – if not for the cause, then in working towards a cure.

  8. | #8

    Hi Rachel. Re your question: ‘harder stuff’ – what exactly am I getting at…?
    I was obviously too cryptic… What I meant was – stuff that used to be thought of as hard, and as too hard for some people….
    But maybe I need to say more – to be clearer about why I think this is significant to the discussion here…

    In traditional, liberal/elite forms of education, the purpose of teaching the traditional ‘academic’ subjects (like Latin, calculus, physics, history and so on) was (in theory) to develop certain ‘habits of mind’ — things like: the ability to see patterns and principles, solve problems, design investigations, analyse and synthesise information, reason, think logically, construct arguments, think critically, and so on — not to inculcate in students the ‘facts’ of these subjects as an end in itself (although this matters for other reasons – see below).

    Developing these ‘habits of mind’ prepared one for a university-level education. People were taught these things within particular disciplines (i.e. designing scientific investigations and scientific reasoning is different from historical reasoning/investigation).

    The end-goal of all this was to produce independent thinkers, ‘intellectual adults’ who can reason for themselves, independently of any outside ‘authority’.
    (This is what I mean by ‘thinking independently’, Rachel – this very much does not preclude thinking collaboratively, just thinking something only because someone in authority said it was true.)

    In the 21st century learning literature, it is routinely argued that everyone, if they are to participate in the fast-changing, highly complex, unstable world of the 21st century, needs these kinds of ‘higher-order’ thinking skills, not just those headed for postgraduate-level education. (See Tony Bates’ blog http://www.tonybates.ca/2009/06/24/e-learning-and-21st-century-skills-and-competences/, or the Cisco paper referred to earlier, for discussions of this idea).
    These kinds of skills can be developed through studying Latin, physics, history and so on (if they are very well taught), but these subject areas aren’t the only way to them. Other ‘topic areas’ might work better for different people.

    21st century teaching, more than anything else, involves the ability to engage all students in learning things that build (and go on building) their thinking and learning power, and this can obviously be done in a variety of ways. (See the Building Learning Power website (http://www.guyclaxton.com/blp.htm) for lots of examples.

    This doesn’t of course mean that ‘subjects’ or ‘topic areas’ don’t matter any more – solving problems or constructing arguments obviously requires a knowledge of the context of the problem/argument (e.g. an engineering problem can’t be solved without some knowledge of physics etc).

    So, to summarise: the 21st century literature is arguing for a foregrounding of these kinds of (what used to be thought of as ‘hard’) thinking skills, using subject areas as contexts for developing thinking, not as ends in themselves.

    This argument is not actually that different from the idea that traditional liberal forms of education were, in theory, based on (however, in practice, the subjects were treated as ends in themselves). What is different is the idea that everyone needs to be able to think at this level, and that if we are to achieve this, we might have to do it through some new, more-engaging-for-more-people, subjects/contexts (i.e. not necessarily through Latin, calculus, Shakespeare and so on…).

    Does this answer your question?

    And Rachel, how about writing a blog on what the education system should do today that it didn’t do in the past?

  9. | #9

    Hi again Jane – is someone going to do a really cool graphic design/logo/cartoon to represent the November conference? It would be nice to be able to use that on shiftingthinking to get people thinking forward to November. People can look out for it if they want to keep up-to-date with new info as it emerges.

  10. | #10

    Hi Jane, I’m looking forward to this November conference and hope we’ll be hearing more about this on shiftingthinking in the coming months!

    I’m just wondering what you’re getting at when you talking about “harder stuff” we want people to learn/do? I think most of us bring a fair amount of associative baggage to the concept of what is “hard” in school learning, so you might have to give us a bit more of your thinking to work with here.

    For example, why did you choose the word “harder” as opposed to, let’s say, “more meaningful” or “more fulfilling” or “more meliorating“?

    (These are also things that, I think, schooling hasn’t necessarily been set up to do in the past, but I think education ought to be doing this for the 21st century). I know my suggested terms all imply a bit more of a value judgement than “hard”, but oh well :) I stand by them :)

    PS. You suggested that “we need schools to get everyone to think and learn independently”. But I think in the 21st century we need schools (and communities, and a society) that help everyone to think and learn collaboratively as well. Not that the two aren’t intertwined, but….

  11. | #11

    Jumping in the debate, and form the very partial perspective of a parent exposed to the primary school system, I wonder if the changes in education could actually be characterised as teaching more people to do the harder stuff. I understand the target of our school system is to get every child to pass NCEA 2 and above, so of course there’s an intention to raise achievement across the board (and it’s laudable, I think); but if that level of achievement constitutes not (just) the acquisition of a set of notions and competencies, but also and predominantly an ability to think reflexively about learning, I’m not convinced that it’s actually harder.

    One of our teachers reported to the board the excitement in her class when the kids were asked to solve some maths problems and then explain to each other how they had done it; she seemed to think that the approach made the teaching of numeracy (which as a competency in itself hadn’t been redefined) actually easier. The same could be said of enquiry learning, that seems to be genuinely exciting for our teachers and students, and hopefully that will translate into more effective teaching and better learning.

    In the vaguely medieval and extremely elitarian system that I come from, in order to achieve that goal of “learning to be a learner” they taught us Latin. And how did we know it “opened our minds”? Well, there was really nothing you could use it for except read inscriptions on old monuments, so it had to have a higher purpose. But really, it was just an arbitrary instrument of selection of the students who had that particular aptitude and were willing to put in more work. It really was *harder* in the most detrimental sense. I like that the philosophy of the NZ curriculum (again, from my very limited perspective) is moving as far away as possible from that kind of thinking.

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