21st Century Learning

20th century versus 21st century learning–what’s the difference?

The term ‘21st century learning’ is a kind of shorthand for what needs to be different in schools if young people are to be well prepared for life in the Knowledge Age. It is usually used to refer to some or all of the following:

  • building learning capacity – building the ability to learn, and to go on learning more–and harder–things, without a teacher or other authority figure to help. This is very different from seeing learning as instruction designed to help students ‘get’ existing bodies of knowledge
  • developing competencies – building a broad set of basic skills needed by everyone for life and work in the 21st century. This is a different approach from encouraging students to accumulate knowledge-based credentials)
  • developing the ability to do things with knowledge – using knowledge to develop new knowledge, as opposed to ‘getting’ existing knowledge
  • developing personalised learning programmes – co-constructing programmes of learning for students that build their general competencies and scaffold their development as learners, but allow them to work at their own pace, and in contexts of interest to them. It is the opposite to a one-size-fits-all approaches
  • acceptance of the idea that everyone must achieve and leave school ‘tertiary ready’. From a 20th century perspective, school is a place of screening and sorting people for their future employment destinations
  • explicit teaching of general intellectual skills – such as analyzing, synthesizing, creative thinking, practical thinking and so on. The 20th century expectation that these would be developed implicitly, via exposure to the traditional subjects
  • an emphasis on ‘right brain thinking’ – the idea that ‘left brain thinking’ (logical, analytic, detail-oriented thinking) is necessary, but no longer sufficient, and ‘right brain thinking (aesthetic, synthesising, simultaneous, ‘big picture’ thinking) is now just as important
  • developing people/relationship/collaborative skills and emotional intelligence.

21st century schools are designed, not to ‘fill up’ students with particular kinds of existing knowledge, but to increase students’ ability to learn, independently and with others, and to produce new knowledge.
Read more about the wider context and the ideas that have driven these changes

The Theories pages explore in more detail why these changes have happened, why they are important, and how and why teachers, students, and others involved in education, need to think differently. The main reason for changing what and how students learn has to do with the advent of the Knowledge Age.

Not everything about learning has changed. The big shift is the context and purposes of learning. Ideas about what, how, and why students learn are changing. This means that teachers, students, parents, and the people who run education systems, need to think differently.

There is now much more emphasis on learning as a skill, on increasing people’s ability to learn (on their own or in groups), and on developing this ability in everyone. This might seem simple, but it’s not. This change means that schools and other educational institutions now need to be organised differently. Teachers, students, parents, and administrators need to think differently, and to understand why they need to think differently.

Hear Jane Gilbert discuss some of these ideas in these two video interviews: on new educational ideas and  on knowledge