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“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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