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Seeds of change in 21st-century education

6 min read


If the 21st century were a pizza pie, we have already eaten the first slice. More than a decade in, educators are still struggling to define the quintessential “21st-century skill set” that will make up a “21st-century education.”

The problem with defining what 21st-century education will look like is that anyone who says they don’t know can easily be perceived a complacent relic with no vision for change, while anyone who professes to have the answer is seen as a pompous and shortsighted fool. I will take the middle ground: While I can’t say with certainty what the next 87-plus years will look like, I feel confident that certain important shifts have begun and will continue so that learners of today are making the most of their educational experiences and the society in which they live.

It is likely that if you are reading this, you are doing so on some sort of screen. The likelihood that this was printed out, photocopied and distributed into a small, metal slot in a main office is (hopefully) small. I would wager that many are reading it on a portable device away and not sitting in your classroom or school. You could be reading this on a train, a plane or — hopefully not — while driving. The point is that you’re learning, and connectedness to information happens anywhere and any time you want.

The true 21st-century education needs to be based on that.

When and where of learning

Learning can occur at any time and anywhere. It doesn’t necessarily depend on technology, but a larger realization is that the world around us — the tangible and social world — is a living, breathing “classroom” without boundaries. While there is much debate about online schooling and socialization of children, it is clear that even with a “traditional” education, more students will be introduced to virtual classes and are likely to participate in an ever-increasing number of meaningful learning experiences outside the classroom.

People are learning online through virtual museum trips, interactive tutorials on how to code websites or cook foreign cuisine and pretty much anything else you can think of. While students might take “readin’ and writin’” classes at a desk in school, I have little doubt that they are already learning outside the four walls, especially with subject matter that interests them.

Our connected world offers near-endless opportunities for exploration and learning. Look at websites such as YouTube (“old” by Internet standards and often taken for granted) — learning was not the intended purpose. Today, along with Twitter, it is one of the most incredible platforms for discovering content on anything, including how to work through simple mathematics problems and fixing a specific part on a particular brand of vacuum cleaner.

Late-20th-century educators were used to resources coming in boxes or being able to perforate them from a teacher’s tried-and-true manual. But rearrange the letters in “tried,” and you get “tired.” I distinctly remember seeing science supplies get delivered to my third-grade classroom, where we would all do the same experiments and all get the same answers.

“Questions rather than answers”

I feel (and hope) that education will continue to become more about questions rather than answers. Passion and inquiry should drive education, because they drive imagination and innovation. Education as a “system” (something rooted in the 20th-century idea’s model of education) seems split between those obsessed with data-driven assessment and on-the-ground educators who want more freedom to teach what and as they wish.

Data are “simple” to understand and by their nature make for quick (and oftentimes meaningless) methods of comparison. But it is my belief that the social awareness and self-empowerment (different from entitlement) that students are starting to experience will further the idea that the value in a student — or anyone — is something that a No. 2 pencil can determine. Students and their opinions matter, and we need to see them as the key stakeholder in their education. Educators are to be trained facilitators and guides — we are here not to teach but to help students learn. There is a profound difference.

Assessment in the form of an IEP — an individualized plan — in which educators map out goals with the student so they can together assess progress based on their defined aspirations appeals to me. A word of warning: We need not to systematize it with software, committees and nonsensical rubrics. It can simply be a guide that works to support each individual student. No one-size-fits-all education solution can or will work for our 21st-century citizens.

Educators in the 21st century are not only those in the front of the room. Teachers are everywhere. The collective is stronger and smarter than the individual, even if the collective is mainly made up of 10-year-olds. My 3-year-old son taught my 1-year-old son how to clean up his blocks after he was done building with them. He was a teacher. This role is one that he will likely play again when he teaches his grandparents how to play video games or use an application on his Apple iPad (or whatever portable computing device is around then). Those are the answers you expected — but think of the things he will learn in school or on his own that you don’t know. We as educators need to be open to learning. Being a “lifelong learner” means admitting that you don’t have all of the answers.

Making a change is the key to achieving these goals. We must stop yearning for “the perfect” place to learn, teach, facilitate or live. Small changes can have profound impact. The nice thing about the device on which you are likely reading this is that you can reach out to others with bigger and better ideas and actions. And they want to help. There is a power and an extreme wealth of knowledge, as well as generosity, in the social education world. Twitter alone represents a collection of educators worldwide with expertise in all areas. Simply connecting is the first step to start crafting what you want the next slice of pizza to taste like.

Adam Bellow, founder of eduTecher and eduClipper, was recognized in 2011 as Outstanding Young Educator of the Year by the International Society for Technology in Education. Bellow has been sharing his vision for education reform using technology with thousands of educators through dynamic, engaging and inspiring presentations. Follow him on Twitter @adambellow.