Questioning 21st Century Learning – A Perspective

21st Century learning has become an ubiquitous expression, peppering both the language of social media as well as many staff rooms. But, how different is this “21st Century Learning” from other periods of time?

As a learner, I was only engaged when I was given the opportunity to think analytically, critically and creatively. As a teacher, I have always asked my students to go beyond the regurgitation process – a process which is not only dull, boring and pointless, but in my opinion, the surest way to smother motivation to learn anything new. And depending on my teaching context (e.g. age group, cultural setting etc) this request was not always simple nor straight-forward as it requires effort on the part of the learner and may even go against the local cultural perception and practice of education. Nevertheless, education makes no sense to me if I am only expected to ask students to regurgitate from a text-book in order to successfully pass assessment.

Silva, E., (2009) has argued much the same, pointing out how philosophers from Socrates to John Dewey have called for the integration of critical thinking, analytical skills and creativity in education. So, the question remains – what is 21st-Century learning?

Undoubtedly, there is a constant emphasis on skills, whether they be life-learning skills, workforce skills or interpersonal skills. These too are not new nor unique to 21st Century learning and teaching. What is new, is how these skills are understood to be relevant in the educational process:

” Today’s workers in nearly all sectors of the economy
must be able to find and analyze information, often
coming from multiple sources, and use this information
to make decisions and create new ideas.” (Silva, E. 2009).

Teaching these skills is no longer an option when educators are responsible for preparing younger generations for their futures. As an educator I may not know what jobs nor work tasks may be required from my current students in the future (for example, in 10 or 15 years’ time) , but I do know that I must prepare them the best I can based on what I know today of the working world and the upheaval of change which surrounds us all.

Among the many sources of theoretical frameworks of learning and teaching,  I’d like to point out an article by  Smith, M.K. (1999) who analyses  different learning models which have been studied and serve as a good point of reference when reflecting on learning theories. Two models which I’d like to highlight are learning as a process and learning as a product.

Why these two in particular? 

Years ago, when I taught at a Business School, I would refer to my lessons as a blend of “process” and “product”; “process” referring to the linguistic aspects and language I was teaching, while “product” being the “core” knowledge, the business content. In this sense, my teaching was both language and business content studies.

Today my teaching context is quite different. Nevertheless, if asked, I would naturally say that my teaching approach is a blend – a blend of language, a blend of technology and of course, opportunities for learners to engage in their set tasks in the best critically, analytically and creative way possible. Creating an environment where learners engage and learn with their peers, are unafraid to question, to think through problems and issues may not always be simple – but is there any other way to teach/to learn?

There is still another consideration I would like to offer: that the degree and level of critical thinking, analytical skills and creativity do vary according to context and hence differences in teaching context need to always be taken into account when reflecting on learning and teaching.

The last aspect I wish to highlight in this post is that of students’ expectations, their needs and the expectations and needs of the wider community. Effective education can only be practiced honestly and coherently if all these variations are taken into account. Otherwise, what one is left with is the growing risk of the imperialisation of education, or in other words, the spreading anglolization of education – but I shall leave that for another time.

21st Century teaching and learning may seem like breaking down walls at times. The technology we have at our finger-tips, the openness of resources, of knowledge, of practices and communities are indeed causing tsunamis of change within the field of education. Paradigms have changed. Walls of unattainable information, different knowledges, can easily  be torn down. Learning, knowing, being aware of what happens in the world  is no longer only for an elite.

Yes, there are those who take a stand against the introduction of digital learning in education (e.g. Is Technology Making Your Students Stupid?). Fortunately, provocations are not always well founded and there are many more positive examples of how technology does indeed give added-value to the learning process.

The issue nevertheless remains – is 21st Century learning/teaching indeed that different, that unique? Or, should one ask a more pertinent, a more uncomfortable and complex question: if one agrees with the above practices, shouldn’t  we be inquiring into the role of assessment and types of assessment which would be more in line with a 21st Century approach to education?

How do you break down thinking  walls in the 21st century?

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One thought on “Questioning 21st Century Learning – A Perspective

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