Things are changing around us very dramatically, very quickly. The world is becoming more interconnected, the environment is becoming less stable, and technology is continuously altering our relationship to information. This has been described as a ‘perfect storm’ – an extremely rare chaotic event brought about by a confluence of independent factors. This ‘storm’ has several implications for education.
It means young people need to develop the skills they need to respond to an increasingly uncertain and complex world, but it also means that providing everyone with a good education (something we have never yet succeeded at) will be increasingly important. Furthermore, recent advances in technology and neuroscience mean we can, and know we should make radical changes to how we educate young people. In fact, it would be irresponsible not to transform education – like choosing not to use penicillin after it had been discovered.
Interestingly, our ‘perfect storm’ bears a more than passing resemblance to an earlier upheaval: the 19th-century’s ‘perfect storm’ of industrialisation, urbanisation, and democratisation. This storm inspired the radical innovation of free universal public education: a new educational model that helped create a literate workforce and an informed citizenry, and ushered in the 20th century. However, the needs of the 19th century are not the needs of the 21st century. Now, as then, changing global conditions demand that we rethink what, but even more important, how and where we learn. The following are what we believe to be the characteristics of a 21st century education:
Students learn through meaningful projects
When students design, plan, carry out, and publicly exhibit a project of genuine value (to themselves, to the community, or to a client), it has a transformative effect on their perception of themselves, their relationship to learning, and their sense of their place in the world around them. It is also the best way to develop the diverse portfolio of skills that that are increasingly in demand from employers.
Example: Matthew Moss High School ‘My World’ curriculum, which presents pupils with the challenges of co-operation, research, communication and problem-solving through demanding projects or tasks.
School is a ‘base camp’ for enquiry
Now that many mobile phones can access more information than is held in any library, the idea of school as the place you go to acquire knowledge is an anachronism. However, schools still have an important role to play as the ‘base camp’ for enquiries that will take students into their communities, and online.
Example: the Parent-Led And Community-based Education project, for home educated children
Educators regard themselves as learners as well as teachers
An interest in learning is the key characteristic that teachers share with their students, and teachers need to be able to conduct action research and be aware of developments in their field, in order to develop their practice (and share it with their colleagues).
Example: iZone, a group of schools in New York that challenge longstanding assumptions in K-12 education
Learners collaborate in their learning, rather than ‘consuming’ it
Students are experts in their own learning – they know how they learn best, and what they are most interested in, and schools stand to benefit from working with them rather than performing for them. In other words, rather than trying to put on a fancier show for their students, teachers should let them backstage.
Example: the Harris Commission, which is actively engaging hundreds of our students in the study and application of powerful approaches to learning and teaching
Education takes advantage of digital technologies and helps students become both digitally literate and digitally adept
Attentive readers may be noticing that there is nothing ‘new’ about the preceding characteristics of 21st century education. These ideas are at least 100 years old - John Dewey is probably their most famous advocate, though they go back much further. However, digital technology has made this vision more attainable, for more people, than ever before. It has also vastly increased the number of education providers that a learner can choose from. Schools no longer have a monopoly on ‘academic’ learning, and if they do not adapt, the world may simply leave them behind.