The Brave New World of Twenty-First Century Learning (A Retort)

Dear Margaret

I read your article in The Globe and Mail (Saturday, Jun. 28 2014) with dismay. In the article, you assert that “21st century learning is nothing more than warmed-over romantic progressivism” with absolutely no evidence to support its efficacy. And while I agree that, like most movements for change, there is a fair amount of bandwagoneering, I do disagree fundamentally with your conclusion that “twenty-first century learning zealots” are engaged in some kind of groupthink that bears no questioning and has no merit.

The core reason for my disagreement is that you mention that there are no measurable advantages to twenty-first century learning approaches. The problem with this is that you (like many academic researchers – specifically those who found ‘no merit’ in teaching kids to their preferred learning styles) are predicating this aspect of your argument on measuring the ability to recall and regurgitate facts. Implicit in this is the belief that education is tantamount to memorization.

A central tenet of twenty-first century education is the child-centred approach – which boils down to placing the needs, interests and personal background of our students above the syllabus. The problem with trying to ‘measure’ memorization skills (by looking at test results, for example) is that it seeks to measure an outcome that is not the top priority in 21st century teaching (marks / grades / results), using a methodology that is outdated (tests / exams / memorization tasks). It’s a bit like estimating the age of the earth: now that we have better methods, we can use better means of measurement in order to gain better evidence and arrive at better results. We don’t use scripture to measure the age of the earth anymore, and we shouldn’t use the results of traditional tests to gauge the success of twenty-first century learning.

The problem, though (and it is one that I openly acknowledge) is that we have not yet developed an objective means of testing what is learnt in a twenty-first century classroom. How do we gauge the effects of fostering independence, creativity, critical thinking, life-long learning, and especially engagement and student well-being? We cannot use the traditional means of assessment because we are pitching our outcomes at long-term success in place of short-term test performance, and because traditional tests simply do not tell us enough. Equally important in a twenty-first century education (despite your tacit assertion that these are ‘traditional’ school values) is the nurturing of grit, determination and resilience – and we also don’t have a means of measuring these yet.

As I have it, your argument that twenty-first century education is a fad at best, and a dangerous experiment at worst comes down to the following:

  • Self-directed Math learning failed.
  • Many parents don’t like it.
  • Paul Bennett (an education consultant) says it’s faith-based.
  • Stuart Wachowicz, a former director of curriculum for Edmonton Public Schools says it has a “long record of failure” (in the twentieth century presumably?)

And these are the people and groups you acknowledge are against your position:

  • ‘Educrats’ (by which I presume you mean current directors of education) who are pushing radical changes to curriculums and teaching styles.
  • C21 Canada, a national group that pushes for “21st century models of learning” in education.
  • People for Education who are campaigning for similar changes.
  • ‘Half-baked neuroscientists’ (I have yet to come across a single ‘half-baked’ neuroscientist – I am amazed that you know of so many – it isn’t a field like reporting where you do indeed find quite a few half-baked ideas).

Notwithstanding how you yourself demonize those who are for twenty-first century education reforms (the very people and organisations whom you claim do the demonizing), surely you can see two things:

  1. Those in the know are behind twenty-first century education reforms.
  2. There are two missing voices here: teachers and students. You would do well to ask them how they feel about a more relevant, child-centred education.

You are absolutely right about the reforms twenty-first century education proponents suggest:

  • Education needs to change in order to be more relevant to the modern world and to young people themselves.
  • Some of the key features of this new model are an emphasis on creativity, critical thinking, innovation and “digital literacies” (although I would excise the inverted commas).
  • There is more discussion of broad concepts and big ideas and less emphasis on factual knowledge. (Note the word “less” – not “none”, less. Factual knowledge is still an aspect of twenty-first century learning – it just isn’t the cornerstone anymore.)
  • Learning needs to be personalized to the needs and interests of each individual student and hence become more student-centred.
  • Students learn to learn independently and collaboratively rather than being on the receiving end of lecture-style teaching.
  • Grades and testing as a means of measuring all of this will be downgraded in favour of students developing their own ways to show evidence of their learning.
  • Learning becomes enquiry and discovery based rather than force-fed. This approach is aimed at producing responsible young people as well as at enhancing their engagement and innate potential.
  • Because classes encourage kids to fail safely as a step towards authentic learning and ultimate success, “resilience, grit, determination and other factors that help them overcome failures and setbacks” are actively encouraged.

All of this hardly sounds like ‘semi-literate gibberish’ to be ‘hooted [sic] out the door’ to me. We might not have the hard evidence for the value of it just yet, because we haven’t fully developed the means of measuring it accurately, but surely that shouldn’t stop us. Imagine if any other significant and necessary revolution was put on hold because we were not yet ready to measure its potential impact.

What we do know is that the present system of education is alienating more and more kids, and is less and less relevant in a globalized world. Your concerns about twenty-first century education are directed towards the Canadian education authorities, but this new revolution in education is happening around the world. And you are the lucky ones – at least in Canada, this is a ‘debate’. Where I’m from, it isn’t even on the agenda yet. And look at how unhappy, disengaged and ill-prepared young South Africans are two decades into our democracy. I believe that this is not because we don’t have a rigorous enough traditional education system – but because we have not yet embraced the type of educational reforms sweeping through Canada.

Please do me one favour. Even if you don’t buy anything I’ve just said. Watch this video by Sir Ken Robinson. He says it a lot more clearly and succinctly than I ever could. And he changed my mind about twenty-first century education. Perhaps he will change yours too…



One comment

  1. Thank your for this great insight on the topic. How much I do agree with what your state here. The process is what we have to think about and the measurement of knowledge achieved is later life and work experience.


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