21st Century Learning and Learners


People learn. Learning is fundamental to human beings. It is the specialization that we use to become fully human (Fischer & Immordino-Yang, 2008, p.xvii). The problem of keeping knowledge alive, of preventing it from becoming inert…is the central problem of all education. (Whitehead, 1967 [1929], p. 5)

As the world changes, the expectations placed upon education shift to meet these changes. It is important for those in education to remember that this, in fact, is not a problem but is rather indicative of how education, as a living practice, is alert to issues of what is called for by this enterprise. The ability of education and educators to remain responsive to such shifts in circumstance and necessity is a sign of vigorousness and health. Moreover, because of education’s inevitable relationship with the young and the newness of the demands they bring with them and that shape their lives, such responsiveness is itself part of the nature of education as a living, intergenerational project. “Keeping knowledge alive” (see Doll, 2009) is therefore in the very nature of education itself. Understanding curriculum and curriculum development with an eye to this inevitability is the key to our current undertaking of understanding 21st century learning and learners.

It is fashionable to be fairly critical of the current public education system. Much of this criticism is levelled at our current factory model of schooling. Before we examine the assumptions that underpin this model of schooling, we want to acknowledge that it was propelled by a technological innovation—the assembly line—that was revolutionary in and right for its time. With its beginnings in the late 19th and early 20th century, the schooling system that emerged to meet the needs of the industrial society provided a common experience and a common heritage for the diverse immigrant children of the people seeking refuge and the hope of a new beginning in the Americas. This standardized public education system with its common, standardized curriculum “equipped the young for the responsibilities of freedom, insured universal equality and guaranteed prosperity for the years to come” (Greene, 2007, p.1). That is, these schools provided an accessible, uniform model of education that met the needs of the masses at that time. Factories, assembly lines, scientific management, and industrial capitalism dominated in this industrial age society. And, it is important to remember that industrial societies are not egalitarian. Rather, they are hierarchical, bureaucratic and highly segmented. Schools created to meet the needs, hopes and desires of this society had to ensure that everyone had enough education to enable them to find useful employment—that is, students needed to be able to take their appropriate place, manager or worker, on the factory room floor. Looking back, it is also important to remember that the hallmark of effective and efficient assembly lines was homogeneity and standardization, both of the materials used and the workers assembling those materials. Moreover, if one company had multiple factories (think e.g., MacDonalds) there would be standardization between the different sites of work. These are the foundations upon which a factory model of schooling are built.

To the extent that education becomes “stuck” in ways of responding to the world that were once adequate to its demands, to that extent, it gradually becomes counter productive to the very responsiveness that is at its core. We contend that “what began with such enthusiasm and hope around a century ago in the organization and imagining of schooling has simply worn out” (Jardine, Clifford & Friesen 2008, p. 14). Recently, it has become increasing evident that the factory model of schooling we inherited no longer serves our contemporary 21st century knowledge society. Today our society requires that more young people enter post-secondary institutions. This requirement is in sharp contrast to 1950 when only 2% of all Canadians aged 15 and over had university qualifications. By 2001, this number was up to 15%1. And while the number of students entering post secondary institutions has continued to grow, there is widespread agreement that a high school education is no longer sufficient for the new demands of the 21st century.

From within school and classroom structures and processes designed to meet the needs of the industrial past, we are once again called upon to invent an education system that effectively addresses the needs of our time. And that is a challenge of the same scale as educational reform 150 years ago. A century and more ago, what had been up to then incremental improvements to existing structures and practices of teaching and learning and the taken for granted limitation of education to the elite and powerful were no longer adequate to the scale of change required by the Industrial Revolution. An entirely new system of education needed to be invented. We are currently facing a similar situation. Efforts to improve what are quickly become obsolete practices and structures are actually likely to make things worse (Gilbert, 2005; Fullan, Hill & Crevola, 2006). Many teachers, students and administrators understand this issue first hand. Schools seemed to be continually accelerating, continually differentiating and multiplying the tasks that are asked of them, while, at the same time, attempting to leave in place the structures and practices that were responsive and responsible ventures over one hundred years ago. Exhaustion is the rule of the day. The good news is, however, that we are poised, according to Michael Fullan (2007), for a genuine breakthrough in public education.

(Read full document here.)

Friesen, Sharon, & Jardine, David. “21st Century Learning and Learners.” Western and Northern Canadian Curriculum Protocol.

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