21st Century Learning: It’s Not an Either/Or Argument

There are those who believe that the list of 21st century skills bubbling up over that last dozen years – critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation – are not new. I would agree with that. However, what has changed is how teachers and students engage in these skills via digital tools. Moreover, I discount that if one uses digital tools in learning that traditional knowledge and skills – deep reading, scientific reasoning, and math – acquisition suffers.

Bottomline: It’s not an either/or argument.

21st Century Skills Are Not New – Yet, Some Things Have Changed: While 21st century skills are not new and have been at the core of sound pedagogy, even before industrial-style educational approaches, the use of digital tools has changed the landscape of learning and challenged teachers to be technologically literate. As Clay Shirky said, “When you change the way people communicate, you change culture.” And, that change in culture puts The Teacher in the midst of new learning which they must take on themselves and for students. This new learning does not set aside the necessity of students acquiring basic knowledge and skills but rather builds upon it in a dramatically different fashion than factory-model, Carnegie unit learning.

Critical Thinking: Learning while using digital tools does not ignore the importance of critical thinking. With teachers guiding students, which is not a new pedagogy, students can gain knowledge and learn to think critically by conducting effective Internet searches, ferreting out incorrect information, and verifying information before putting it to use in their own computer, the brain. True, good researching skills are needed with printed materials as well. However, learning to use selective keyword searches, Boolean searches, databases, and authoritative online texts is a relatively new skill. To think critically includes interpreting blog posts and comments, tagging, subscribing and annotating, within our personal space as well as our shared learning networks.

In order to think critically, a great deal of knowledge is necessary. However, how we gain the knowledge is what has shifted – titled the earth on its edge. What was once locked away in a library is now accessible in the palm of our hands and that fundamentally changes how and what enters our world – what gets our attention – as well as how we interpret and synthesize it, making thinking critically ever more important. Moreover, students who do not have the skills to navigate a digital world are at a disadvantage and may well become the next underclass.

Information via digital tools can be used to deepen our capacity to make observations and reach beyond our closed envelope by connecting and communicating with others beyond our immediate, face-to-face environment. To explore history from a different vantage point via gaming and sensory interaction. To see and manipulate the elegance and logic of science and math through interactive online activities. To understand the philosophical debates by not only studying them but engaging with others though digital learning networks. To mash-up ideas and create new ones.

Change that Learners of All Ages are Experiencing

Participatory Culture
: Yes, in the past (and today), we participated and collaborated in classrooms and neighborhoods – learning and playing. We’ll probably continue to do so to some degree. What has recently evolved is what Henry Jenkins coined the Participatory Culture, which calls for new media literacies – an outgrowth of a media-rich society. In his white paper, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, he calls for the needed skills in the new media culture which build upon the traditional skills taught in the classroom. Hence, new and emerging skills have been identified that are necessary for students to learn today for them to fully create and participate in their future.

Digital Citizenship: 
Yes, in the past (and today), we offered lessons in safety (don’t get in a car – or a buggy- with a stranger), public speaking, and civics. We’ll probably continue to do so to some degree. However, a new consideration has come about – digital citizenship, which includes new skills and considerations in preparing students for today and their future. We must share lessons with students that online communications are, as Shirky observed, “instant, global, and nearly permanent” and that one must cultivate digital footprints so he or she can be Googled well.

Collective Action: 
Yes, in the past, we have undertaken collective action in classrooms and neighborhoods – mock elections, food drives. We’ll probably continue to do so to some degree. Yet, something has changed. In Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky observed, “Gathering a group of people and getting them to act used to require significant resources, giving the world’s institutions a kind of monopoly on group effort. Now, though, the tools for sharing and co-operating on a global scale have been placed in the hands of individual citizens.”  Today, we, teachers, must share lessons with students that they have the power to topple corporations and governments sitting in the palm of their hand. We must share lessons with students that they are in the midst of an upheaval of “how things have always been done.” And, we must share these lessons with students as we are learning them ourselves.

As part of learning new lessons, teachers must continue to be critical thinkers, become scholars, ask the right questions, listen for what is not said, seek out connections, and retool and remix their skills.

I look forward to your comments.

Running the digital river of learning with you,

Emily Vickery

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