21st Century Skills – how can technology help?

I just finished reading 21st Century Skills – Learning for Life in our Times by Bernie Trilling & Charles Fadel. 
“The premise of this book is that the world has changed so fundamentally in the last few decades that the roles of learning and education in day-to-day living have also changed forever.” p. xxiii
Okay, think about that for a minute.  Now think about “school”.  Has it changed significantly in the last few decades?  Hmm, probably not hey.  But, we have been using computers and progressively more technology since the early 80’s of the 20th century.  Why hasn’t school fundamentally changed, yet?
“One of education’s chief roles is to prepare future workers and citizens to deal with the challenges of their times.  Knowledge work – the kind of work that most people will need in the coming decades – can be done anywhere by anyone who has the expertise, a cell phone, a laptop, and an Internet connection.  But to have expert knowledge workers, every country needs an education system that produces them; therefore, education becomes the key to economic survival in the 21st century.” p. 6
That quote suggests that education is key to our survival – we intuitively know this.  But what if our current education system, stuck in the 20th century (early part), doesn’t adapt in time?
“It has been observed that today’s education systems operate on an agrarian calendar (summers off to allow students to work in the fields), an industrial time clock (fifty-minute classroom periods marked by bells), and a list of curriculum subjects invented in the Middle Ages (language, math, science, and the arts).” p. 12
I just saw a tweet tonight (Jan. 16th, 2010) from @jagill
I think this teacher shows a way to break free from the past.  This particular teacher uses technology in a very integrated / supportive way – whatever the students bring and the school can provide.

I was meeting with a couple of educators last week to prepare for an upcoming Board presentation on our my43 virtual classrooms and our One 2 One projects.  During our conversation I asked why can't learning be more relevant, interesting, cross curricular, and dynamic?  I said, imagine this…  the teacher takes a current topic (eg. Haiti earthquake and devastation) and builds curriculum on the fly with the students.  Maybe the kids have ipod touches, netbooks, cell phones, etc. and the teacher says get into teams of 5 and one team researches the Haiti situation, another team Haiti history, geography, political situation, and financial details, another team researches earthquakes, another team is responsible to assemble and present the findings of the others, and so on.  They use the tools they have in the classroom and go to work.  The teacher creatively ensures that there are clear links to curriculum and learning, and to social responsibility – they discuss in future classes ways they can help the Haitians.  They also make arrangements for their students to present to two other classes at the school and they stream the presentation on the Internet, later that afternoon – notice of the presentation is tweeted, email, and posted to the school website.  Pretty difficult to pull this off without relevant technology in the hands of students in their classroom.

The book, 21st Century Skills, refers to “Four Converging Forces”: Knowledge Work, Thinking Tools, Digital Lifestyles, and Learning Research as a 21st Century Learning Convergence.  They refer to these coming together like a “perfect learning storm” that will usher in new ways of learning.  However they list a number of forces that still resist these changes:
  • Industrial Age education policies (efficiency of mass education)
  • Accountability -- Standardized testing
  • Centuries old teaching practices – transmit knowledge to students
  • Textbook industry makes money from books not flexible digital content / tools
  • Fear of abandoning focus on rigorous content
  • Preferences of parents who learned the traditional way
How to break free?  We need to…
“In times of change learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” – Eric Hoffer
Mass education is not working – kids are getting more and more bored.  We need to make it real!  Teachers are no longer the tomes of knowledge they were – every 18 months what is known, DOUBLES.  Textbook companies face the same challenge as music companies and they will lose eventually.  Content isn’t king – process is.  Today’s kids will become parents and will demand different.

Back to the blog title…  I believe that technology can and will help disrupt our current ways of “doing school”.  There’s lots written about differentiating learning, experimentation with UDL (universal design for learning), and an invasion of personal devices that’s just begun.   UDL has great promise to meet the individual learning and engagement needs of all students using 21st century technology tools.  On it’s own technology is agnostic but with skilled 21st century learning coaches (teachers), and content guides, skilled in applying technology to learning, technology can be the lever that makes a difference.
"The best way to predict the future is to invent it." - Alan Kay
What do you think?  Is technology essential to developing 21st Century Skills and reinventing school?


  1. Brian,
    I love the example you give. That student project would also be far more meaningful 'news' for other students around the world, than the 5-paragraph news article with a catchy title and glossy big-picture synopsis that our media dishes out. Essentialy, students-as-content-creators are what we are developing... We are giving them a legitimate audience and thus creating value for their work.
    Indeed it truly is time to reinvent schools... But my question to you is 'what do you think is the more likely impetus to change?' Will it be our current (dare I say archaic) system, or the students themselves demanding a more relevant education?

  2. Great post. Agree with you in so many areas. Rather than give a project that the teacher thinks would be interesting...allow the student to choose a project based on their interest or passion. The teacher and student work together to ensure learning takes place and skills develop. In a nutshell this is the Big Picture approach - my blog talks about this - www.geoffallemand.wordpress.com I have added you blog to my regular reads. Thank you. Geoff from Down Under

  3. A wonderful post, and it is something that I have been wrestling with in my mind for the last four or five months as the enormity the things that I have discovered has begun to sink in. I had a great discussion with a retired teacher who substitute teaching long-term at our school, and he was thrilled to have all the new tools that I laid out in front of him, but as we pressed the conversation we began to explore what the integration of these tools might actually mean for teaching. I think it was quite obvious to us both that there are great changed needed, but the five resisters that you mention were someplace where we got stuck. It will be really interesting to see how this conversation plays itself out. A great thinking entry, thanks.

  4. Dave - What do you think of the book so far? Thanks for dropping by :-)

    In response to your question, I think our system will continue to change as good people take risks and experience successes AND students will increasingly demand more. Students, still need guidance and in many cases external motivation, given their age. So, on their own, I don't believe most would make this demand. Seeing what's possible is important to know what one can demand...

  5. Geoff, ya, you're taking it to the next level hey. Student directed / owned learning. I think there's a place for both. I read an article you might enjoy that talks about a variety of models, one in particular that has big "L" and little "L" learners representing teachers/students as learners - check it out: http://www.citejournal.org/vol1/iss1/currentissues/general/article1.htm

    Thanks for your comments.

  6. Greg, it's great to wrestle with big ideas isn't it. There are so many people not yet thinking about alternatives to what they know and do. The greatest seed for change is showing the way to something different, better.

    thanks for stopping by and sharing your story.

  7. I saw your article very good contribution to the presentation and can be responsibility, hopefully you stay ahead presents articles like this
    thanks for the article

  8. Great post! I have to get that book!


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