A colleague recently posted this article, from Education Week, on our faculty Ning, and asked, “How do YOU define 21st Century learning?” I loved thinking about that question, because I hear the term used so often. Here is what I wrote in response:
It seems like 21st Century Skills are always talked about in terms of technology these days, but it is so much broader than that. I think back to my days of working for Junior Achievement. I used to speak with employers about what kinds of employees they would need in the future, and they always talked about creative thinkers, critical thinkers, and problem-solvers. It was basically the same language that we use today, and that was fifteen years ago! When I read about what the arts can do for students, the same kinds of skills keep coming up. The arts can develop flexibility, creative thinking, and vision. Or, thinking about the benefits of team sports, where students develop skills like collaboration, critical thinking, strategy…we can develop these skills in so many ways!
I think that 21st Century Skills are really about fostering a sense of empowerment in students. We need to give them the tools and the incentive to become real, motivated learners in their lives. The purpose seems to me to be to broaden their skills, rather than focusing exclusively on their content knowledge, though both are important. Students will need to be able to adapt to a rapidly changing world. They’ll need to be prepared to keep learning, and learning, and learning throughout their lives. Giving students a sense of their own standards, and a strong work ethic, seems invaluable to me.
I really like all the recent talk about passion-based learning. I hate it when students only seem motivated to do something because it is going to be graded. There has to be a way to help them to develop their interests and their skills at the same time. I think that they have to learn to do things for internal reasons, and not just be motivated externally by grades. 21st Century Skills also include the things that we keep hearing about, critical thinking, collaboration…but, for me, the most important “skill” that we can help students develop is intellectual curiosity and a true passion for learning.
Thinking about this further, I began to consider ways that I try to promote 21st Century learning in the classroom. At the start of the school year, I introduced a project in my Social Studies class that I called the Relocation Project. The students are studying Europe, so I thought that it would be fun for them to imagine really moving to a country in Europe. They were given notebooks with labels saying things like, “I’m moving to Croatia!” or “I’m moving to Austria!” Then, each student was told that they are responsible for moving their entire family to the country that they’ve been assigned.
They began by figuring out how to get themselves and their family members a Passport. They also had to come up with a list of at least ten questions that they have about the place where they will live. I wanted them to feel invested, if possible, in what it would really be like to live there. They might want to know about whether Internet access is available, and open. Or they might want to know about what type of school they will attend. Or, what types of food are traditional? Each student came up with their own list. After they created their list, I gave them a list of my own. They need to study the government, economy, healthcare system, etc. Here is my list:
The project has two phases; the relocation plan being Phase I. Phase II is a day of sharing what they’ve learned as Ambassadors for their country. They will try to get others to want to move to their country with displays and information in an interactive presentation.
So far, my students have helped to create a rubric for the project, begun researching their countries, worked on a class wiki with individual pages for their final presentations, and used Noodletools as they begin to write notes and build their bibliographies. They have shared information where that is appropriate, and they have added new ideas to the final project like, “Let’s choose a city in our country, and create a 3-D model!”
Recently, our librarian told us that she had signed our school up for a new research tool called Culture Grams. My students loved it. As they explored the student section of the site, they kept waving me over to show me things that they had discovered about their country. I saw interesting architecture in Russia, concept cars being built in various countries, dyed Easter Eggs from Romania, special tour boats in Austria, all kinds of interesting things. The students were each discovering information, and sharing their discoveries, like the recent news of the toxic sludge hitting the Danube. They were having a great time, while learning. They were following their own interests, and looking for similarities and differences with another culture.
This is a very challenging project for my sixth grade students. They aren’t used to “owning” a project so completely. They want me to tell them what to do too often. I have realized that this has been a re-training of their concept of education. I feel that I hear this, “Is it O.K. if we…?” when I want to hear this, “Hey, why don’t we…?” Creating the rubric was very interesting, because students don’t think about creating parameters for how they want to be evaluated very often. One student asked me why I wanted them to create a rubric, and we began a whole conversation about why I want them to have a voice in the process. I feel that we’ve all learned far more than a few facts about another country. This process qualifies as my concept of 21st Century learning.
So, how do YOU define 21st Century learning? I’d love to hear your thoughts!