With the emergence of educational inquiry on 21st century learning in the past six decades, the term 21st century learning has become generic and lacking focus. This paper seeks to define the term 21st century learning as it emerged in the early 1960’s and how it has evolved as practice over time for the purpose of reassessing 21st century learning in 2014-2015. Beginning as just a way to describe the time period of learning happening post 2000, the concept evolved as its purpose, potential, and practicality were reevaluated through the decades to reflect the vision of what 21st century learning should and would look like. Four streams of education have emerged in connection to 21st century learning and are consistently under assessment for effectiveness and relevance: teacher education, higher education, technology education, and character education. This paper will then draw upon the critiques against learning and local board wide examples of 21st century initiatives to provide relevance for the main focus of this paper, defining 21st century literacy for a purpose.
21st Century Learning: Defining for a purpose
Introduction to the problem
In 1969, The California State Board of Education presented one of the first formal education plans that addressed the upcoming 21st century learning concept. “This year’s first grader, who will be a mature decision maker in the 21st Century, must be skilled in observing, analyzing, communicating. He must be ready to meet new situations and be able to adapt to change.” (CSCPE, 1969, 18). 21st century learning first emerged in scholarly literature in the 1960’s but merely used 21st century learning to describe the learning that will take place in the 21st century. This excerpt from the 486-page document is the only mention of characteristics or qualities projected for use in the 21st century.
Since the 1990’s there has been a surge of education documents and scholarly literature that focus on and use the term 21st century learning or 21st century education. This correlates in response to the 21st century change that was impending upon all education systems worldwide. There is evidence to support that a divide exists between the previous use of the term (to describe the period of education that falls during the 21st century) and emerging uses of the term (to describe the qualities, characteristics, goals, and needs of the learning taking place in the 21st century). Most recently, post 2000 to be exact, there has been an increase in the development of understanding 21st century learning and how schools and school boards can address these needs.
The education plan proposed by the California State Board of Education brought relevant discussion and potential conflict for exploring the concept of the 21st century learner. “More recently economists have been studying education as a form of investment which the society makes in order (1) to assure the perpetuation of basic survival values, concepts, and skills and (2) to facilitate the shaping of the most desirable conditions among the alternatives we face as we look towards the 21st century” (CSCPE, 1969, 340). The plan highlights 40 years prior to the 21st century the ability for education to be used as a tool for economists, politicians, and legal policy makers. How can we as educators today ensure that our 21st century learners are actually learning relevant, useful, and meaningful content that has each student’s unique best interest at heart? Beginning with this research paper, exploring and defining 21st century learning for a purpose will lead to a more thorough understanding of a concept being used in a currently proposed action research plan to propose a new structure to character education initiatives in the District School Board of Niagara. This paper seeks to discover how the term 21st century learning has been situated in literature since it’s emergence in the 1960’s and how the term is currently being used and reflecting the learning and development needs of today’s very real 21st century learners.
Background - Literature Review
Literature and background reviews for the term 21st century learning began with two periodicals that appeared in Parents Magazine & Family Home Guide. A decade apart, these periodicals both titled Education for the 21st Century are the only two mentions of 21st century learning as a focal point for any piece of literature found in an online database. The periodical posted in 1959 – a full decade before the emergence of any form of scholarly literature mentioned only that parents should be skeptical and thoughtful when thinking about the upcoming 21st century. The 1959 periodical was alternatively named Seven overseas leaders offer wide counsel to American parents. Ten years later, the second Education for the 21st century periodical brought Catholic Church into the discussion connecting the two positively saying that the Catholic Church would bring children successfully into the unknown world of the 21st century.
The 60’s saw periodicals and a handful of articles emerge that use the term 21st century learning to describe the learning that will take place after 2000 but do not describe, quantify or qualify the term in relation to development or learning needs. In 1979 a call from the American Association for the Advancement of Science asks that education stand out, as it is “the best basis for hope that this country and other will somehow manage to avoid enormous trauma during the transitions that lie ahead” (Abelson, 1979, 1087). It poses that the career guidance that high schools have been giving to students will not serve us well in the future. The entry calls for more scientists, engineers, and mathematicians to graduate. They suggest that not all students will make the most ideal engineer but that exposing every child to these skills will help create a well-rounded society of citizens. The entry ends with a plea for universities to investigate the counseling policies in American education. As Abelson wrote, “there must be better ways than entrusting young lives to a hit-or-miss system” (Abelson, 1979, 1087).
In the Journal of Teacher Education, Schuttenberg wrote an article in 1980 that focused on preparing the educated teacher for the 21st century. The article proposed the need for a third dimension of education that will address the changing needs of the 21st century learner. This third dimension is the in depth study of the humanities which Schuttenberg proposes as “literature, art, languages, philosophy, history, religion and science as human achievement” (Shuttenberg, 1983, 15). One theme or trend that threads itself in the literature reviewed is the aim for developing civilized persons. Schuttenberg’s 1980 article proposes that “the aim and task of developing civilized persons, or those who have the self-knowledge, the self-control, the sense of responsibility and the ideals and concerns that makes it possible for them to live in a civilized society committed to the realization of freedom and justice” (Shuttenberg, 1983, 16).
Four common themes emerged when reviewing 21st century learner literature from 1959 to now; teacher education, higher education, career education and technology education. These four themes will be discussed further in the upcoming section. The discussion will be followed by a local example of board wide initiatives to enhance 21st century learning in the District School Board of Niagara.
There are major themes in education that arise when looking at the development of 21st century learning. Multiple streams of education have emerged in response to the changing needs of our society. These forms of education in succession of their emergence in literature; teacher education, higher education, technology education and character education have all been a component in shaping the definition and reality of 21st century learning. This paper makes connections between the term 21st century learning and its progression from describing the period of time when learning would take place through to it’s current state of reshaping it’s identity.
The literature review showed that teacher education was the first major critique that occurred in relation to 21st century learning and learners needs. Journals across the world began to see a rise in articles and research on the efficacy, relevance, and resilience of teacher education and it’s ability to educate 21st century learning leaders. Schuttenberg’s article Preparing the Educated Teacher for the 21st Century critiqued the teaching force’s inability to stay relevant for current learners in 1980. Thirty years later in the same Journal of Teacher Education, Lieberman and Mace commented on calling to the public to help shape teacher education in their article Making Practice Public: Teaching Learning in the 21st Century. We can already see a shift to using the term learning instead of education in this title in contrast to decades before.
The 2010 take on 21st century learning is centered on global interconnectedness between educators and the public. It proposes the unique opportunity for professional development to become globally connected online as well. Communities of practice are emerging in response to learners being connected globally online. If education is a way to shape citizens of the future, every day school experience should not only be keeping up with current needs but predicting, researching, and shaping the future of education. It seems logical that teacher education would need to shift its instruction on how to teach to a more 21st century learning cooperative way. If the leaders of schools believe in the philosophy behind communities of practice, for example, then schools will become communities of practice. The cautionary component to this article is that 21st century needs are always changing, so teacher education and educational philosophy will always be changing as well. It is about finding a way of assessment and validation to ensure school initiatives are on the right track and progressing in dynamism and relevance.
Second to emerge as a theme within 21st century learning was higher education. Eurich’s 1963 article Higher education in the 21st century was one of the first to address what higher education would look like post 2000. Although it mainly used the term to describe the period of time for higher education that would come after 2000 and did not address what it may or may not look like, it proposed that educators be ready. The article suggested that if research began then in 1963 that the future for higher education would be successful as it progressed towards the year 2000. Fast-forwarding fifty years into the future, Irvine, Code, and Richards writes about higher education in the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. This journal is an example of product emerging from researchers and educators preparing for future higher education needs. The response to online connectedness with multi-access learning and massive open online courses/communities are avenues for continued research and evaluation of 21st century learning. The authors show that “post secondary institutions are moving toward learner-centered designs, shifting focus to process and not product” (Irvine, Code, & Richards, 2013, 173). The idea of citizens being life long learners and taking with them the skills necessary to be resilient and dynamic in the 21st century years ahead of them has become a priority for educational leaders.
The emergence of scholarly literature on technology and it’s connetion to student learning began in the late 70’s. Lyon’s article by the very popular title from the last five decades Education in the 21st century, focused on technology and its practical applications in the classroom. Even in 1980, researchers were seeing the potential for technology to open up possibilities for inquiry, connectedness, research, and instruction. “Technology is making widespread dissemination of information possible, but the development of ‘learning machines’, for lack of a better word, means that now some major aspects of a nation’s learning system can be made more open because it does not depend on the traditional hierarchical system” (Lyons, 1980, 173). In later years, technology in the classroom was critiqued as to its effectiveness and classroom management conflicts. The Journal of Computer Assisted Learning published an article Challenges to learning and schooling in the digital networked world of the 21st century in 2013 and cautioned to educators that there needs to be a balance between technology and authentic face to face interaction through differentiated instruction and school day restructuring.
Character education emerged in response to schools providing a better-rounded educational experience for students. In 2005, an initiative put together by the Ministry of Education with the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat developed the document Finding Common Ground: Character Development in Ontario Schools, K-12. The document congratulates all schools and boards who had an existing character development program and encourages them to join Ontario in taking their program to new levels of effectiveness. The document takes a firm stance on the continued administration of quality education, which includes “education of the heart as well as the mind. It means preparing students to be citizens who have empathy and respect for others and who will think critically, feel deeply and act wisely. Character development enhances employability skills, encourages civic engagement and prepares students to be contributing citizens in our increasingly global society. Character development is education at its best.” (Glaze, Zegarac, & Giroux, 2008, para. 14-15).
The public has responded to this across multiple social media and networking platforms. A press release on marketwired.com commented on the CONNECT 2014 Canada’s learning technology conference held in May saying that this initiative comes at the right time in education in Ontario. “There is a sense of optimism for the future of education in the province…Character development will make our visions of education truly balanced and holistic as we revisit the foundations of an equitable and inclusive public education – namely, intellectual, character, and citizenship development” (Martellacci, 2014, para. 5).
21st Century Learning Critiques– Connection to discourse
Addressing the idea of the learner themselves in the context of the 21st century learning environment proposes a different set of considerations. Developing programs and initiatives in schools to promote 21st century characteristics, abilities, skills, attitudes, and literacies address the 21st century environment and initiatives but not necessarily the learning itself. Two articles will be used to make connections between the concept of learning and the term 21st century learning.
Biesta’s article Against learning: Reclaiming a language for education in an age of learning, provides insight to schools being sites of economic exchange between a consumer and provider. It poses the question what kinds of educational relationships currently exist and whose best interest are they serving. He proposes that there needs to be a new language that emerges from the current needs of today’s learners that reflects today’s learners. He outlines how language available to educators has shifted over the past two decades and that the “language of education” has been replaced by a “language of learning” (Biesta, 2005, 1). Although this shift to a language of learning opens up areas of debate, discussion and conflict in the previously used language of education, it closes off potential connections between education and learning. 21st century learning as a term has been used since the 1960’s and has been subjected to falling in and out of educational discourse without being rooted in any specific philosophy of learning or education. Biesta defines this new language of learning as “an effect of a range of events, rather than the intended outcome of a particular programme or agenda” (Biesta, 2005, 3). There are faults with this new language of learning which include thinking of learners as consumers who have certain needs, the educator who becomes the provider there to meet the needs of the learner and education itself which has become a consumable commodity (Biesta, 2005, 4). There is a need already to find a new language that balances education, learning and ongoing participatory inclusion of learner’s voices where the purpose of learning at school is clear and relevant.
Contu, Grey, and Ortenblad’s article takes a similar cautionary critique against learning by examining the large scale concept of learning discourse and it’s ‘pervasive ideological content which determines learning ‘as a good thing for all’ (Contu, Grey, & Ortenblad, 2003. 931). The paper advances two main points in that organizational learning and the politics of truth are inexplicably intertwined in our understanding of the language of learning. It poses the question of how educational organizations will use this language of learning in school and how effective it is for cultivating positive learning. There is a call for organizations to reflect the dynamism of their students into the organization, management, school day structure, school initiatives and course content. Limitations to the previously used elements of discourse; language of education and language of learning outline the narrow scope of the discourse.
21st century learners live in a “rapidly changing, information and technology-intensive, globalized world”, as defined in the Ontario Government’s 21st Century Teaching and Learning Winter 2014 Quick Facts memo (see Appendix A) (Winter 2014, 2014, para. 1). As round three of the 21st Century Innovation Research project undertaken by the Ontario Government, the beginnings of a new 21st century discourse will hopefully emerge.
Application: Local Perspectives in the DSBN
Taking a local perspective on 21st century learning and board wide initiatives, the District School Board of Niagara has taken on a few projects as a response to the 21st century needs of their learners. 21st century learning as a full complete term shows up in DSBN documents to describe E-Learning and Technology Services to facilitate differentiated instruction which the website links to being important for 21st century learning. The website and documents allude to 21st century learning being more student and technology focused but do not directly link ideal characteristics, behaviors, attitudes, and qualities with the term 21st century learning explicitly.
One current example of directly linked 21st century learning initiatives and the DSBN is the CONNECT Conference in May 2014 which was created by the DSBN Parents Involvement Council. The $18 000 funded project was summarized as follows, “DSBN’s PIC will provide a one-day conference for parents and educators from the board and the London region, focusing on parent and community engagement and partnerships. Workshops will offer information and resources related to French Immersion, the LGBTQ community, mental and physical health, and 21st Century Learning” (Martellacci, 2014, para. 10). The project seeks to infuse 21st century collaborative human networks that are full with technology that began with the DSBN, Brock University and Mindshare Learning. Dr. Camille Rutherford of the Brock University community attended the conference; "The CONNECT Conference serves as an exemplar of what is possible when all levels of education work together to support innovation and improvement. In addition to being an annual opportunity for educators to connect and collaborate, the conference represents a key opportunity to initiate new public/private partnership and ongoing projects that foster innovation and academic improvement year round," (Martellacci, 2014, para. 5).
In terms of every day learning in the DSBN, character education seems to be the only program currently in place that educates and fosters the skills, attitudes, and characteristics of a 21st century learner. Meaningful and relevant student engagement is paramount for character education according to the board website (Glaze, Zegarac, & Giroux, 2008, para. 11). There seems to be a lack of relevant and meaningful opportunities on a day-to-day basis in high schools specifically that position students in a 21st century learning environment in the DSBN. Action research is currently being proposed to involve current DSBN students in a project to re-identify meaningful and relevant 21st century characteristics, beliefs, attitudes, and qualities and directly linking them to practical day-to-day school initiatives. This research will hopefully provide administrators, students, teachers, parents, and community members with a more accurate depiction of the relevant 21st century skills as defined by current 21st century learners. The 21st century prides itself on fast-paced knowledge and resilient innovations so it should be commonplace to have 21st century education reflect this as well. Including students into the action research and action proposal procedures to resituate the term 21st century learning in an actual, relevant and tangible context allows educators to provide the most resilient and reflective education to students.
It is difficult to come to any definitive definition for 21st century learning as research has shown that the concept is constantly being redefined or in need of redefinition. The issue that arises from this dynamic discourse and practice of 21st century learning comes from ensuring our current, not just our future school systems, will be as prepared as possible. Without knowing where the direction of education will take the local and global scale education we can only predict and prepare for what we know to be true about education today. There needs to be caution exercised when working with the term. It is important to define the specific time frame, scope, and details of the 21st century learning discussed so researcher and reader are on the same page. It is essential that when defining, researching, or educating under the term 21st century learning that we define for a purpose. Giving the term purpose should mean that a positive, educationally progressive product or outcome should evolve from researching the concept.
From finding the emerging origins of the term peppered throughout scholarly literature and educational resources world wide to local action being taken by the District School Board of Niagara with CONNECT 2014, 21st century learning has been explored for a purpose. The next steps for defining 21st century are bringing character education initiatives locally produced by the District School Board of Niagara in 2005 to a more relevant position situated a decade later in 2015. The action research may show that the initiatives currently being undertaken by the school board are still as effective for developing and nourishing 21st century learning skills. If the research finds there is a gap between the 2005 initiative document and program, an action plan will be proposed using insight and data collected by current DSBN students.
There are only eighty-six years until the 22nd century and if history repeats itself, we should begin our switch from thinking of 21st century to 22nd century learning around 2060. With only forty-six years left to prepare and consider 21st century learning, we need to situate the research and our initiatives in the now. Why not create 21st century learning environments in which learners are continually recreating the definition and practical implication of 21st century learning as they are learning? These kinds of learning environments are already starting to develop all over the world. Students are becoming agents of change, innovators of the future and educators of their peers. We are more connected and more globally aware than ever before. In fact, we may be more ready for the next evolutionary chapters in education than we think.