Education Opinion

Teaching and Learning in the 21st Century

By LeaderTalk Contributor — March 06, 2009 6 min read
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This won't be easy, but it's important, and I know you can do it.

Just for a moment, imagine the intersection of the classroom with the world. We educate students to be guardians of the world they will inherit from us. We educate students for the world: scientists, politicians, entrepreneurs, economists, sculptors, train engineers, farmers, truck drivers; spouses, friends, colleagues, competitors. Students become citizens in this democracy and, at the same time, this “flat” world; each one a voter regularly faced with the awesome task of making decisions on complex issues that will have significant consequences for our future. Are they ready? Are they learning to learn so they can continue to learn when they leave school?

In January 2009 I attended a panel discussion in Philadelphia at Educon 2.1, a Web 2.0 education conference sponsored by the Science Leadership Academy. On Friday evening to open the conference, a panel of several men and women distinguished for accomplishments in their fields of learning and work were asked to address one question, what is the purpose of school? Their comments helped me realize that we ignore introducing students to the world with all of its complexity and challenge at our own peril. For learning to be an engaging, challenging, life-long activity for students, they need to use, develop, learn and apply their knowledge and skills within authentic, real-world contexts.

See for yourself. Here is my distillation of their comments, with a few of my own, on the purpose(s) of schooling. It is not intended to be an exhaustive list. Can we achieve these purposes without introducing real-world contexts into schools? How much more engaging would learning be for students if the contexts for learning came from the world adults inhabit every day, locally and globally?

The purpose of schooling is to inspire students to:

- creatively solve problems;
- collaborate as if it is the only way to get things done;
- be courageous;
- be confident;
- generate and harvest ideas for the community’s benefit;
- participate in the community’s economy while in school;
- build the community’s social capital;
- inquire as a way of life;
- honor differences;
- communicate well;
- present well;
- be able to explain something really well;
- “calibrate” their time, effort, and resources;
- open their eyes to what is possible;
- understand how things really work;
- think and act compassionately;
- seek truth and beauty; and
- use the most advanced technology.

This describes a very different paradigm of learning from what I was used to as a student and I suspect most of you too, but imagine how different our definition of success would be if we could redefine the purpose of schooling in these ways and actually achieve them. If now is the time for change, this is the change we must become.

However, what will this paradigm look like in practice? What will teachers do? What will students do? What will schooling be like? When, where and how will learning take place? Were can we go to uncover within ourselves the understanding and wisdom we need to answer these questions in personally and professionally satisfying and significant ways?

I suggest the following as a few places you can use to ignite your learning. There are many writers and organizations grappling with the question of what the world of the future will be like, Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat and Crowded, for example. Stephanie Pace Marshall, Founding President and President Emerita of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy®, has written about the future world of learning in her book, The Power to Transform. Ken Robinson is another author writing about how we should educate in the future, most recently in The Element. Others are trying to define the skills students will need: the Partnership for 21st Century Skills work, Tony Wagner’s The Global Achievement Gap, and Henry Jenkins’s Project New Media Literacies to name a few. Authors are also trying to help us understand the minds we will need or will get to educate in the future such as Howard Gardner’s Five Minds for the Future, Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind, and Don Tapscott’s Grown Up Digital. There are also people writing and commenting within the forums of education-focused social networks, hundreds of education bloggers and creators of education wikis, and a multitude of free, online, archived educational documents and presentations. To say the least, we have a plethora of resources to tap as we pursue our self-directed learning journey for the 21st Century.

Hopefully, we can learn what we need to about teaching and learning practice and teacher and student roles. But what about authentic, real-world contexts?

I would like to address that question by presenting you with a real-world context and a question that is really an invitation to join an intellectual “studio” or “arena” if you will. The question: how could the knowledge and understanding you gain from your learning journey for the 21st Century mentioned above be applied to the context of developments in a relatively small section of north west Colombia, South America? Along with the question I will guide you to lots of background information on a project that has been ongoing since the 1980’s. You can provide brain power by activating your creativity and innovation to write compelling comments on how this real-world context could be successfully used in schools to achieve the schooling purposes mentioned above. Involve anyone you like in the conversation ~ faculty and staff from from your school, people from your community, or colleagues from your personal learning network.

Here are some questions to focus some of your thinking.

- If you wanted to address deforestation in Colombia, what would you need to know, what skills would you need, what would you do? If you were innovative and creative, would you be better off when trying to address the problem?

- If you wanted to help indigenous people manage local pollution and you wanted to help them help themselves economically, what would you do? Would you be better off if you had core knowledge in traditional school subjects and better off with entrepreneurial skills?

- If you wanted to save a critically endangered species of monkey (Cotton-top Tamarin), what would you do? Would you be more able to address the problem if you could put together a multidisciplinary team that could work together collaboratively, be adaptive and self-directed?

I learned about this project, Proyecto Tití, through three sources:

1) speaking to Ashley, a staff member at Disney’s Wild Kingdom,
2) visiting the project web site, and
3) talking to Dr. Anne Savage, Senior Conservation Biologist at Disney’s Wild Kingdom and Executive Director of Proyecto Tití.

To get you started, below is a video of what Ashley told me about the project and here is the link to Proyecto Tití's web site. You will also find other information on the Cotton-top Tamarin by clicking the links below.

Proyecto Tití: Saving the Cotton-top Tamarin from Dennis Richards on Vimeo

Let the conversation begin and remember to return here to comment on what you do and learn. The internet is interactive now. Get with it. Share what you learn with others!

Cotton-top Tamarin at Encyclopedia of Life
Cotton-top Tamarin Pictures and Videos at Arkive
Educon 2.1 photo by bknittle
Cotton-top Tamarin photo by suneko

Dennis Richards

The opinions expressed in LeaderTalk are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.