21st Century Schools or 21st Century Learning?

Even this picture is way too old…We need to start having focused conversations on this topic.

Just let me start off by saying that the term “21st Century Learning” still drives me crazy.  If you think about it, have we progressed in our thoughts about what learning should look like and could be in the last 10 years?  What about in the next 50 years?  Will “21st Century Learning” be the same or will we still promote the same skills?  Who knows but I am sure that our world will continue to change significantly.

With that being said, for the sake of discussion, I will use the terms.

I had a great discussion with some educators the other day about the idea of “21st Century Schools vs. 21st Century Learning”.  I have seen so many schools in the last month that have AMAZING spaces that make it look like there are great learning opportunities, but I am not sure if the learning has changed.  If a school has these fantastic spaces, such as a library (which many will refer to as a media center or commons), but we are still telling kids to be quiet and having them sit alone (but on comfortable couches!), do we really have 21st Century Learning?  Or do we just have something that looks good to our stakeholders?  I know that we do not just make amazing spaces and then amazing learning happens, but what are the goals that we are moving to?

This has been really weighing on my mind a lot since I have seen a lot of iPads in schools in a 1:1 environment.  I asked a group of students at one school what they had used their devices for and they had told me they were really used for having their textbooks on the iPad.  They had actually told me that they didn’t like having the iPads because there were so many other things to do on the device that they couldn’t stay focused.

Pretty crazy since they had an online textbook to keep them entertained 😉

The mass purchase of devices for schools is happening way too much inwithout conversations with educators about what learning should be happening in the classroom.  This is actually frustrating many teachers that I have spoken with; it just becomes another thing that has been dumped on educators, not something that is going to make learning better.  There is definitely some value in playing with a device and figuring out some of the amazing things it can do, but should we really be doing that by buying devices en masse? Shouldn’t we try to figure out what the learning look like and then discuss the device?  It seems sometimes that we are doing the exact opposite.

As we have focused a lot on where we would like to go in Parkland, our Digital Portfolio Project which discusses the learning that we will want happening within the school division.  In fact, with all of the content that is written in the document, the device is not even discussed.  The focus is on the learning, as it should be.  Once that is somewhat clear (learning continuously evolves) to all, then we need to take the next steps.  Too many are doing it in reverse.

A question that I often ask to many educators is this: can you tell me your school’s vision for learning?  I am worried that this is not something that many schools have even talked about, let alone articulated with each other.

I really believe that some amazing learning can go on in schools that are stuck with the “traditional four walls” if we focus on what the learning should look like.  Take a look at the picture below via Krissy Venosdale:


Could this not start a discussion with staff?  What is imperative?  What is great?  What is missing?

Let’s continue to focus on the learning but really focus our time when we get together to figure out what that learning should look like.  We can figure out the devices later :)



  1. This is so true, as a technology director I hear way to much about what devices (iPads) the teachers, etc want to purchase and not enough about how they are going to change teaching to they way students are learning in the 21st century. I love the iPad for individual use but I hate purchasing them in bulk… it is just like the PALM, Laptop Carts and Netbooks.. they are all devices that have had an educational surge.. but the teaching never changed.

  2. Some of us though are trying to "practice what we preach"… For example, I teach high school seniors and begin each & every class every year engaging students in discussion why "Classroom A" is not relevant to the world they live in now, and we must strive to be "Classroom B" each & every day! Perhaps surprisingly I have 28 years of teaching experience and am not a "new kid on the block"- but regardless of our level of experience we must prepare kids for the world of TODAY….NOT YESTERDAY!

  3. I think class A and class B are both limited and incomplete. The image is rather over-simplified to some good vs. evil cliche.

    • Hence the reason that it is a good discussion piece. What would you add or suggest?

  4. Can you read when it's noisy? I can't. Do all spaces have to be geared towards the desires of extroverts? Speaking of discussion, where do we teach respect and manners in discussion–everybody's like the driver of an SUV, trying to bully everybody else into silence/submission, which is not the same as agreement, and some of the most valuable contributions are not heard. I think that many problems have been going on for a long time and that many proposals for change do not even consider them.

  5. I may be wrong, but I think that there are many teachers who feel the pressure or expectations of '21st century learning' are high. Since many don't know what it looks like, it's uncharted territory. More teachers need to see classrooms that are using these skills in order to understand how to shift their own practice. I know that the idea of being creative and learning with students is very nice and does happen quite often already (being an art teacher, I might be biased), but it's helpful to have an idea of where to go and what to do. How does a teacher change if they don't know what they're working toward?

  6. Great conversation starter – really enjoying the results of your blogging challenge.

    There is no mystery to "21st Century Learning". We live in the 21st century – walk into any classroom and you will see what learning looks like. There is, however, a tension between what is going on in many classrooms and what we believe/hope is useful for student growing up in a globally connected society.

  7. Both is best but you are correct to say that 21st C. Learning can take place in traditional environments but it will look (and likely sound) very differently. I also agree that there is a time for the introverts – those who don't want to talk about their learning right then. There has to be an expectation of respect for learning and sharing styles governed by the expeditions of the value of meta cognitive and creative aspects of learning. 21st C. Learning isn't always loud or messy but it is virtually always supported within a community of learners whose goal is to celebrate each other's learning and passions.

    A problem for teachers is, of course, the double-speak within the system. Teach 21st C. Skills in a constructivist environment BUT make sure you cover all the outcomes/standards and assess them while preparing for the district or gov't tests. When these expectations are impossible to meet, teachers often fall back onto the way they were taught or to strategies that best support the overt gov't mandate – to the detriment of the learning environment and the long-term growth of the students.

  8. Excellent post. It is easy to become excited by the "tools" and forget about the important things. As teachers our job is to continually reflect on our methods and their relevance to our students' lives. Classroom A may not provide the engagement, discussion and connection 21st Century students need. I hated textbooks and that was YEARS ago. Students today have a way of learning and exploring that is new, amazing and connected. It is our job to figure out how to use that to teach.

  9. At first I thought this post would be about the ligustics of what 21st learning is but it in fact gets to the heart of the BYOD "race". It IS about the learning first, not the tools. BYOD in my school allows students to use their devices as the need arises in class. It is not used in all classes nor all lessons. At least not yet. The day may come when it is used as the primary tool but we (being the students and teachers) are not ready for all the applications that are possible. For us, it is a more natural process of seeing the need and filling it with the right tool. When products are dumped into the educational setting artificial uses are create to make sure the devices are being "employed". This is not 21st century learning. Great Post thx.

  10. Great ideas here George. The term 21st century learning drives me batty also. In 1812 did they call it "1812 Learning"? How about just "learning"? The focus always must be on the teaching and learning. The library has to be as Joyce Valenza says more like a kitchen where we construct knowledge than convenience store where we just check out information. Our library at Clayton Heights Secondary is always a buzz with students collaborating and we are working this year to make it to be even more of a "Making Commons" and innovation lab. it's a good space for educators to see educational experiments at work to inspire the important conversation that you point to of our school's vision of learning. You can't cement this vision down in a one off workshop as it is a coninuous year long conversation. Enjoy the rest of your summer!

    • Love the comment and ideas :) Thanks for sharing!Sent from my iPhone

  11. Excellent points. I have been reflecting on the irony created by common practices I have observed: it is fashionable to talk about "using technology" in the classroom – it's even a check box on many walk through forms. On the other hand, instructional technology is seen alternately as magical or irrelevant.
    The other rampant practice is the one you describe: the buy-first-and-make-plans-later approach. I (try to) talk about avoiding that pitfall in a recent post on my blog wp.me/p2K4JA-b
    Perhaps your post resonates so deeply with me because I have been wrestling with so many of these issues in my own school. We have started the process of drafting a plan to make (digital) student portfolios a central part of our learning plan, along with student-led conferences. Both feeder elementary schools and the middle school where I work are working together on these plans. With your permission, I would like to use the document linked in your post. If you are open to brain-picking, I would love to know more about what you have learned about this process.

  12. As a student that is typing on a laptop that has been provided for me, I beg to differ. Of course, I see your point that it’s distracting, but at the same time, students that choose to actively participate have the technology at their fingertips to research, to type documents, to check teacher’s websites to keep up-to-date if you’ve been absent, and possibly even to dig deeper into the subject than a textbook allows. It’s definitely different, and most certainly tempting to be off-task, but I’ve seen that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. After all, students who don’t want to actively participate will find a way to distract themselves with or without technology.

    I definitely see your point, though. It’s an interesting topic and a fair argument against technology, but I find it important to discuss the pros as well as the cons.

    • So you know Cameron, I am not against technology in schools. Quite the opposite actually. I really believe that we have to work with our schools to help them understand how we can effectively use these devices as opposed to having people become frustrated and telling kids that they can’t use them at all.

      I really appreciate your comment! Thank you :)

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