21rst Century Schools

November 17th, 2011

Over the last century, we’ve moved farther and farther away from the school houses of straight rows and repetition, towards  ‘education for the whole child’; nurturing, providing safe, healthy environments, fostering curiosity, challenging the student, and developing critical problem solving. In recent years, educators have been split on the concept of whole education versus a more tradition, assessment based schooling. One theory is the idea of the 21rst century school.

What is 21rst century education? Described by some experts in the field, it plays out something like this…

“It is bold.  It breaks the mold.  It is flexible, creative, challenging, and complex.  It addresses a rapidly changing world filled with fantastic new problems as well as exciting new possibilities.”  – 21rst Century Schools Organization, 2008

“Many [teachers] will emerge as teacherpreneurs who work closely with students in their local communities while also serving as learning concierges, virtual network guides, gaming experts, community organizers, and policy researchers.” – Barnett Barry, 2010

“Loosely governed and highly self-directed, these teaching and learning activities exist beyond the sanction or control of formal educational institutions…with students, who themselves are largely prepared to drive their own educations.” – Steve Hargadon, 2010

It does sound exciting. However, as a student of the 20th century, it also sounds overwhelming and sometimes a bit dramatic.  As with any proposed theory, some pieces are more agreeable than others.

            One major concept behind the 21rst century school is a research, project based learning. Instead of worksheets, papers, or tests; students would be assessed on projects, websites, videos, presentations. Haury and Rillero (1992) state, ” Students in a hands-on science program will remember the material better, feel a sense of accomplishment when the task is completed, and be able to transfer that experience easier to other learning situations.” (p. 1). It seems to go back to the Chinese proverb, “Tell me and I forget; show me and I remember; involve me and I understand”. In this way, the 21rst century curriculum is an improvement on the traditional methodology. Engaging more than a student’s audio sense, which they are quite able to turn off, increases the information they are receiving.  Ownership of a project instills a sense of pride.

            Another important philosophy for this theory is the increased importance of technology. The internet opened a whole new world to students in the past 20 years. The ability to receive, discuss, and transmit information is available with instant gratification. Teaching the proper use of these tools, their versatility, and their dangers is a tool that our students must have to compete in a connected world. It aides teachers as well by providing a more ‘hands on, researched based project’ without having to buy supplies or deal with glue. However, and call me old fashioned, that does not mean the printed word should be excluded from education, particularly in writing. The speed of the WWW has created a generation of quick, impatient learners. Proper grammar, syntax, spelling, and form are arts that shouldn’t be lost in a world of ‘hy u up 2nite?”

            However, as good as project based, technology driven education sounds; one thing that frightens me is the changed role of teacher from director to ‘coach’.  As Lynne Munson (2010) said, “…being able to Google is no substitute for true understanding.” (p. 1). Teachers are needed to provide information. Being in the classroom, I have a hard time believing students are ready to lead their own education. Some involvement is well-placed; they have interests that are relevant to their lives that are worth exploration. However, a child of 10, 11, or even 17 has little understanding of the adult world, no matter what they think. Sometimes they need to learn material that they don’t want to learn.  I hated math, but I would be hard pressed if I couldn’t figure a tip or balance my check book. Children are children, and the experiences that they naturally come to are not the “end all and be all” of the information and skills they will need in the real world. Research has been done to illustrate that an engaged student learns better, however, It sometimes feels education is being made into a Broadway production and ‘entertainment’ should not be the main goal of a lesson. That being said, teacher preparation may need to change. I am not so naïve to believe that there aren’t teachers who stand and lecture, assign worksheets from the workbook, and call it a day.  Teaching in a dynamic, creative way, while still holding control of the classroom, is a difficult but necessary balance.

James Belasco (1991)said, “When I think of the enormous task before us – revamping and reinventing the educational system in the United States – the image of a ‘slow, ponderous pachyderm’ comes to mind.“  It will be difficult to adapt to the changing face of technology and the interconnectedness that we are now experiencing. However, discipline, responsibility, social cues, accountability, curiosity, research, cooperation, and organization are skills that are needed in the workforce, no matter the century. These can be learned in the 21rst century model, while reinvigorating the education system, if it doesn’t go too far. 

 Education Week. (2010). How do you define 21rst century learning? Retrieved from: http://www.edweek.org/tsb/articles/2010/10/12/01panel.h04.html

 Haury, D., Rillero, P. (1991). Perspectives of hands-on science teaching.  Retrieved from: http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/content/cntareas/science/eric/eric-2.htm

 21 Century Schools Org. (2008). What is a 21rst century school? Retrieved from: http://www.21stcenturyschools.com/What_is_21st_Century_Education.htm

 Belasco, James A., (1991). Teaching the Elephant to Dance. New York, NY: Penguin.


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