I’m Done With 21st-Century Learning!

By miller727@icloud.com March 30, 2016 Uncategorized 8 Comments

Shirley Hufstedler, the nation’s first Secretary of Education under President Carter, once professed she was bilingual: “She spoke English and she spoke Educationese.”

One of the challenges we have in education today is our inability to communicate clearly and effectively with our external stakeholders real people who don’t work in schools.

We share with community partners about how we are developing engaged 21st-century learners armed with grit and growth mindsets. And that these children are taught by educators who expose them to rigorous and authentic curriculum delivered with fidelity.

We refer to shifting paradigms, building capacity, employing best practices, and the role of PLCs in breaking down silos and promoting collaboration.

We use scaffolding, behavior management, differentiation and personalized learning strategies to ensure no child is left behind while we race to the top.

We use formative assessments, standards-based criteria, PBL and exit slips to hold children accountable for learning.

We employ Bloom’s and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DoK) to enhance cognitive rigor and promote inquiry. We collect data related to our key measures to inform our instructional practices.

We measure student achievement using high-stakes, standardized assessments. We track our progress using data walls and analyze student scores with data teams.

We talk about the use of technology and 1:1 initiatives to build student engagement and manifest personalized learning experiences.

We create acronyms like STEM and STEAM when what we mean is we want kids to think critically and problem solve.

Students no longer just earn a diploma at the end of high school. They graduate college- and career-ready with a portfolio of 21st-century skills.


These words and phrases have become ubiquitous in educatorese, yet many of us can’t clearly explain what they mean.

I dare say if you asked ten teachers to define cognitive rigor you would get ten very different responses. I think we all get what the term rigor is intended to mean but it easily misconstrued and carries a negative connotation for many.

For example, the use of the word rigor and kindergarten in the same sentence makes me ill.

Maybe it’s time we made a meaningful attempt to clean up our language.

Another phrase that I personally use way too often is the term “21st-century learning” (or “21st-century skills”). It drives me crazy but I still fall into the trap. I have used the term more times than I can remember.

I know what I think it means but readily admit it may translate to mean different things for different people.

To me, 21st-century teaching means facilitating students’ creativity, critical thinking, communication skills, and collaboration, as well as the meaningful use of technology. To others, it could mean completing a worksheet on a laptop. Regardless, the term is poorly defined and often misused.

It’s now dead to me.

Even if I have to subject myself to repeated electroshock treatment, I am officially pledging to eradicate this phrase from my lexicon. I am scrubbing any reference to this inane terminology once and for all.

If you catch me in a conversation using this phrase, I want you to hold me accountable by kicking me swiftly in the shin.

I will warn you, I’m tall.

Think about this. In 1905, did people sit around and say, “you know, we need to start exposing these kids to 20th-century learning?”

When were we supposed to start teaching kids 21st-century skills? Every generation after the baby boomers will likely live the majority of their lives in this century. Shouldn’t we have been learning 21st-century skills back in 1975? And will 21st century learning in the year 2066 be the same as it is today? Not likely.

I obviously don’t know for certain, but I cannot imagine a classroom twenty years from now with thirty desks aligned in tidy rows with a teacher standing behind a podium while students take notes in their spiral notebooks with a #2 pencil.

These are not 21st-century skills now, but you still see them in most schools across America.

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?

It’s now 2016 and we still talk about teaching 21st-century skills as if they were some futuristic vision from a dystopian novel.

We’re there, people!

I am of the opinion that we just go ahead and jump to 22nd-century learning.

Considering it took almost 30 years for education to start implementing 21st century skills in earnest, it is probably not too early to begin thinking of where education will be in the next century.

Won’t the Chinese panic when we tell them we jumping ahead to the year 2100 for our education planning?

We will have some work to do. I recently read through the new Oklahoma Academic Standards and saw absolutely no standards related to 22nd-century skills, things like space travel, programming nanobots, mental telepathy, and teleportation.

On second thought, teleportation may be a 23rd-century skill. I’m just not sure.

In truth, we can no more imagine 22nd-century life than depression-era folks could imagine the age of the iPod.

We cannot even accurately predict what the world will look like in 2050, when today’s students enter middle age. With the potential for medical advances to extend the average human life spans beyond 100 years, maybe that’s not even a true statement.

Maybe we can all agree to just call what we do “teaching and learning” and drop the references to whatever century we are in.

Instead of using the term 21st-century classrooms in vague terms, let’s take the time to really define what we mean and what it looks like for teachers and students.

Here’s a challenge for school administrators. Throw the following graphic from Krissy Venosdale on the screen at your next faculty meeting and open it up for discussion.  It could get very lively.

Admittedly, I think that both lists are somewhat limited and incomplete. Not everything on list A is necessarily always bad, and some of the items on list B would need clarification. But, it is a great discussion starter and may help pave the way for some small changes that will benefit teaching and learning in your building. In whatever century you’re in.

It’s not too late to start. It is 2016, after all.

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