21st Century Learning Is Not A Program



by William Washington, Ed.D. Scholar, Walden University

Perhaps the biggest misconception that one can have about 21st century learning is to think of it as a single reform program.

21st century learning is not a singular “thing” that can be plugged into an existing school environment and used as an easy upgrade to improve existing practice.  Learning that teaches children how to think is a process with deep philosophical underpinnings and embraces new findings about how people teach, learn, and get motivated. This challenges educational organizations to incorporate new thinking into the ways in which we view the function and purpose of formal education; it implores us to move beyond draconian practices that are rooted in 19th century assumptions about learning.

Premise of 21st Century Education
The premise of 21st century education is very important. If we fail to acknowledge the notion that obsolete methods, approaches and educational models are failing to prepare children for a technologically-driven global economy, we may as well just shut down all of our schools; someone else will be running them for us anyway (Schlechty, 2011).  There is a growing concern that children are spinning their wheels in the midst of obsolete instructional content and methods.

The argument being made is that we are ignoring societal shifts and continue to teach to a target audience that doesn’t exist and we’re preparing them for a market that doesn’t exist (Marx, 2006).  Heidi Jacobs (2010) often uses the analogy of time travel in reference to the gap in current educational practice.  She says that students step into a simulation of the 1980s each time they enter the school and reenter reality once they step off of the bus. We can no longer afford to promote and sustain the status quo; it is imperative that we transform education because it is, morally, the right thing to do (Sergiovanni, 1997).

Many people tend to associate 21st century learning with digital technology.  This is an incomplete perception because 21st century education goes beyond mere trinket tools of the trade. Rather, it is a way of thinking- a rationale about what educators do and why they do it.

The overarching purpose of 21st education is to provide students with a set of critical skills that will be needed for success in a global market.  The Partnership for 21st century skills (2011) identifies these specifically: creativity, collaboration, critical-thinking, and communication.  In order to help our children develop these skills to a high level, we must incorporate modalities that are relevant to present times (e.g. social networking, mobile technologies, digital computing, gaming,) and also engage the student with instruction techniques that facilitate learning (e.g. pinwheel discussion, group collaboration, projects).   In other words, we need to put the student at the center of the learning and allow them to create their own meaning from experiences.

This is very different than what we’ve experienced in the past 75 years.  The education that we have all experienced is no longer appropriate for preparing today’s learner for a global market.  For this reason, proponents of 21st century education argue that we can no longer seek to reform education; we must transform it into something entirely different (Berry & Team, 2011; Schlechty, 2011; Jacobs, 2010).


Changing Our Ideas about a “Good” Education
It’s difficult to make something better if there is no agreement about the desired outcome.  Telling stakeholders that you want students to be “college ready” invites a great degree of misinterpretation and misunderstanding.  I passed one of my former students in a grocery store yesterday.  She graduated high school at the top of her class and attends an Ivy League college.  She did everything that her teachers and parents told her to do in regards to behavior, extracurricular activity, and academics.  She dropped out of school after her first year of college.  Was she misled by her elders?  Did her experiences prepare her for a world beyond her local community and high school?  I would argue that the people around her may have a different mental model of an ideal student than one that meets the demands of today’s global economy.

Peter Senge (2006) coined the term “mental model” to describe our deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, pictures, and images that influence how we make sense of the world.  We all frame our opinions of education based on our own beliefs about what comprises a “good education.” These “mental models” are primarily based on our own experiences with participating and observing educational practices.  The difficulty of subscribing to 21st century learning ideology is that it requires a deep understanding of a student outcome that is unfamiliar to our own life experience.  We have to educate with less control and allow our students minds to … play.

Many educational leaders are culturally conditioned to attempt transformation through emulation and 21st century learning skills is an outcome of authentic learning. 21st century education is an ongoing process that involves authentic learning and an organic integration of modern skill sets; it cannot be copied or emulated.  Those who need real-life exemplars from which to copy will find it almost impossible to circumvent the required comprehensive understanding of the philosophy and rationale that drives 21st century educational practices.


21st Century Learning Skills
21st century education incorporates social skill sets that will be needed to help our children survive an economy that has yet to occur and do knowledge work that will require the highest levels of cognitive ability. We can no longer fashion our educational systems to produce skilled labor and depend on random acts of excellence to emerge in small pockets.  We have to strive to produce citizens who work with their minds rather than their hands.

Today’s educational system simply misses the mark in preparing children to think critically, independently, and at a high-level.  Instead, we have become a massive test-prep industry that is evaluated by how well our students temporarily memorize disjointed information.

Ask yourself these questions:
What is happening in current public education that can prepare a child to contribute to a Disney/Pixar film?

Can our students leave high school and become digital technology engineers? Choreograph an award show opening number? Program a new iPad app? Coordinate a wedding and reception?

A larger percentage of people are working from handheld devices instead of sitting in cubicles. What kinds of people can handle the responsibility of working without direct oversight? Who can be held responsible for generating knowledge-work from a distance that has the quality to compete on a global market?

Who is going to have the Communication, Collaborative, Creative, and Critical Thinking skills required to integrate global trends into their work in a manner that will offer something fresh and improve the world in some way?

I can assure you, modeling “sage on the stage”/lecture instruction and tossing around paper worksheets while commanding people to “be quiet and work” is a model that will not yield the aforementioned individuals. 21st century learning is about engagement and making learning an intrinsic process.

“Gist” is Not a Substitute for Comprehensive Understanding

As I traverse through the world of academia (i.e. practical experience, doctoral research, seminars, professional development, and conferences),  I can’t help but notice how so many people lack the desire to completely understand critical issues.  It is interesting that education deals with student comprehension, but those responsible for education often have a loose interpretation of the concept of what it means to be “comprehensive.”

This lack of attention to comprehensive understanding is leading to a great deal of misinformation in regards to the philosophy that undergirds common core, 21st century learning skills, distributed leadership, professional learning communities (PLCs), and future-focused leadership.  This is dangerous to transformational efforts because the stakeholders don’t truly understand what they’re signing up for; they’ve been bombarded with unfounded opinions and loose interpretations.

Ironically, we teach our children to get the gist of material (rather than truly gaining a comprehensive understanding of content) and measure their recall skills in the form of State Standardized Tests. 21st Century Education is about helping people develop the ability to gain a comprehensive understanding of things and then apply these understandings to other contexts.


Berry, B., & Team, T. 2. (2011). Teaching 2030, what we must do for our students and our public schools : Now and in the future. Teachers College Pr.

Schlechty, P. C. (2011). Leading for learning, how to transform schools into learning organizations. Jossey-Bass Inc Pub.

Jacobs, H. H. (2010). Curriculum 21, essential education for a changing world. Alexandria, VA: Assn for Supervision & Curriculum.

Costa, A. & Kallick, B. (2010). It takes some getting used to: Rethinking curriculum for the 21st century. In H. Jacobs (Ed.), Curriculum 21, essential education for a changing world (210 – 226). Alexandria, VA: Assn for Supervision & Curriculum.

Marx, G. (2006). Future-focused leadership, preparing schools, students, and communities for tomorrow\’s realities. ASCD.

Senge, P. M. (2006). The fifth discipline;the art and practice of the learning organization. (Revised ed. ed.). New York, NY: Doubleday.

Sergiovanni, T. J. (1997). Moral leadership, getting to the heart of school improvement. Jossey-Bass Inc Pub.

Image attribution flickr users gammarayproductions, flickeringbrad; 21st Century Learning is Not A Program

  • Symphily

    Hi Mr. Washington,

    I’ve recently defended my MA thesis on teachers’ work and ’21st-century learning’ policy in BC at the Centre for Cross Faculty Inquiry in Education, UBC. From this vantage, I feel compelled to take umbrage with the claim that ’21st century learning is not a program’, and to challenge the assertion that 21CL has anything whatsoever to do with a “comprehensive understanding of things”.

    While it is fair to say that 21CL means different things to different folks and looks different in different places (IOW, it’s a sliding signifier), there are a number of key features which link most of them: (i) emphasis on skills over content; (ii) the translation of all there is to know and say about teachers and teaching into a discourse of learning and learners – IOW, “learnification”; (iii) a systematic instrumentalization of teachers’ work; (iv) normalization of neoliberal values as ‘common sense'; (v) a despotic politics of authority that hollows out teachers’ work and contributes to a democratic deficit in public education.

    For instance, the emphasis on skills over content that is common in most approaches to 21CL helps obfuscate the contexts that make learning – and public education – meaningful. As an example, consider a highly skilled philosopher, versed in the art of oration, logic, etc. Does that skillfulness necessarily mean that the philosopher will have anything meaningful to say? Similarly, imagine a highly skilled lawyer – adept in cross-examination, legal precedent, etc. Does that skillfulness mean that the lawyer will necessarily apply themselves ethically?

    I would suggest that it’s far more appropriate to construe ’21st-century learning’ as a corporate agenda – backed by the likes of Apple, Microsoft, Ford, Pearson, Disney, Cisco, etc. – than as a framework for helping kids to think critically. The idea is to inculcate norms of submission and hierarchy, not ‘critical inquiry’.

    I would invite Mr. Washington – and others with an interest in ’21st-century learning’ policy – to see my thesis: (De/Re)-Constructing teachers’ work: A discourse analysis of BC’s 21st-century policy agenda –

    Here’s the abstract:

    This study made use of content and discourse analysis to critically examine how the ideas of ‘good teaching’ and ‘good teachers’ were developed and used within the policy-document A Vision for 21st Century Education. Released in 2010 by British Columbia’s Premier’s Technology Council, A Vision for 21st Century Education is a localized policy that attempts to re-imagine key features of teachers and their work in ways that are consistent with the goals of the larger 21st-century policy agenda currently circulating the world. Through my use of content and discourse analysis, I show how A Vision for 21st Century Education promotes a vision of schooling that is largely a neoliberal and managerialist enterprise that relegates teachers and teaching to subordinate roles within processes of policy development and policy implementation. The study identifies two prominent discourses within A Vision for 21st Century Education: ‘learnification’ translates and reduces public education to terms of ‘learners’ and ‘learning,’ and ‘accountingization’ re-imagines teachers’ work as ‘that which can be counted.’ I take care to show how these discourses (i) are developed within the text through genre and style, modalization and passivation; and (ii) subordinate teachers beneath the values of policy makers. I argue that this relative devaluation of teachers and their work provides a basis for increased school conflicts, contributes to elevated stress among teachers, and may encourage teacher ‘burnout.’ As a point of contrast, I sketch an alternative vision of the role of teachers’ work that is grounded in democratic values and practices.

    For download access, see => https://circle.ubc.ca/handle/2429/43675

  • Lori

    Great post!

    In your ending sentence “21st Century Education is about helping people develop the ability to gain a comprehensive understanding of things”….might we say a comprehensive understanding of “things” that matter to them….” and then applying these understandings to other, (relevant- authentic) contexts”

    Thanks for sharing these important reflections