Home > 21st century learner, Curriculum > Is the term 21st Century out of date?

Is the term 21st Century out of date?

It began when Tara and I took on the task of articulating our ISB21 curriculum’s standards and benchmarks.  I voiced it in a single tweet:


Okay, some background…

Our task is to ensure that the thorough standards from both ISTE and AASL were completely represented, while remaining true to one of our original tenets:

To be a successful curriculum, one that will truly be part of students’ educational experience, it must be accessible to teachers.

This was very important to Justin and I as we began to develop our ideas and remained important to the whole ISB21 team as each member joined the conversation.  Eventually, ISTE and AASL caught up with us and now its a matter of fitting their great work into our original framework.  But the premise remains.  Past models – the best they could be in their time – generally failed because teachers did not believe it was their job to teach technology.

Now, of course, we realize that technology is merely part of a much bigger conversation about Communication, Collaboration, Innovation, and Thinking.  Online conversations, articles, video mash-ups, and tweets emerge constantly extolling the virtues of a 21st Century Curriculum for 21st Century Learners.  I know…I’ve posted a lot of them.  And we have plenty of credible backing – take ISTE, AASL, Howard Gardner’s Five Minds for the Future,  or the IB Learner Profile to name a few.  They all tell us what we want our kids to turn out like.  They all remind us what we need to value in education.

But we don’t.

At least not in action.  (GENERALIZATION ALERT:)  Schools continue to push content-driven curricula.  Teachers continue to plan lessons building expertise within the discipline.  And if students get our “21st Century Skills”, it’s because of an exception-to-the-rule teacher, choices the students make outside of class, or just plain luck.

We all know that what we need is buy-in.  We see the success stories, celebrate the schools that do it, and ultimately wonder, what does it take to make it work everywhere?  Buy-in.

So back to the teacher accessibility issue.

How do we ensure that teachers see teaching a 21st Century Curriculum as part of their job?

Our way has been to remind teachers that they have ALWAYS valued effective communication, collaboration, innovation, and thinking in their students.  Only the media and the degree to which each is possible have changed.

How we communicate, collaborate, innovate, and think IS different.  Or rather, it can be different.  We still need the ways of the past, but have added ever-changing/growing ways of the present and future.  This is the core principle of our 21st Century Skills.  They are actually 20th Century skills, maybe even 18th Century skills, only they use and will continue to use 21st Century tools.

So how do we build a real and enduring understanding of this?

Half our problem may be the terminology.  On the blogosphere (or is it “in” the blogosphere?), we all know what it means when we say “21st Century”.  It comes embedded with all sorts of extra implications, meanings, connotations, and suggestions.  We understand it, because we’ve read blog posts that converted us, seen videos that shift our understanding, conversed with global colleagues that re-shape and/or affirm our thinking, and joined 100-comment conversations that engaged us so much that we changed the very way we perceived the world, the learner, and our role in education.

But does everyone else get all that when they hear “21st Century skills”?  How could they?  They lack our experiences and our scaffolding.  Not only does it fail to carry the same perspective-shifting connotation, but at worse, may even send a message of “you neither value how I learned nor how I teach.  You are telling me that what I value is not valuable.

Perhaps that is an extreme view, but it may not  be far from the truth.  In our efforts to spread the gospel, we do our best to explain the significance, but if we want buy-in, let’s remember our audience.  Let’s tap into what our educators already buy into.  They are professional, care about kids, and want their students to succeed.  They understand and value good communication, critical thinking, and collaboration.

Don’t put them off with catch phrases and “excluding” words.  (why do we do that , by the way…blog, wiki, tweet, glog, vlog, apps…are we trying to confuse everyone?)

Instead, remind them, it’s about adapting what they already value to a world that requires new ways to do them.   Remind yourselves that your teachers have ALWAYS been trying to prepare their students to succeed in the world they will live in.  And then collaborate with them on how that world has changed.

As for what we call it instead.  I’m open to suggestions.

Stay tuned.

Image, Future or Bust, by Vermin Inc

Image, Into the future but now without the past, by janusz l

  1. October 2nd, 2009 at 06:57 | #1

    Let me be the first to post a comment on this post in your NEW BLOB. Nice new diggs buddy. It now lights a fire under me to do the same. Well done. Love the themes and the front page.

  2. November 11th, 2009 at 22:18 | #2

    Hi Dennis,

    This is a timely post and I recently had this discussion with colleagues at my school, who felt this term had lost its currency. There are a number of issues with the “21st century” label.
    I agree that it originally depicted the excitement of knowing that we had opportunities to promote new ways of learning and communicating. The term has connotations of progression and moving forward, even though now we are almost in 2010.
    However, for some people it suggests that their educational values are “old hat” or, worse, obsolete. I agree that we need a term that is inclusive but I wonder whether any term would appeal to people who remain unconvinced that there is a need for fundamental change to the way we “do school”. BTW, the new blog is lookin’ good!

  3. Dennis Harter
    November 12th, 2009 at 19:51 | #3

    You hit the nail on the head. I continue to have on-going discussion with whether the term can be replaced with anything, because for some it now has significant meaning and it would be difficult to re-capture that in any other term. They say, “fine, change it, but what are you going to change it to?” To which, I still have no great answer.

    I do know this: the learning we value is not really that different, though I must say that I have not seen it articulated explicitly in many “old hat” curricula – so I think we’ve done well to say, “hey this is important, so we need to make sure we formalize it into our school intended (and taught and learned) curriculum.”

    But back to my point, the learning we value isn’t a new set of values. But the media and audience with which those values have changed/shifted.

    We cannot allow schools or individual teachers to say that their kids communicate and collaborate well, if they only do so in the context of their own classroom. In the same way, we would never allow someone to say that their students are experts in managing information if they only have used books and microfiche (do those still exist).

    In the latter case, most people get this. So why not with the former?

    I as yet, have no better term, and ultimately I wish that teachers would not infer from improvements to students’ learning experiences that we no longer value what they know and have to offer. Maybe the fundamental principle of teacher training should be “always get better…what you know now will need to change as the world does.” Maybe then we won’t have this problem with the wave of teachers.


  1. September 23rd, 2009 at 08:51 | #1