Monday, October 11, 2010

Learning In and For the 21st Century

A couple of weeks ago I attended/observed an excellent daylong professional learning day at Flagstaff Academy, a charter K8 in Longmont, Colorado. The title for the day was “EdTech 2010: Filling in the GApps.” Session topics included how to use GoogleDocs, how to use Google Forms, how to create a class website (on, you guessed it, Google Sites), and how to use Twitter and blogs to participate in professional learning networks. In the afternoon keynote address a first grade teacher described her year of learning how to integrate technology into the classroom. She provided a really helpful narrative about developing a “Take Your Teacher Home” iPod program for her students, as well as her use of iPods to help kids work on vocabulary and reading proficiency. All great stuff.

More than once during the day I heard these uses of educational technology referred to as 21st century learning. And, as such comments always do, these made me wonder, Is this 21st century learning? My answer has been changing over the years, and no doubt will continue to do so. But here’s my thinking now (12:32 p.m., MDT, 10/11/10):

We’re really talking about two related, overlapping, but distinct concepts — learning in the 21st century and learning for the 21st century.
• Learning in is about modality – using 21st century tools, media, and cultural patterns to provide learning experiences. Digital manipulatives on the InterWrite Board, students working the manipulatives on the portable tablet. Fishbowl literary discussion, with the outer circle Tweeting about what the inner circle is saying. Video Skype Q&A with scientists in Antarctica. ePals in Afghanistan.
• Learning for is about targets – aiming at knowledge that’s essential for thriving in this century (the Information Age, or Conceptual Age, or CyberAge, or Digital Age, or Age Age, whatever…). Student teams in World Languages create and maintain the website for a Hmong community. Math students present a proposed skate park design to the city council. An international robotics competition.

Just to be clear. These aren’t mutually exclusive learning processes; in fact, they’re often mutually reinforcing (though not always and not inherently). Both may yield powerful, valuable learning, depending on the quality of the instructional design. It’s just important to know which is which, since learning in strategies, however compelling, may not actually help students (or teachers) prepare to thrive in the 21st century.

So, what about that overlapping area where the learning is both in and for? How about we work on using the tools and transforming the purposes for which we use them?

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