Scott D. Phillipps, Ed.D.
21st Century Learning?
In current educational literature the term “21st century learning” is about as ubiquitous as the cell phone. The term is an impressive prosaism, which can make any professional educator appear to have his or her finger on the proverbial pulse of educational progress. Beneath this arcane terminology, however, lies an important underlying question: What does 21st century learning look like, and what does it mean in practical terms?
I believe, for many schools, 21st century learning means little more than pouring money into the morass of classroom technology. Recently, two local independent schools (one of which was the school where my wife teaches) became “iPad Schools.” In response, I went to several conferences and talked to a number of different schools who had implemented iPad programs to help determine if we should become an iPad school. At each conference and in each school, I asked the teachers and administrators: “How do iPads improve student learning outcomes?” Not one person was able to give me a clear answer. The best people could offer was that “iPads are fun” and “our parents expect us to do something.” Meanwhile, all of the students and teachers at my wife’s independent school have been given some nifty and expensive toys that have not, as far as she can tell, substantially changed classroom teaching practices in any meaningful way. This rush towards technology for its own sake is an unacceptable state of affairs. In every decision we make as educational leaders we must ask the question, “How does this decision affect student learning outcomes?” If we are unable to determine that a given decision positively affects our students, then we should seriously question our motives for that decision.
I do not mean to imply that technology integration is not important–it is. We need to give our students access to the tools they will need to be successful in college and in the workplace. We also need to try to pursue technology to find ways to engage our students. However, we need to make sure that our movement towards technology is fully integrated into the learning and skills that will help our students and teachers evolve as life-long learners. Today, in the information age, our students are bombarded with so much information from so many sources, that it is difficult for them to discern truth from invention and validity from invalidity. To that end, we have moved into an era where our emphasis in school must be on finding information, synthesizing that information, and creating something new with our knowledge.
Even 80 years ago, Albert Einstein understood that “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Moreover, in the past 20 years, Bloom’s Taxonomy has been reordered to place, “Creating” above “Evaluating.” Yet, where and how often do we test for creativity in our schools? How do we measure a student’s ability to evaluate? Few would argue that our students should not be operating on the highest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, yet inexplicably, the United States’ education system has moved increasing towards emphasis on the very lowest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy: “Remembering” and “Understanding.” The high-stakes testing regime that dominates public education is but one example of our educational priorities moving away from the types of learning our children need in the 21st century. Somehow, we have come to believe that by testing and re-testing and engaging in “drill and kill” teaching techniques, we can improve our nation’s educational standing. We seem to be ignoring the simple truth that is so aptly expressed in the old Iowa farm adage: “You can’t fatten a cow by weighing it.” What we need, in fact, is a different and dynamic approach to teaching and learning, not an approach that attempts to measure knowledge at the expense of imagination and that leads to schooling in which our students must “gear down” to function effectively in class.
The Five C’s + One
With great interest, I have followed the blog of Pat Bassett, the President of NAIS. Mr. Bassett has elucidated a very clear and concise picture of what we should be emphasizing in independent schools of the future. In a series of articles, he expounds on “The Five C’s + One.” These C’s are: creativity, character, critical thinking, communication, cosmopolitanism, and collaboration. Suffice to say that I wholeheartedly endorse his epistle. Bassett asserts that “quality schooling teaches not subjects so much as a handful of essential skills and values that, when they stick, result in graduates who are ethical and successful contributors and leaders in their families, their communities, the workplace, and the world.” 
While explicating all six of these values would take up more space than this format allows, creativity and character deserve particular attention, because I believe those values are so very lacking in our educational system.
As Pat Bassett points out, we need to pose questions which excite our students and then give them the time to answer those questions. That is when true learning takes place. Teachers need to reflect on what creative processes can be used to help students learn particular objectives. In fact, this emphasis on creativity should permeate everything we do as teachers. That is not to say that there is no place for basic knowledge—after all, if students don’t have facts, they will be unable to validly and reliably apply information. However, when possible, students should be allowed to explore, research, apply, analyze, and evaluate information they have acquired, and then generate something new from that process. I believe teachers, generally, do a good job of this in early childhood education, but in the rush to cover the curriculum, teachers move away from exploration and collaboration the further along students get in the educational process.
Fortunately, creativity is readily integrated with global education, technology integration, collaborative learning, arts education, and communication. Again, there is not room here to fully explicate this idea, but it is certainly crucial that our students work readily on the highest level of Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy. Moreover, it is important that students are allowed to learn deeply, as well as broadly.
We are obliged to provide students with a firm foundation in moral and ethical character. Given that our children have a wealth of information at their disposal, the key question should be, “What will they do with that information?” As a parent, what I hope most for my children is not that they win a Nobel Prize or a World Cup, but rather that they be decent, kind, and that they seek to serve others. However, that notion is probably not shared with many of our parents who value status, wealth, and admission to the most selective colleges. Still, we must try to teach our students key components of character development: persistence, empathy, integrity, responsibility, fairness, and respect. As it turns out, though, it is not a zero-sum game. The research supports the notion that students with attributes that we associate with high moral character are also the most successful people in life.
The best way we can teach persistence in school is to allow our children to fail, and to teach them that there is value in learning from our failures. Now, more than ever, what we must emphasize is that only those who do nothing make no mistakes. We have to remind our parents that experience is what you get when you do not get what you want. Or as Winston Churchill put so well, “Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”
Relative to empathy, I firmly believe that character is about how one treats others. Part of successfully educating our children is teaching them how others should be treated. Abigail Van Buren (“Dear Abby”) said it well – “The best index to a person's character is how he treats people who can't do him any good, and how he treats people who can't fight back.” I believe that a major component of character development is teaching students how to treat those people from whom you have nothing to gain. It is not how they treat their teacher, it is not how they treat their coach, and it’s not how they treat the captain of the football team. It’s how they treat the classmate whose personal grooming habits annoy them. It is how they treat that kid at the lunch table who doesn’t know how to end a story and just doesn’t seem to know how to fit in. It is how they treat the people with whom they have nothing in common, or whose race, religion, or sexual preference they don’t understand.
Included in this concept is the necessity of participating in the act of service. I often tell the students at my current school that they need not feel guilty that they are children of privilege. What they need to do is recognize that they are privileged, and act accordingly. They are morally obligated, I believe, to use their privileged position to help others. Service, therefore, should be a real and tangible part of any school curriculum.
In short, there are a great many challenges facing independent school education in the 21st century. However, in this “Culture of Change” we must be vigilant in questioning our educational philosophy and underlying assumptions, and we must be reflective in our practice. Fortunately, there is no better venue to exercise true flexibility and to embrace change than in the independent school. Truly, independent schools are poised to take the lead in helping our nation’s educational system regain its standing in the world. For any independent school that wishes to truly embrace 21st century learning, embracing technology is not nearly enough. I believe the values of creativity, character, critical thinking, communication, cosmopolitanism, and collaboration must play an absolutely central role.