Note: This article is one in a series featuring Eagle County Schools in Colorado and their efforts and visions about how to effectively create a 21st century learning experience.
“If education is always to be conceived along the same antiquated lines of a mere transmission of knowledge, there is little to be hoped from it in the bettering of man's future.” — Maria Montessori
The work of education is always focused on the future. The fruits of the labor of educators are not realized until many years after instruction has taken place. The future is an increasingly complex landscape replete with innovation, technology, and as yet unforeseen challenges.
The children now in second grade will graduate as the class of 2020, and it is incumbent upon educators to begin envisioning the world they will enter and the skills they will need to compete in that world. Eagle County Schools (ECS) has formed a “2020 Vision Task Force” to help generate innovative ideas that will fuel the future design and practice of our schools.
Defining and Designing 21st Century Learning
Twenty-first century learning is a term that has gained significant traction in the last several years as educators attempt to redefine the requisite set of skills and knowledge with which students need to possess. A common misconception about 21st century skills is that they revolve around popular and emerging technologies. As we refine our understanding of 21st century learning and uncover its multiple components, it becomes evident that technology, while essential to engaging students and equipping them with the tools needed to thrive in our modern world, is only one of several ingredients that must be combined for a holistic 21st century education.
The 2020 Vision Task Force at ECS is comprised of district leaders and secondary teachers from across the curriculum who share the common ideal that we must significantly transform our educational system in order to prepare our students to be productive members of tomorrow’s economy. This task force has been reviewing various sets of standards for 21st century learning forwarded by groups such as the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the American Association of School Librarians and Colorado’s state legislature. The differences between the standards are primarily semantic, with considerable alignment in most areas. The common themes that emerge from these various frameworks are that children need to not only master core academic content but must be proficient with a set of skills in the following areas:
- Life and career skills
- Learning and innovation skills
- Information, media and technology skills
The Task Force draws ideas and information from many of the above sources under the belief that there are a plethora of resources available for schools that are committed to transforming into 21st century learning centers. Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow Today (ACOT2) is one of the groups championing this cause. Through collaboration with various educational agencies, ACOT2 has identified six design principals for the 21st century high school. They are:
- Understanding of 21st century skills and outcomes
- Relevant and applied curriculum
- Informative assessment
- A culture of innovation and creativity
- Social and emotional connections with students
- Ubiquitous access to technology
These principals are embodied by the concept of Challenge Based Learning (CBL) advanced by ACOT2. According to the “CBL White Paper” published by Apple Inc. in 2009, “Challenge Based Learning applies what is known about the emerging learning styles of high school students today. It discusses and leverages the student’s unique learning styles with powerful new technologies that provide opportunities to learn through an authentic process that challenges students to solve problems and make a difference.” Teachers participating in the 2020 Vision Task Force have been designing units of study based around the CBL model to engage students and prepare them for real-world problems.
Elementary schools in ECS are also practicing the development of 21st century learning skills through incorporating many advanced technologies found in their classrooms. They are using advanced technologies such as notebook computers, LCD panels, high-speed wireless networks, document cameras and a robust set of online learning services including Discovery Video Streaming. However, the main focus is not about the technologies, but how ECS teachers are constructing their lessons through good pedagogy utilizing the broader 21st century frameworks for learning.
Creativity in Motion
Internationally renowned creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson advises that, “Creativity is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”
Following this recommendation, the 2020 Vision Task Force members are working together to model 21st century learning in their own exploration of the topic. As will be expected of the final unit of study with which they will eventually present to their students, teachers in the task force have been charged with work that encompasses the following broad guidelines:
- Collaboration: The project is collaborative. Teachers will model collaboration by working together to design projects that span traditional curricular definitions.
- Alignment: The project is aligned with the proposed standards for 21st century learning as laid out by the Colorado Department of Education and the ECS School Board.
- Objectives, activities and assessment: The project includes clear objectives, detailed descriptions of learning activities, plans for formative and summative assessment, and criteria to measure student success.
- Technology: The use of technology is ubiquitous throughout the project. Students and teachers are using a variety of contemporary technological tools to research, communicate and produce.
- Documentation: The development of the project is documented in a multimedia format allowing for easy analysis, collaboration and replication.
The success of the project, as well as its potential lasting educational impact on the students engaged in the project, will be largely determined by the creative inputs involved in the design process. Teachers must do more than think outside of the box when it comes to designing meaningful learning experiences for 21st century learners. They must shatter any boxes of antiquated notions of what education should look like and open an uncharted field of opportunities for students to explore and invent through innovation — our nation’s real strength in the new global market place.