Monday, December 29, 2008

21st Century Skills vs. 21st Century Learning

Am I splitting hairs? Or is there, like I'm postulating, a crucial difference between the two?

If you buy in to my subsequent argument, that there is a difference, then perhaps you'll agree that we might not be focusing on the right area with educational reform in Iowa.

The conception of 21st century skills is that there are skills out there that are essential to having a job in today's marketplace. Be it critical thinking, creativity, or technological ability, you will need these skills to be successful. In this essence, our work on the Iowa Core is hitting the target, since it outlines those very skills.

But, that isn't the same as saying that students actually learn in a different way in the 21st century.

Pose the question this way: Like all trendy models of educational reform, I can identify the skill of "problem solving" as a top one of my Iowa Core-infused curriculum. To reach this objective, I put in a plethora of problems that students need to solve. We put in some complex math problems, scientific questions, document-based questions in social studies, the whole gamut. But while the skill has changed, has the way students are being asked to learn changed? They will still be using a cognitive learning theory approach, as they had before, but with perhaps more rigor involved (and a focus on "problem solving" as opposed to "comprehension").

It is the difference between content and instruction. Or in other words, the "what" students learn versus the "how" they learn it. And, students will struggle to "learn" problem solving much as they have done to learn comprehension.

In this period of time, students learn through the building of connections and the formation of networks. Learning is ongoing, process-oriented. It does not finish with an end product (as in constructivism) an end skill (as in behaviorism) or an end conceptual piece of knowledge (as in cognitivism). The learning is connectivist in nature. It is critical to aid this process through the inclusion of web 2.0 technologies.

Don't get me wrong; a focus on 21st century skills is a good thing! But it misses a substantial part of the issue we are facing. We must put a majority of our reformational energies into moving us to 21st century teaching and learning, not just 21st century content. This discussion with districts and teachers must include how does connectivism look and work in a classroom.

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