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New Directions

The Three New Pillars of 21st Century Learning

What happens when our basic assumptions about schooling no longer apply?

The textbook, The lecturer and the classroom are three pillars of modern-day schooling that date back hundreds of years. Each was invented to solve a problem.

The textbook was invented because information was scarce, the lecturer because teachers were few and the classroom because learning was local. These enduring icons persist into the Internet age, shaping our view of learning and driving the popularity of their digital grandchildren, things like iPad “textbooks” and the Kahn Academy “lectures.”

There’s just one catch – these problems don’t exist anymore. In the 21st Century, the Internet has ushered in an online learning environment where information is abundant, teachers are plentiful and learning is global. If you’re connected, you can select your own content, choose your own teachers and decide the time and place for your learning. It’s a personalized, mobile, student-driven environment that changes the game for educators, but it can’t penetrate the walls of our schools until we knock down the old pillars supporting the current system.

To put it simply – we need new pillars for learning. We need to think through the implications of an “always-on” global network of people and information for our curriculum, instruction and assessment. If we’re honest, we’ll admit that this environment changes everything, and that the current pillars are crumbling and can’t be repaired. I think it will take a while to get the new pillars right, but I submit the following as a starting point for the conversation – three new pillars of learning for the 21st Century.

Pillar #1: “I’m only one of my students’ teachers, but I’m the most important because I teach them to connect to all the others.” Implication area: Instruction

This is perhaps the most fundamental shift in our assumptions – how we envision the role of the teacher in the classroom. In a connected world, the times of a teacher flying solo are over. Every educator needs to embrace a new role, in which they see themselves as a facilitator, connecting students not only to information, but more importantly, to a network of teachers that spans the globe. It’s possible that, in the future, schools will evaluate instruction with the question, “how many teachers are in each classroom?”

Pillar #2: “My students should learn from me how to learn without me.” Implication area: Curriculum

Being a lifelong learner is in the mission statement of most schools, but this goal has never been more attainable than it is today. When thinking about the curriculum at your school, ask yourself “When do they learn to build networks of learning?” At what grade in elementary school do experts start working with students in the classroom? We need to insert into our content teaching how to build networks quickly, safely and effectively. It’s these networks that will sustain our students’ learning long after they’ve left our schools.

Pillar #3: “My students’ knowledge lies not only in their minds but in their networks.” Implication area: Assessment

This might be the hardest shift of all – changing our assessments to recognize that a person’s knowledge is no longer limited to their brain, but is extended by their network. One of the core skills we need to measure is a student’s ability to retrieve information quickly and efficiently by leveraging their personal network of people and information. In fact, schools may need to envision a culminating assessment, wherein graduating students need to demonstrate a personalized, mature, and diversified global network.

Building a new foundation is never easy, especially since we don’t have the luxury of knocking down our current systems of schooling and starting over.

But we need to have the courage to not just digitize the textbook, the lecture and the classroom. We need to have the courage to create new pillars, based on new assumptions. Only then will our school really arrive at 21st Century learning.

Rob Mancabelli is a speaker, writer and education consultant. He is the co-author of Personal Learning Networks: Using the Power of Connections to Transform Education (Solution Tree Press, 2011).