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Too many tools and not enough thinking

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I have a dirty secret. I'm addicted to Twitter. Maybe even in love with it.

I use this social-media platform to inform my lesson planning, to see what's happening in the world, to communicate with teachers all around the globe, to present interesting articles to my classes and even to vent about a wide variety of issues.

One of the main threads on Twitter, for educators, is the notion of 21st-century learning. This concept has become an incredibly loaded and convoluted term that has spurred a huge industry of edu-preneurs, conferences and poorly written books. Not a day goes by on Twitter without one of these edu-preneurs stating the blatantly obvious about learning, or saying something nonsensical about the Top 10 ways iPads can revolutionize how we create Top 10 lists.

You can probably detect some annoyance on my part, and I apologize for the negativity. I suspect this sour attitude comes from my lack of understanding what exactly we're talking about when we say "21st-century learning" and how it often does not address what we mean by learning.

A few days ago, my colleagues and I had a staff meeting where we broke into small groups to talk about how we incorporate 21st-century skills into our practice. I became petrified as my turn to share my stories approached.

"What the hell is 21st-century learning?" I thought. "How is what I do different than what Aristotle did? How is what I do any different than what my amazing Grade 12 English teacher, George Aitkens, did in 1993 (and still does!)?"

Following my mumbling through the staff meeting, I needed to figure out what people "in the know" were labelling 21st-century learning.

So naturally, as it is the 21st century, I did a Google search and the first definition that popped up was from the B.C. government: "In 21st-century learning, students use educational technologies to apply knowledge to new situations, analyze information, collaborate, solve problems and make decisions. Utilizing emerging technologies to provide expanded learning opportunities is critical to the success of future generations."

Wait a second, hasn't good teaching and learning always been based on applying and creating knowledge? Granted, we have more gadgets and a greater ability to collaborate, but is there something revolutionary here?

I keep hearing that 21st-century learning is about preparing kids for the future. Now, unless you're some amazing wizard, how can we possibly predict the future?

If we are preparing kids for something, perhaps it is the unknown. Or it's to help them evolve and deal with change -- or to learn to be autonomous through authentic experiences.

Perhaps, and it's not novel, excellence in teaching and learning allows students the freedom to think deeply about concepts, something we have been doing for thousands of years.

In some cases, a student blog may help with this, but is a blog very much different than drawing in the sand?

My objection, I realized as I examined this trend, is that digital technology is often becoming the outcome of a learning experience, rather than a tool for creativity or intellectual growth and expression.

Next, I went to Ian Jukes' website, Jukes suggests this about learning in the 21st century: "In a 21st-century learning environment, students use higher-order thinking to create products, often digital, as solutions to relevant, real-world problems." Higher-order thinking, what Bloom refers to as the creating and evaluating stages of thought, is not new and Jukes is referring to creating a thing, an entity.

This is problematic. Education, at any level, is far more than creating a product. It is about getting closer to the truth, even if this is impossible.

So is 21st-century learning really just teaching with YouTube videos? Is it about making fake Facebook pages about prime ministers? Is it about going to conferences where we celebrate kids doing cool stuff on the Internet for the sake of doing cool stuff?

I hope not. Perhaps 21st-century learning is a very simple and old idea. It just comes down to good teaching and learning.

Take for example the horrific events of the past few weeks: the explosions during the Boston Marathon; the 7.8-magnitude earthquake in Iran along the Pakistani border; and the earthquake in China. There are so many concepts that can be deconstructed by students in all these terrible circumstances: the difference in media coverage; the history of terrorism within the United States; geological movements in the Middle East; the notion of "the other" and many more.

At the root of these concepts, however, is a fundamental need for deep thought, for autonomous rationalization and articulation, and synthesis of ideas from peers. Perhaps creating a podcast or having a Skype conversation with an expert or making videos might help with the process. But these platforms or simple tools should not overshadow the deep, rigorous thinking needed for real learning to occur.

My Grade 12 English teacher demanded we think in this way and we be creative. He treated us like adults and expected deep thought and contemplation, although we didn't always deliver. This seems to be the essence of a powerful learning environment and what needs to occur if we are to change the course of planetary events.

So now I'm quite certain 21st-century learning is good teaching -- teaching that allows students to be autonomous, is authentic and allows students to take action. It will involve new technologies just as much as we use the old analogue ones, such as pencils and glue (which I still love to use.)

Learning and teaching in this century are not about preparing kids for a technological future, but simply about teaching kids how to think deeply about concepts and then apply this new knowledge, something we have been doing since the dawn of education.

Perhaps the ancient Greeks need some royalties from contemporary edu-preneurs.

Matt Henderson is a graduate student in the faculty of education at the University of Manitoba and teaches high school social studies at St. John's-Ravenscourt School.

The Learning Curve is an occasional column written by local academics who are experts in their fields. It is open to any educator from Winnipeg's post-secondary institutions. Send 600-word submissions and a mini-bio to

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 27, 2013 J14

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