Thinking in generalities about 21st century education

It’s not often that I speak in generalities about 21st century/future focused education. Usually when I speak at conferences and things I speak very practically – I show examples and videos of kids; and discuss what I think 21st Century teaching and learning looks like in an average, mainstream classroom. So I was rather worried when I was asked to present to the Northern Health School staff. These are teachers without a regular classroom; they certainly don’t have 30 students under their watch at any given time; they work with unwell students and with kids of all different ages. This, paired with the fact I had a rather limited time slot to fill meant I had a challenge on my hands!

I do like a challenge, so this is what I came up with:

I showed the audience the following video, and asked them to ponder what has changed and what has remained the same in education since the 50s. The teachers also discussed what should change and what should remain the same.

…And here is (vaguely – I added more detail in as I went) what I shared with the teachers…

The aim for me today is to share some ideas I’ve been gathering from my own experience, from fellow educators and from reading a bit of research into this. I hope that, from this, you can think a bit more about what this buzz word means for you, your students, and your school.

How many times have you attended a conference and a picture just like this (old classroom) has come up on screen? People talk an awful lot about how we need to move pedagogical practice into the 21st century…

But aren’t we already here???

The problem is, we know we have to change, we know why we have to change, we’ve read books and perused glossy diagrams, but we’re not sure what we actually have to do to make our practice “21st century”

Is it the environment? Is it e-learning? Is it competences? Is it curriculum? Is it the teacher? Is it the students?

I think it’s all of these things.


After watching and discussing the video…

The narrator says: “In their tiny hands, they hold the future” – That’s the same, of course, and always will be. But the future for students at school in the 50s was vastly different for the students we teach now.

I’m sure you’ve heard all the facts –

  • About 130 million children will be born by the end of the year, into a knowledge/ information economy that is technologically rich.
  • We’re looking at an economy where China is becoming a super power and Asia awareness is becoming more important.
  • Gone are the days where you stick with one career in one organisation until you retire and get a gold watch.
  • The US dept of education estimates that today’s learners will have 10-14 jobs by the time they’re 38.
  • And we don’t even know what sort of jobs we are educating students for – The top ten in-demand jobs of 2010, didn’t even exist in 2004.
  • Exponential change, enormous technological advances and the vast swathes of information available defines our world.

So, as an education system, we need to churn out quite different students from those of the 50s, or even those of the “naughties”. The trouble is, that we know all of this, we just don’t know quite how to put it into practice. I’d like to talk to you today about a few key aspects I think are vital for a 21st Century classroom.

Because, if you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep on getting what you’ve always got.

Effective practice from 10, 20 years ago isn’t necessarily effective practice today.



Number 1, in no particular order, is the huge difference between teaching kids to be taught or teaching them to learn.

The narrator talks about students “Fitting easily into the habits of a student”

What compliant behaviors do we encourage compared to teaching students how to learn? How effectively do your students learn without you?

In mainstream schools, we have such a factory model of education. Bells to eat and to clock in and out, sitting up straight, churning out students in batches based on little more than age…. – From my understanding, NHS is in such an enviable position with regards to this!

Of course reading, writing and arithmetic are important. Of course we need to know, but how much time is spent teaching how to do? How to learn? How to be successful in the world?


Distilling the information I’ve come across recently, I think these skills and competencies are key for our students , though by no means is it an exhaustive list:

  • Global and cultural awareness
  • Independence
  • Collaboration
  • Self awareness
  • Problem solving and problem finding
  • Creativity
  • Thinking
  • Reflecting

Now here’s a word that’s bandied about a fair bit at the moment: personalisation.

Even Goofy is said to have “A complete understanding of his pupils.” To me, personalisation is two fold: Personalisation of learning by the teacher for students and students personalising their own learning. Of course, strong formative assessment practice is key to make this happen successfully.


If students have the skills to be an effective learner, if they know their goals and what they need to work on, then the locus of control can happily switch more from teacher to student. In the movie, Goofy is always in control – he sits/stands at the front, kids all sing the roll, he says, with authority, “we will now learn geography…”

I wonder if kids care about those country names? I wonder if they could have more say about their learning? I wonder if they get a choice as to how they will be assessed on their new found knowledge?

Goofy is said to know his students well, but what does he do with this knowledge? Does he use it in the classroom? Are kids able to be in their element in at school? Is the learning real to them, or just in the text book?


We have such flexibility in the NZC that many constraints we have, are really enforced by ourselves. To be a 21st Century teacher in New Zealand, I think we need to utilise the autonomy allowed in the curriculum and ensure the learner is central to all that we do.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s