September 18, 2011

ABC – The 21st Century Learning Model

For those that know me, I started out my career many moons ago as a K-12 educator.

For some of you, I’m sure you’re thinking, “what a lunatic”.

I only lasted three years but I look back on those years, nevertheless, with the fondest of memories.

Truth be told though, I didn’t last because I was in the minority.

As a 25 year-old trying to uproot the education system to become more collaborative, more open, more connected, I was leery of falling into the ambivalence pit of staffroom rhetoric. I was in the minority of trying to bring the education system to its knees. Why had it remained a system unchanged for the past five centuries? Why wasn’t there a change afoot?

But, alas, I was young, naïve and perhaps a little pig-headed.

Fast forward many moons later, through career stops in higher education and the corporate world of learning and collaboration, I’m finally coming back to those K-12 days.

I’m back because the so-called 21st Century Learning movement is no longer trying to merely flank the system; it’s a full-frontal assault.

And that’s bringing an ear-to-ear smile to this follicly challenged head.

I’ve always considered the education space to be somewhat similar in overall intent regardless of audience. Whether at the K-12 bracket, higher education or corporate, I’ve had the fortune of working in and with all three audience groups. Learning is forever part formal, informal and social.

As it relates specifically to the K-12 domain, however, I believe the entire spectrum (administrators, parents, teachers, students, publishers, vendors, politicians, etc.) requires one simple model to help shift the thinking and to bring the discourse to a state of actually doing something about it. Enough talk, let’s get on with it.

For the past few years, I’ve been mentally musing such a model for the K-12 domain.

It may not yet be fully formulated, but it’s as good a time as ever to put it ‘out there’ to get your feedback and thoughts, should you be so inclined to help bring it over the finish line.

And to be clear, I’m not referring to the skills that are often referenced in 21st Century Learning discussions. I’m focusing my efforts on three pillars that need to be thought through in order to bring 21st Century Learning thinking to actual production. It’s not the ‘how’ of 21st Century Learning, but it’s the ‘what we need’ to be successful point of view. I’m also not discussing budgets; various levels of government, industry, school boards, unions and the like simply need to get on with this evolution.


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Access (A)

WirelessPic2Michelangelo was quoted as saying, “Ancora Imparo”, or if you’re not fluent in Italian, “I am still learning”. To me, learning is positively porous. Learning happens at all times of the day, through all mediums, and certainly not solely in the walls of a classroom. We don’t learn from a teacher in isolation; we learn with various teachers and a million other variables in formal, informal and social ways.

Access is providing the holistic environment that permits the learning to actually occur at all times of the day regardless of physical or virtual locale the student might visit.

Access should include:

  • Devices (laptops, tablets, flipcams, media centers, etc.)
  • Networks (wireless, wifi, home access, cellular)
  • Open Physical Space (rethinking the architecture & layout of a school)
  • Impaired (thought given to the ~10% of the population with various disabilities)

Access is redesigning the learning experience from one stuck in the 19th century of a single schoolroom model to one that runs parallel with the way in which society has evolved. Access is providing an experience that allows the student to connect, collaborate and communicate with fellow students at any point in time, through any medium, and at any location. It is about being online, sure, but it’s also about being located in a physical space that accommodates collaborative discussions face-to-face.

Access should be thought of as the new bedrock of K-12. Without it, we’re simply slapping icing on a burnt cake.

Bottom line: we need to provide students, teachers and administrators with an environment that addresses the four bullet points outlined above.

Behaviour (B)

behaviourLet’s face it, there are several divides at play here.

For starters, the level of digital competence of our students compared with many (certainly not all) teachers, administrators et al is significant.

Secondly, the thought of treating students as a customer of the education system is as large a divide out there.

Thirdly, the time allowed to teachers to conquer various divides of their own (new teaching styles, utilizing technology in the teaching process, being more collaborative with other teachers/schools, eradicating the photocopier – gasp!) is enormous. Is it being addressed in the B.Ed programs either?

Fourthly, the divide between student and parent is growing to epidemic levels. Parents are busy, I get it, but this one might scare me the most.

Fifthly, where is industry? Why did it take Bill Gates this long to ‘give back’ to the K-12 space … noble and cool as his work has become. The divide between industry and the K-12 sector is one that can easily be overcome.

Lastly, the various and contentious divides between teaching unions, governments and school boards is one divide that needs to be cemented shut once and for all.

We need to change our collective behaviour. We need to unlearn what we’ve all learned. We need a new normal.

Behaviours that need to be considered include:

  • Teaching professional development; we can’t enact 21st Century Schools with 19th Century teaching tactics. Let’s find a way to upgrade the teaching process with our current teachers, giving them the time to incorporate new concepts and techniques. Let’s get radical. Let’s also ensure teachers start thinking of their students as ‘customers’, for those not already employing this behaviour.
  • Bachelor of Education program overhaul; I once wrote about the B.Ed program being the ‘root of all evil’. No one paid attention to that post either. Universities are culpable in this scenario and need to change the behaviour of their teacher education programs as fast as they can to incorporate a new way of teaching.
  • 5-Way Student Collaboration; the behaviour of collaborating itself can be found over here, but in the context of our students, we need to instil collaboration as their default behaviour. Think of it this way:
    • Students need to be able to connect & collaborate with:
      • Student(s) of their school
      • Teacher(s) of their school
      • Student(s) of other schools
      • Teacher(s) of other schools
      • Industry / External Opportunities
  • Learning occurs in the context of collaborating; by making this the default behaviour, they are encouraged to be open, to work with others, to utilize the ‘Access’ vehicles from above in order to achieve their deliverables, goals, assignments, etc.
  • The Parent Contract; the behaviour of the parent has to change. No longer should the parent be recused from participating in the learning journey of the student. Therefore, parental behaviours should be changed such that they actually become part of the journey itself by mandating participation of the parent over the ‘Access’ points from above, and through the ‘Community’ points addressed below.
  • The Backroom Contract; those involved in union management, government and school board administration simply have to enlist a new behaviour of partnership. What role model are you setting when there is simply a divide between your camps? How collaborative is that in the eyes of your customers, the students?

Community (C)

communityK-12 schools might just be the best definition of a community.

But is it the right type of community for 2011 and beyond?

If we’ve agreed that ‘Access’ is important to ensure 21st Century Learning can actually take shape, and that a radical upgrade/redo of various ‘Behaviours’ are important to help us cross the finish line, ‘Community’ is equally important because it’s the way we should be teaching going forward.

Community can be defined as follows:

  • Changes to the curriculum that incorporates 21st Century Learning ‘Skills’ into the pedagogy
    • Curriculum that doesn’t focus on the textbook but on the community of learning – the embracement of collaborative assignments, lesson plans and multi-disciplinary projects with other classes, other schools, and/or with industry
    • Ways in which to informally and socially connect with a student’s network (virtually and face-to-face)
    • Use of collaboration platforms and social technologies that encourage and foster the learning experience
      • This can be the vehicle that taps students into other schools, industry, external groups as well as ‘The Parent Contract’
      • And no, I’m not solely suggesting slapping together Moodle or Blackboard — let’s ensure we’re building a fully functioning, highly interactive and engaging Web 2.0 collaboration platform consisting of all pertinent technologies that help drive the behaviour changes alluded to above
      • Community Community; addressing ways to drive students into their actual home communities to practice (and learn) in real-world scenarios.


abc_blocksOver the past few months, I’ve had the privilege of speaking with several Ministries/Departments of Education and a few individual schools as well. Some of it was based on the TEDx talk I delivered in 2010, some through work circles and some through the wonderful world of social networks.

This particular post is intended to solidify those conversations into something more concrete for future purposes.

I don’t believe 21st Century Learning can truly take shape unless all three components of the ABC model are addressed in parallel. They might not all come to fruition at the same time, but within the various discussions that a school/school board/government might have to kick-start 21st Century Learning into action, all three ABC’s must be considered.

Again, feel free to use … but also, feel free to comment positively or constructively.

PS. There are all sorts of other great 21st Century Learning models and thoughts out there. A few that I’d like to highlight include:

  • Johnny Bevacqua, Principal of St. Patrick Regional Secondary School in Vancouver, British Columbia put his school’s 21st Century Learning vision online on his personal blog
  • The Kansas State Board of Education has published their 21st Century Learning vision
  • The British Columbia Premiers Technology Council published a report entitled, “A Vision for 21st Century Education” (Disclosure: I participated in the creation of said report)
  • America’s Federal Government has launched “Digital Promise”. Although not a 21st Century Learning vision, per se, it is created “to support a comprehensive research and development program to harness the increasing capacity of advanced information and digital technologies to improve all levels of learning and education, formal and informal, in order to provide Americans with the knowledge and skills needed to compete in the global economy.”
  • Napa Valley Unified School District’s model is available over here
  • The East Syracuse Minoa Central School District published their model and several corresponding documents
  • Of course there is the hugely popular YouTube video entitled “A Vision of K-12 Students Today
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