Monday, 31 March 2014

21st Century Learning

I get nervous when I hear people talk about ‘21st century education’.  In my business I hear it a lot, from the current Government, from colleges and from friends.  It’s a buzz word that pushes all my buttons.  So why do I find it so threatening? Because it is usually used with a vague reference to technology and distance learning, with the implication that by using technology we improve learning.  It is promoted with the idea of greater access (not quality) and the specifics are very rarely defined.  Press the speaker harder on the specifics such as 'how' it will improve learning outcomes and the arguments are not as compelling.

There are advantages.  In my opinion 21st century technology, such as computers and tablets, enables three opportunities to improve upon 20th century mathematics education.    

  1. Clarity of expression
  2. Clarity of representation
  3. Playfulness/experimentation with feedback

By clarity of expression I mean the ability to provide the learner a coherent explanation of the concepts being taught.  The learner can then repeat the viewing as necessary.  In the classroom, even experienced teachers speak in half sentences, um and ah, and generally convolute the message.  Believe me, I have transcribed hours of recorded real class interactions – people don’t speak good (that’s a joke by the way).  When using technology you can plan the message and get it right.

Clarity of representation.  To understand mathematics you need to have mental models of the concepts under operation.  No mental model and you will suck at maths.  It’s that simple.  Using technology we can create great visual models of the concepts being taught.  We can also create a range of models so if one doesn't quite work we have others that might suit the learner better.  These should be massively powerful in visually demonstrating the concepts the learner is seeking.

Lastly, the representations should be provided in an environment in which learners can experiment and get immediate feedback.  They should be able to stack things up, pull things down, twist, bend, and stretch stuff.  They should be able to see what happens when you do or do not do something.  The more the better.

So, next time you hear ‘21st century education' or 21st century learning’ ask some questions about what they mean.  Those are my three criteria – what are yours? 


  1. When I think about 21st century learning I think about these things: the fact that the internet changes everything (for better or worse), the increasing fragmentation of everything (not necessarily a bad thing), and that education hasn't really felt the disruption that print, music, and film have had over the last 20 years. Nor for that matter has Law and Government...

    1. Bit of a delayed replay eh! Only took me two years. I was reading something the other day where a guy said, "If education was going to change it would have done so with the introduction of print technology. Books suddenly allowed information to be transfered- read anytime anywhere. Yet kids still sit in classrooms." This was in response to the 'COOl' idea floated by the MoE. Interesting perspective. Maybe the lack of change has more to do with institutionalized teaching. The whole thing has to be undone?

  2. It's funny that education has been so slow to respond. I think those big power structures are very change resistant. They have tried to use the internet as a way of extending their reach but still used the old model. Those other industries were huge (music etc) but education is uniquely intertwined into Government funding and the populations psyche. One key issue I think is that large educational organisations are run by business people not educators, and therefore have huge blind spots. Smaller businesses understand the business needs and the changing potential of education. But it sure is taking a long time. Dragonbox is a good example. That company (I forget their name) is producing innovative products outside of the mainstream. And winning by the looks of it. ALEC is another.