Education: 21st-century learners

Martin Levins
31 January, 2011
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We still hear pundits talking about 21st century learning, even after the ‘noughties’ have well and truly finished and we’ve completed one year of the next decade. In other words, we’re more than 10 percent of the way through the period that the term ‘21st-century learner’ is meant to describe.

How far have we come to realise this miserable moniker? Good teachers have long understood that powerful learning is all about the relationship – starting a conversation between teacher and student.

Last year Sir David Attenborough described how, at the age of 14, he found his first fossil. His father asked him, “Why do you think you find it in the middle of England when it’s obviously a sea creature?”

Note this was not a statement that explained why the fossil was there. Attenborough’s father didn’t ‘teach’ him in the common usage of the word in his day. He didn’t pass on knowledge; he sparked curiosity.

In the 1900s, working on a production line, the knowledge we needed could be written in a few books – the ones we schlepped between school and home.

Information is now so ubiquitous and accessible we have the reverse problem of too much information which requires the sophisticated filtering system of experiential learning – we’ve realised that our brains are also important.

Apple’s Challenge Based Learning approach ( provides for such depth, encouraging students to leverage the technology they use in their daily lives to solve real-world problems. Collaborative and hands-on, it asks students to work with others to develop a deeper knowledge, accept and solve challenges, take action and share their experience.

More of a MythBusters approach (although with fewer explosions), it is based on a big idea leading to an essential question – which, in turn, gives rise to a challenge.

In Apple’s pilot study, O’Neill Junior-Senior High School in Nebraska asked, ‘What is apathy and how does it affect our school community?’ The challenge was to transform apathy into engagement.

A cynic may say that a technology company is clearly trying to push its own barrow here, but Challenge Based Learning has a prestigious past – that of the Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow project initiated in 1985. It is essentially a multidisciplinary approach, which will also provide a special challenge to teachers dealing with balkanised curricula hell-bent on the NAPLAN approach of one success in one test every two years.

It differs significantly from the approach of other technology companies evidenced by the Lego Mindstorms ‘education’ site which claims: ‘To save you time we have done the programming for you, ready to use in class.’

Hey guys – the 18th century called. They want their pedagogy back.


2 people were compelled to have their say. We encourage you to do the same..

  1. Greg Alchin says:

    Ahh Martin, as always clear concise and and challenging! Keep up the great work!

  2. Rev George Davies says:

    Very important stuff, but as with the Lego example, too easily forgotten.
    As a former teacher, my training was that it is fundamental to establish an environment in which learning is enhanced. That is about engagement, stimulation, motivation etc. as Martin describes.
    My wife,Peg, is involved in waste education – recycling etc etc. She visits schools where well-meaning parents and teachers have established a garden, bought compost and built a worm farm for their students. Peg says no – it works when the [primary age] students are pushing the wheelbarrows, digging holes, shovelling compost layers, handling worms…… then of course they are thrilled at the outcomes of what they have built.
    There is a strong relation to drug education also. Right wing protagonists for prohibition of cannabis/marijuana talk about “education” with “drug aware” pamphlets and patronising talks about the dangers of substances. Good education of course involves interaction, openness, honesty. A student says “I am smoking dope and sometimes use acid or speed as well – what effects to I have to be careful about?” In most schools, under prohibition, the student is likely to be suspended for admitting use of an illegal substance. So the student doesn’t ask the question and the “education” reverts to a “jug to mug” lecture. The credibility of the “educator” goes down the gurgler and friends or dealer are the preferred source. In this case, prohibition gets in the way of education. Who will educate the educators”
    Regards, George Davies

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