Saturday, October 15, 2011

Personalized, 21st Century Learning

Throughout Canada, and across many countries around the world, the movement for reform in education is significant. Many authors and experts are discussing terms like "21st Century Learning" and "Personalized Learning".  The group of Secondary Principals in the Richmond School District decided a few weeks ago to begin reading and discussing the terms as part of their professional development.  We started by looking over the Ministry of Education's Interactive Discussion Guide.  Since going through it, I have engaged in several conversations with colleagues, staff and students, and have done further reading on the topic (21st Century Learning on the Ministry site, and The Premier's Technology Council Vision for 21st Century Education as well as blog posts like "The 'New' Ministry Initiative"), and while excited by the rich conversations and thinking the topics have resulted in, I have more questions than answers about how "Personalized, 21st Century Learning" is going to evolve.

If I am honest with myself, while I am aware of the definitions, I am less clear on how I see these things ultimately manifesting themselves in our schools.  I have seen literature that discusses the Eight C's (Critical Thinking, Creativity, Collaboration, Cross-cultural Understanding, Communication, Computing, Career plus Caring for Self and the Environment) and Three R's (Reading, Writing and Numeracy) of 21st Century Learning, and understand that for learning to be Personalized, we need to provide options and choices for students, and supply them opportunities to explore areas of interest and strength embracing tools like technology.  But until we are comfortable with what these things will look like in practice, we may struggle in helping move our schools any closer to achieving that goal.

B.C. Minister of Education, George Abbott released earlier this week his Plan for Education Transformation, and after digesting it, and reliving the conversations I have engaged in the past couple of weeks, four issues come forward (though I am sure there are several more)...

  1. As indicated above, I am unsure what these things will look like, and I do not think I am alone.  Many people are aware of the definitions, but are not sure how things will need to be done differently in order for us to move schools effectively into 21st Century Learning.  I am confident that much of what our teachers are doing, and have been doing for lengthy periods of time, are personalized and geared toward the 21st Century (peer teaching, progressive assessment strategies, the evolution of Distributed on-line learning, cross-curricular unit planning to name only a few) but it is not clear what the government expects schools to look like.  Perhaps this is deliberate, because each context is different.  But I have been asked in conversation, "How is this different from 'Student-Centered Learning'?" and, "What about the student who doesn't know yet what his/her areas of strength and interest are, or who is only interested in one thing, which may change as s/he grows?" or, "What will we be giving up in moving toward this system, and how is that considered better?"  These are all excellent questions that we are struggling to answer.
  2. Two of the most important skills from the Eight C's are critical thinking and creativity.  Inherent in becoming a creative, critical thinker is a willingness to take risks.  One of the greatest obstacles facing students and educators today is the societal pressure to achieve marks.  We live in a "data-driven" world, where it seems we need to quantify everything with numbers, including our students' learning.  I have had numerous conversations with students over the years, listening to them fret over their marks and stress over pleasing their parents and getting into university.  Many post-secondary institutions in B.C. are moving toward "broad-based" admissions policies, schools are moving forward with assessment-for-learning strategies that don't penalize risk-taking, and the Ministry has taken some focus off exam results by abolishing optional Provincial exams.  But there still exists a reluctance for students to take chances and look for unique solutions to problems due to a fear of being incorrect, and having that response negatively affect their standing.  The fear of "getting it wrong" needs to be alleviated, freeing students to think creatively and take some chances.  This is a big shift away from where we are now for parents, students, educators and institutions and needs to be our highest priority.
  3. Money continues to be an issue.  Some educators I have spoken with are hoping that Personalized Learning  will result in a reduction of the chasm between the wealthy and the less affluent, but wonder where the money will come from.  While money is a factor everywhere, and can not be used as an excuse for not moving forward, much of what 21st Century Learning is supposed to be about requires technology hardware, and comes at a cost.  Our school is still struggling with out-of-date hardware and software, and keeping up with the rapidly changing technology world is an almost impossible task.  The concern is that without appropriate technology supports in schools, the gulf between the haves and have-nots will increase rather than be reduced, since only the affluent will be able to access those technological advantages.
  4. Most important in any efforts for change is buy-in from parents, students and teachers. Deep change like what the government is suggesting requires it, but as a colleague pointed out to me, teachers in B.C. are dealing with job action and contract negotiations and aren't feeling particularly appreciated or supported.  Telling them to improve and change how they do things may not be well received at this time and will not be successful "without fully engaged and committed" parents and professionals.
There is little doubt that the future of education is unsettled and intimidating yet exciting and full of opportunity. Students, teachers and parents need to think differently about the purposes of education and it's goal of preparing students to become productive members of society. Starting the conversations and improving and sharing practices that lead to "Personalized, 21st Century Learning" (and commonly understanding what these terms mean for professional practice) are critical in creating schools that are best preparing tomorrow's leaders with the skills they need. If you have suggestions for how you see these terms coming to life, and how you intend to overcome the obstacles in your schools (I have ideas, but admittedly, they are vague), I would love to hear your thoughts.


  1. Jason, this is a great post and you raise several salient and timely questions as we anticipate bold new changes from the Ministry of Education. Professional educators must continuously reflect and improve to better engage and prepare students. However, I find great irony in watching video clips of old guys with gray beards speaking so assuredly about what life will be like later this century. It is also curious that the remarkable technologies that we easily access today are all the products of minds educated in the past.

    21st century, personalized, self regulated or independent learning works best when students have a fundamental knowledge base and a grasp of core concepts alongside important skills and processes. Indeed, critical and creative thinking about a problem can only occur if one truly understands a problem. It is simplistic to think that a learner can just "Google" the facts and carry on (i.e. an iPad and her natural curiousity will not prepare my child for the future). The balance of "formal" and "informal" modes of secondary schooling must be carefully considered and this may be different for each student, depending on their post-secondary plans.

    Working alongside post-secondary institutions (and admissions offices), secondary schools must continue to evolve and revise in an effort to prepare and engage all students for their future. We also need to invite and engage all stakeholders, including teachers, into this process before making an announcement and introducing sweeping changes. Other good ideas in B.C., such as the Student Learning Plan and the Graduation Portfolio, have not worked due to poor levels of commitment and support. Hopefully we have learned by now how best to introduce and implement meaningful change?

    A guarded plan discussed by a few followed by an announcement with implementation deadlines from the Ministry of Education seems so mid-20th century.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Jim. Much of what I wrote comes from the thinking that was inspired by coversations I have recently had with you, and others.

    I agree that we need to acknowledge much of what we have been doing in Canadian education is working, and has helped prepare the minds that have created the amazing things in our lives today. We need to continue developing those skills, as well as prepare students for an unknown future with skills like creative and critical thinking, environmental awareness, and technologic capacity (and more). The form schools take in the near future does need to be carefully considered, and may depend on student interests and plans.

    We need to keep all of this in mind when discussing our movement toward "Personalized, 21st Century Learning". The Ministry must include all stakeholders in the conversation and support the movement with appropriate funding and training.

    Educational reform efforts (Year 2000, Career and Personal Planning, 2004 Grad program, as well as what you have already mentioned) recently and historically have not resulted in much sustained change to what we do. This time we must approach more thoughtfully and carefully. All of us (students, parents and educators) must be involved in the development and implementation plans in order for this effort to be successful.

    Thanks for continuing the conversation.