Wednesday, October 16, 2019

21st Century Learning by Scott Harris

I like to ask educators who use the phrase “21st century learning” how learning is different now than in the past? Blank stares are often the response to this impertinent inquiry.  

When I do get an answer, it usually involves skills such as: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, media literacy, and of course, technology. 

I then ask if they think these skills were unimportant in the past: Did farmers in the 15th century need critical thinking skills or collaboration when planting crops, harvesting, and learning to let fields lie fallow?

Did people need media literacy in the 17th century, when newspapers first flourished? Did people need creativity as pioneers migrated into the western territories of the United States?

“Well, sure,” they say, “but we need them even more now!” While that’s debatable, the central thread in this latest educational panic is that somehow our students won’t be ready for a changing world, and technology is the answer.

“Students love technology!”, we’re told. Administrators love to see technology being used in the delivery of instruction. If we are using technology, clearly, we are preparing students for 21st century learning! 

The first problem with this approach is the risk of creating electronic Grecian urns (, i.e. an assignment that uses technology, but not much of the other critical skills we claim are necessary. 

The second problem is that when you talk to students about the use of technology, they say that they enjoy it, but only if the content and intellectual challenge are there. In other words, they recognize that technology is a means to an end. 

They also say that if there is a better challenge in a non-technological way, they would prefer that over a weak lesson at the end of a plug.

Technology is a tool, like the printing press or a shovel. Whether we build better minds depends on how we use it, not that we use it.

Scott K. Harris teaches The Moral Sciences: A.P. Macroeconomics, A.P. Psychology, and Philosophy. He holds a B.A. in History/Psychology and a M.Ed. in Teacher Leadership. He has also taught U.S. History, World History, International Baccalaureate’s Theory of Knowledge, and coached swimming and water polo. He piloted curriculum for Stossel-in-the-Classroom and is an associate producer for