Rethinking Student Learning in the 21st Century

There is an oft told story about an art teacher inquiring of a small girl what she was drawing on a blank sheet of paper. She replied, “I'm drawing a picture of God." The teacher asked her how she could do that when no one knows what God looks like. The little girl quickly acknowledged, “They will when I'm finished."

And so it is with creativity. It's an elusive concept to pin down and yet is most associated with innovation, imagination, producing something new, or problem solving. What is clear is that creativity can have a profound impact on our lives.

For some companies, creativity is combined with imagination and entrepreneurship to develop new products. For example, the iPhone, iPod, and iPad were unknown a decade ago, but today their prevalence is almost ubiquitous.

Michael Fullan, the renowned Canadian education reformer, suggests the next wave of real reform and excellence in education needs to be aimed at helping students use their creativity and imagination to pursue novel ideas in social and economic entrepreneurialism. Yong Zhao, associate dean for global education at the University of Oregon, has also affirmed the importance of global learning, critical thinking, and creativity as emerging pieces of 21st-century learning.

The last two decades of reform have been marked by what is commonly known as the standards movement. Included in this era has been the definition of clearer, more rigorous academic content to be mastered by students. To ensure this mastery, achievement testing has become the norm as well as deep investments in accountability systems. What has it gotten us?

Like any behavior, no matter how good we perceive the actions to be, too much of it becomes counterproductive. The emphasis today on standardized tests has produced higher test results, much larger levels of teacher disenchantment, and students who know more in a world where knowing is becoming obsolete.

Think now for a minute about the best teacher you ever had. I'm willing to bet it wasn't because of the content or even skills they taught you. It was probably because of a profound relationship you had with that person, or the fact that they caused you to love something, be something, or do something. Your learning experience was personalized.

A Global Learning Collaborative of education practitioners from Finland, Hong Kong, Ireland, Ontario, Singapore, and Battelle for Kids has been working on a model to expand our thinking about student learning in the 21st century. The model suggests that the next generation of student analytics could be around an integrated set of measures regarding critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, and imagination.

We need kids in the future who are able to use their knowledge as well as imagination and creativity to find unique solutions to complex challenges. Far too many children in the future will not get work but rather make work, and we need to ensure that they are equipped with the skills to do that. One size does not fit all. In a world in which we customize tennis shoes, we ought to be able to do an inventory of children's interests, strengths, and aspirations to help define a pathway for success for each of them.

If we continue to pursue academic achievement only, at the expense of overlooking creativity and imagination, that's akin to knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. Lest teachers think, “I can’t add one more thing,” this is a rebalancing of three important things. Systems also need to acknowledge the importance of these other skills and reduce the amount of teacher evaluation based solely on test results. My point is that the learning for this century can no longer be solely concentrated on academic achievement. It's not sufficient. Student learning must be personalized and foster creativity and critical thinking. Rather than engage in the tyranny of or, I would suggest the brilliance of and.

Visit to learn more about Battelle for Kids’ Global Education Study and access the new Global Education Lumibook, developed in partnership with School Improvement Network.  

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Reader Comments (1)

As usual, Jim Mahoney hits the nail on the head. Few would argue the point that the fundamentals of basic disciplines are important; but such emphasis on high-stakes achievement testing tends to squeeze out time to develop critical and creative thinking. If this country is to maintain its preeminence globally and economically, it has to cultivate students who can imagine in the ways of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, or invent global diplomatic solutions in the ways of General George C. Marshall or Benjamin Franklin. And as Tom Friedman pointed out in a recent commentary, we live in a cautionary world where the Internet is a digital river of raw information carrying both wisdom and hate. Critical thinking may be the most important antidote to this unfiltered "electronic torrent" that will only surge exponentially as we move further into the 21st century. There's more to a complete education than just the multiplication tables.

April 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBill Sims

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