Learning in the 21st Century: Everyone is an Expert

I must agree with Margaret Wente in some respects this week. On Saturday, the Globe and Mail published her column where she had questions about the notion of 21st Century Learning. I agree with her in the sense that we need to be leery of what this means and if the learning which many claim happens, really occurs.

Margaret Wente, Globe & Mail

Margaret Wente, Globe & Mail

Like her, I am often skeptical of people who make a buck off of books, conference appearances, media outlets, and personal branding when it comes to this idea of 21st century learning. We are continually besieged by nonsensical statements or infographics concerning radical new ways of learning on Twitter and other social media venues – and these are rarely backed by academic research or at least are formed upon pedagogical foundations or philosophies of education. Today, for instance, I plunked in a search for #ISTE2014 and discovered a myriad of statements on Twitter that made absolutely no sense and/or stated the obvious (There have also been some amazing things I have learned from following this conference!). 21st century thinking in education often celebrates mediocrity and has promoted a real industry of snake oil edupreneurs.

But this is where the agreement begins to become problematic. Wente proceeds to tear a strip off of every educator in the land interested in a debate about what it means to learn and teach in the 21st century. Like many of her articles, she uses one or two sources which seem to fit with her logic and she rests her entire polemic argument on them. This is where things fall a part for her argument on 21st century learning.

Within Wente’s manifesto, there is a sense of “things were better when I was a kid” — in the 20th century. Granted, she might be right, but I might argue that her 20th century education has had her accused of plagiarism, where she has defended these allegations by suggesting she only seeks out one source and shares the same ideas and logic of other columnists. Huh? So you have no original ideas? Many educators these days are focusing greatly on the need for self-examination, critical research, and  complex argumentation which offer new knowledge — certainly aspects of learning when Socrates was around. Perhaps inquiry and having learning environments that are student-centered are not terrible bad notions after all.

Secondly, if Wente is so against this debate as to why and how we learn and that perhaps things were better in the old days, how does she explain the fact that we are experiencing an ecological crisis created by industrialized education for the purposes of greed and the exploitation of resources — including people. She cannot argue that changing the model as to how we teach and learn is unreasonable when the alternative is fundamentally destructive. It is clear by the attack on our biosphere that current practices have failed. This might be difficult to believe as we idle our SUVs outside of Starbucks, but we have surpassed three of the nine planetary boundaries as outlined by Rockstrom et al. Not pushing a new model of learning will lead to our demise.

What does she suggest? Education worked out for her, but at what and whose expense? And industrialized education does not work out for each student. Trust me, I actually am in classrooms.

Lastly, Wente gives us a perfect example of 20th century learning, as she does most weeks. She is quick to poo-poo any discussion of student inquiry or autonomy, but then offers nothing new. She does not push the debate or our collective body of knowledge concerning learning any further. All she has done is launched a grenade into an already negative environment. What do you suggest, Margaret? Simply stating that there is no evidence that some new models of education don’t work is not enough (take for example the idea of hope theory. There is a great deal of research in this area which suggests hopeis a key indicator for success).

I would argue that 21st century learning, and here I offer something from my own heart, is based on two very old ideas: global citizenship and ecological literacy. As Martha Nussbaum (1997) suggests, global citizenship is about the self-examined life, knowing a tremendous amount about the world, and having empathy for all people, and arguably all species and systems, on this earth. Ecological literacy suggests that learners understand that nature sustains all life, that we must account for the consequences of human activity, and that we are connected to a massive web of other precious systems. If we continue to leave these skills and attitudes out of the classroom, the 22nd century might be rather bleak.

Kwame Anthony Appiah eloquently speaks to this idea of global citizenship here in this video based on the notion of Cosmopolitanism:

These are critical skills required in any century if we are to survive and produce sustainable societies. I would hope that Wente and her readers might offer greater input into the debate as to how and why we educate and how we go about creating a better world. Our quota in education and in most fields for negativity has been met.


A Toast to the Grads of 2014

Some parents and students have asked that I share my comments at the Convocation Dinner held on Wednesday, June 18th. Here they are:

Dr. Johnson, Ms. Gillies, Parents, Faculty, staff, and most importantly, graduates —

It is my extreme pleasure and honour to be able to toast the graduates of 2014 from St. John’s-Ravenscourt School. These next few days are a celebration of your achievement, your thinking, your enthusiasm, but hopefully more so of your future. Today, I wish to not only toast what you have done, but also toast the things to come.

Before I get to my main objective, I would like to to take a moment to acknowledge two people who have helped shape your experience here who are moving on. Ms. Gillies, Principal of the Senior School, and Dr. Johnson, Head of School, are both leaving us this year. Whether we realize it or not, they have devoted a huge part of their lives to creating a learning environment that nurtures critical thought and empathy, and their legacy will stay with you and me for years to come. Personally, I am saddened to see these great mentors venture off on new and exciting parts of their lives, but I applaud their devotion to one of humanity’s great achievements – the idea of Education. Bravo.

Graduates, today you are making history. You are making history. By this, I don’t mean to suggest you have accomplished something out of the ordinary or that you have changed forever the course of human existence. Arguably, you have repeated a process that millions of Canadian students have done before you. I don’t mean to downplay your achievement – not at all. You have struggled through 13 years of formalized education – and survived – a massive feat unto itself. But, perhaps the making and doing of history, something which we have discussed at great length in Canadian History class, looks like something else.

As young historians, you have been told at length that history repeats itself. Prince Charles has recently made such an assertion based on events in Eastern Europe. But I might argue that history does not repeat itself (what a dreadful thought). I might argue, as Mark Twain did (although nobody really knows if he said it), that history rhymes – history rhymes. History and human existence are far greater than following a prescribed pattern of logical steps and assigning causation to them – although this is what we have forced you to do for the last 13 years! But I think that our purpose on this planet is far greater than the malaise of getting through life. And, I think you, as individuals and as a cohort, have demonstrated this very point.

No, perhaps history is about changing, for better or for worth, the paths of individual people and groups. Perhaps it is about a lived experience that we share with other humans and species on this planet. But I digress — more on this later.

Graduates, and soon to be alumni, we first met each other four years ago, when you were swimming up stream into Grade 9 and I was a new teacher at SJR. You were sweaty, awkward, and nervous human beings – but immediately apparent was the fact that you were curious, courageous, and highly intelligent. I was astonished by your ability to debate, your outstanding athletic prowess, your musical and artistic gifts, your willingness to be vulnerable and think about those who are most vulnerable, and your ability to think critically about this world to which you hold citizenship.

As the years progressed, you became open to new ideas, transformed your perspective on this experiment we call Canada, and put your word into action. The humility and devotion to your cohabitants is astounding. Individually and collectively, I have never witnessed a more selfless, caring, giving, and empathetic group. Please do not lose these values. They are critical, as I will argue, to the doing and making of history.

As you progressed through your experience at this school, new friends came along and joined your community. You welcomed them with open arms and allowed them to be contributing members to this sense of purpose you somehow created, despite the best efforts of adults to squash it (wink).

You became better writers, better thinkers, better artists, better athletes, but most importantly, better people. Within the last four years, you have lived a common experience whereby you have changed each others lives, and also the lives of others through your action. Together, you have learned what it means to be human and pushed our understanding of our collective purpose.

Through this process — which is certainly not a repetition of last year or that of the graduates of 1914, you made history. You affected each other, people within your community, and people around the world. You became activists, poets, scientists, high performance athletes, exquisite musicians, groundbreaking artists, politicians, historians, and some of you even became capitalists (wink).

Mr. Dressler has become an impressive writer and actor. Mr. Lee you have delved into the plight of missing and murdered indigenous women, Ms. Fennel you are a published author, Mr. Boles you have organized a TED conference, Mr. Klassen you are a thoughtful and critical thinker, Mr. Milberg, you were a campaign manager, Mr. Cunnignham, you have become a recognized philosopher, Mr. Dang, you have mad skills on the guitz and on the hardwood, Ms. Taylor you are an advocate and an agent of social change. These are just a few of the numerous examples of your growth and your history making.

And Mr. Cohn – you drove us all nuts.

You have made history, not because of your report card or your scholarship, or the fact that you just made it through — no, you have made and history and you ARE history because of the unique way you have changed the trajectory of this school, of each other, your teachers, your family, and your brothers and sisters throughout the world.

But this only a microcosm of the whole history to which you will play a role. How do you wish to rhyme with history?

You have been given an amazing gift. You were given this gift when you came out of the womb and took your first lungful of air. This gift is not only the life we were mysteriously given, but it is also this planet we call home that we share with other people, species, and systems. You will make history — the question is, will you become caretakers of this precious gift, or will you become junkies of this gift — users, as so many of our sisters and brothers have become. We use this gift of ecology for our own short term needs, until we get our fix.

Based on my experience with you, I know and trust you will alter the course of history and become caretakers. I have seen you march against cancer and poverty, I have seen you climb mountains for a greater cause, I bear witness to your enduring desire to make life better for people in your community.

So, here is to you and the rhyming, rather than the repeating, of history. As a species, we have accomplished so much — can you rhyme with these accomplishments? I know you will. I know you will change the trajectory and the path we are on. I know this, because I have seen it. Change history, make history, do history, and rhyme with history.

Ladies and gentlemen, please rise, raise your glasses, and help me toast the outstanding class of 2014. From the awkward teens who stepped into our lives four years ago, to the impressive and compassionate adults who stand with us tonight: Bravo. Now I see you here, no longer nervous and unsure Grade 9s, but confident analytical adults. Adults who have created new knowledge and relationships, have formed groups to challenge societal norms, and who have begun the business of innovation. Cheers to you and the rhyming of history.


Database of Experiences

Henderson & Powell want to suck your brain!!

Henderson & Powell want to suck your brain!!

Here’s to a bit of crowd sourcing, so to speak! My colleague, Rebecca Powell, and I are on a journey to seek out what you and your schools are doing by way of experiential education, ecological literacy, and or 21st century learning (cringe).

Our plan is to compile a database of sorts based on criteria we are putting together for our school in terms of how people frame the notion of experience. Our school is really interested in this idea of experience.

So, we would love your input and expertise. Please share what you do or what your learning community does to use the experience of your learners to create educative experiences. Please include your name, your school’s name, and a short blurb below in the comment section. We are planning to produce this database in late 2014 and we will most definitely share it with you.