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.


To Err is Human, To Cheat is a Cry for Help?

A colleague of mine recently put out a survey to some of us “humanities-type” educators on whether or not we wanted to invest into some anti-plagiarism software. What ensued was a conversation between another colleague of mine, Mark Duncan, and I on how and why people cheat and what our role is, as educators, throughout it all.

Mark is a really cool customer, a brilliant English teacher, an amazing writer, and fountain of knowledge when it comes to music produced in the last 1000 years, and a mentor. He has been at our school for 35 years and is essentially the institutional memory of the joint. My point is that I respect him deeply and our chat raised some pretty important things to think about in terms of assessment. He was willing to allow his words to be used here.

The conversation began with a question from the English Department Head:

To others: What do you think about this?

I responded, like a smart alec and whilst putting my kids to bed in the dark via a mobile device with one hand:

I might suggest changing how we assess as a means of curbing plagiarism. I don’t just mean in terms of changing the assignments from year to year, but also the tools.

Gratefully, Mark called me on my comment and demanded greater clarification:

Don’t follow you, Matt. Can you say more?

Oh dear. Now I had to put my money where my mouth was:

If we offer the same assignments each year, then some kids will cheat. If we offer the same assignments like everyone else at every other school, some kids will cheat.

The key is not to have kids simply right a reflection piece on Fifth Business or on the causes of Confederation (for which I am guilty), for example, but to have them think and communicate about ideas that are specific to their experience. For example, one essay Heather and I assigned this year asked students to speak to how the Indian Act may have located to the two main characters of Three Day Road in the middle of a European war. It was fundamentally impossible for kids to cheat. 


We also might want to consider different forms of evaluation – oral evaluation, evaluation whereby students have to interact with peers, with authors, experts, etc. If the assessment is authentic and meaningful, then I have found there is little room and desire to cheat.


Rather than trying to catch kids at cheating, I think we should offer them opportunities to be original. I wonder how many kids cheat in art class? I would bet that there is a sizeable market for Grade 12 major papers out there. What if you changed it up? What if students had to interview an author and then read his or her book? What if Grade 12 students were assigned mentors? What of their essay wasn’t an essay at all? What if, what if?!


Just my ramblings. By no means do I suggest that I have the answers, but the issue was dangled out there and I had to take the bait. I have cced a few folks in the case that my message was equally unclear for them.


Would love to hear your thoughts as this is an important issue that needs many voices.
Peace out,
Mark came back with fundamental issues related to morality and the human condition:
I differ in my assessment of why kids cheat. You seem to be suggesting that the fault is actually with us, since we don’t offer them enough opportunities to be original, our assessments are not “authentic and meaningful”, we aren’t original enough ourselves to come up with new topics every year, etc. This seems to me to be putting the shoe on the wrong foot. There’s this thing called human nature that sometimes gets in the way of making good choices, and the last time I looked adolescents were human. (Well, most of the time.) C. S. Lewis said that there are two indisputable facts about the moral life: 1. We all know, at least past the age of 13, what the right thing is to do, unless we possess no conscience 2. We all know that quite often we don’t do that thing. Kids – like adults – are lazy. They are also – again, like adults – easily tempted. Then they sometimes make poor choices.
I am all for original approaches to assessment, and I try my hardest every year to come up with plagiarism defeating topics. The subject matter we deal with in English, however, often makes that a difficult task. There are a number of factors that contribute to the downfall of the tragic figure, for example – an important topic in the study of literature. I cannot change what Shakespeare or Sophocles wrote. How much literary criticism, now available online, has been written on how those factors operate in, let’s say, King Lear? The mind boggles. This is a different situation, it seems to me, than what prevails in a Visual Arts class. (I don’t even know what a plagiarized art assignment would look like.
One way around this would be to set assignments on writers who are not exactly in the mainstream. I think this idea has merit, but it cannot stymie human nature. Two years ago, I set a topic on an incredibly obscure story, and two of my Grade 12 students plagiarized from the one online source that my exhaustive search for criticism could uncover.
Speaking personally, I never nail kids for plagiarism unless I am 100% convinced that they have taken the easy way out by copying and pasting blocks of words from online sources, copied someone else’s homework or, more rarely, appropriated ideas that are clearly not their own. Turn It In would make it easier to catch kids who decide to do that. That’s all. If we don’t decide to get plagiarism detection software, so be it – we will just continue to do the aggravating detective work ourselves. But I think it is important to recognize that this is not our problem – it belongs to those who make bad decisions, and we have to insist that they own them.
Hmmm… Perhaps this was more complex than I had originally thought, but I was still convinced that as educators we needed to create learning environments whereby cheating was next to impossible or not desirable:
I am not suggesting that student cheating is the fault of teachers. I agree that students who cheat are responsible for cheating. I am also not suggesting that anyone’s assessment practices are not meaningful or authentic. I am just responding to a general malaise communicated to me concerning the regurgitation of major paper topics, sources, and ideas.
I think my main point is that we, as teachers, can only fundamentally control one variable when it comes to the issue of plagiarism: That is the learning experience. I guess my argument would be that we would be better served putting resources into the design of learning experiences, as opposed to trying to catch kids cheating via a software program. This might prove a more fruitful endeavour for everyone and it might elicit the critical thinking and communication we/I claim happens at our school.
I agree that plagiarism is the fault of those who commit the offence, but adults need to help those who feel that they have little choice and we also need to create environments where by the thought never crosses their minds. These notions are perhaps Utopian, but I would prefer to prance around on this side of the issue than become a member of the Plagiarism Police. 
Mark, again, points out that my writing and thinking are not always as clear as mean them to be:
You raise some good points here. Thanks for taking the time to do so.
My sense that you were putting part of the blame for plagiarism on teachers came from your sentence, “If the assessment is authentic and meaningful, then I have found there is little room and desire to cheat.” Since we do have students who cheat …
Your idea that some students feel they have “little choice” but to cheat is an interesting one and deserves further discussion. I agree that creating an environment in which the thought to cheat never crosses a student’s mind would be a Utopian project – one worthy of Swift’s projectors. But I hope this doesn’t make me a happy member of the “Plagiarism Police”, as you put it. That would be a strange badge – no pun intended – of honour. Few things make me more crestfallen than a plagiarized assignment, and I always mete out justice with a heavy heart.
So, here we are – two educators concerned about plagiarism, but looking at it from two different perspectives. I suspect, as Mark and I are finding, that there is some middle ground – room for the cheaters not to cheat and also for educators to create assessment tools that inspire, include, scaffold, nudge, and fundamentally promote the creativity and critical thought we demand.
Thoughts, World?

Paulo’s Question: Ecoliteracy & Inquiry

Recently, I was working with a group of Middle Years teachers in Brazil. Throughout the week, we were working on strategies to cultivate curiosity in our students and allow them the space to ask important questions that could drive a learning community’s learning. One morning, I was asked to teach a grade 6 debate class on how to construct an argument (Yikes!).

As a means to engage the students, I walked into the classroom and showed them a map of the world from 1992 which showed where 29 000 rubber duckies made landfall after falling off a cargo ship in the Pacific (A collection of 40 great maps has been circulating Facebook and Twitter). The map showed how these ducks, due to currents and prevailing winds, managed to make landfall on every continent. I then dumped out the garbage can in the classroom, emptying plastic water bottles and cups onto the floor. I asked the students where they thought much of our plastic ends up and why it does not breakdown.

From there, our learning community was able to inquire into the massive oceans of plastic which currently exist and why things are made out of plastic if it does not breakdown. We broke out into teams and began to research the School’s usage of plastic cups and the students decided that they needed to convince the administrators that they needed to ban all plastic cups and bottles from the school. As the teacher, I was delighted with their inquiry and felt pretty good about myself.

Then, Paulo asked this question: “If I am a person who really wants to help the environment, then why do I do things like use plastic cups when I know that it is bad.” Man, did I feel dumb. I had no answers.

The significance of Paulo’s question is based on two underlying gaps in human cognition related to climatic, geological, and ecological changes. The first gap is between the research underpinning the pending ecological crisis. Data from America’s National Snow and Ice Center confirmed the lowest amount of Arctic ice coverage since 1979, when scientists started keeping records. Using this data, NASA scientist James Hansen acknowledged two important things. The first: “We have a planetary emergency.” The second: “There’s a huge gap between what is understood by the scientific community and what is known by the public… unfortunately, the gap is not being closed” (Andrade, 2012). Hansen, along with most within the scientific community, not only articulates the severity of the state of the biosphere, but also implies that humans are not conscious of the reality.

But it is not merely a knowledge gap, as Paulo points out; it is also one of malaise and motivation. The gap is based on what Zizek (2011, p. 352) describes as “agnostic pluralism,” or a lack of political passion. Zizek identifies a major gap in our understanding of the pressing environmental crisis and our motivation to react to it: “The gap…is that between knowledge and belief: we know the (ecological) catastrophe is possible, probable even, yet we do not believe it will really happen” (p. 328).

But equally important to understanding these gaps in human cognition, was my realization how important curiosity and inquiry are in fostering ecological literacy in youth and in ultimately creating a sustainable future.  The ecological catastrophe that lay our feet is well documented. In 2009, Rockstöm et al. created nine planetary boundaries that we could not surpass for human activity to continue. At present, we have surpassed three, including CO2 levels an ocean acidification.  

If we are to foster the skills and creativity needed to attack this dilemma head on,  teachers and parents need to move beyond superficial lessons related to recycling and composting, and move towards an education that incorporates systems thinking, an understanding of thermodynamics, and an underlying acceptance that nature sustains all life.

This type of education will involve a massive disruption in how we conceive and construct school experiences presently.  It will involve ecologically literate teachers, administrators, custodians, and parents. It will require that we get students outside, that they learn science, math, and French at the same time. It will fundamentally require us to transform our schools into ecological think tanks, and not, in some cases, places where we perpetuate the same ideas that got us into this mess in the first place.