A few days ago, I attended a professional women's networking conference. The event was jammed-pack with smart and talented women from millennials to baby-boomers, corporate bosses to solopreneurs, singles, married ladies, moms and grandmothers. These women were diverse in ethnicity and nationality as much as in age and industry. As we swapped business cards and email addresses and considered potential partnerships and collaborations, I was continually asked what 21st Century learning really meant. At first I thought my elevator pitch needed tweaking, but soon realized, they were asking me as if I had insight into a trend and buzz word that had baffled them for quite some time. Their approach was with a gentle lean in, sometimes a tilt of the head and a sincerity that was surprising and much appreciated. The conversation reminded me of instances where one bumps into a fitness trainer or chef and is compelled to ask if crossfit will really help them drop that vanity weight in 30 days or if it's tumeric in the secret sauce. I answered their question with a question - "what do you think it means?" and so the much needed conversation began.
Personally, there is no "right-answer". 21st century learning essentially means progressive, inquiry-based and student-centered, holistic, integrated and transdisciplinary learning. Professionally, what that looks like in the classroom (at schools and in homeschooling) varies, as it ideally would if in fact the teaching and learning was progressive, inquiry-based and student-centered, holistic, integrated and transdisciplinary. At the center of the pedagogy and practice is a focus on global citizenship. "Huh?", one of my uber polished networking ladies replied. "So does that mean they need to travel the world and be bilingual?" My reply, "Perhaps, but not necessarily so. Do you need to know Mandarin to appreciate Chinese culture, see the similarities between Tiananmen Square and Kent State, the German industrial revolution and Chinese manufacturing, or the influence of Portugal in Chinese cuisine?" While fluency in a language allows a different level of access into that community, it does not guarentee a deeper understanding, appreciation or respect for the community, it's history and culture.
Another woman asked if 21st Century learnng was code (no pun intended) for technology, STEM and STEAM programs. Again, I confirmed that such a focus on integrated tech and science learning was a 21st century progressive, and indeed it was one interpretation of global citizenship. Trying not to burst her bubble, but rather to expand her perspective, I asked if mastering those tech skills meant students were innovators, protectors of humanity and guardians of the environment. "Do those students appreciate the arts or the environment or have the ability to communicate with students who are not tech savvy?" She looked perplexed - "what does that have to do with coding?", I imagined her saying to herself. "Let me rephrase that - are students learning social and emotional skills that strengthen their ability to communicate, collaborate and have integrity and purpose in their work?"
Before I knew it, I was surrounded by CEOs and emerging entrepreneurs who exhibited that curiosity and engagement teachers and homeschoolers long for. Not wanting to preach or teach for that matter, I shared a personal story that resonated. As a teacher parent, I am by nature a Tiger Mom. I don't hover during play, but I take education seriously. Like pretty much every parent, I want my child to succeed. I am also incredibly competitive. Knowing this I work extra hard to get busy with how my daughter is developing as a person as much as I secretly pray that her genius is not just my wishful thinking. During my daughter's first teacher-parent session, I realized she was in fact a genius (just kidding, sort of) but that she was (and continues to be) more importantly a leader, warm and caring, inquisitive and reflective. I welled up, forgetting any critical analysis I may have had to digest, hearing how she's knowledgeable but not over-eager to show-off. I was so excited to hear how she's happy to share center stage and even encourages her friends to break out of their comfort zones. Yes, she's multi-lingual but, whoohoo, she's empathetic. She sees commonalities and looks to build bridges. She's already becoming a global citizen.
There are many practical and immediate concerns facing our children - a questionable economy, a strained ecosystem, political and cultural disconnection. What strikes us as most relevant for a 21st century student is deepening their conceptual understandings of how these issues developed, encouraging innovative approaches to addressing such realities and developing a committed global citizenship required to unpack a solution. In a time when fast is not quick enough, communication is a shallow text away, students who are persistent and committed to their responsibility as inhabitants of this world will yield success in their educational pursuits and life in general.