A Shift to 21st Century Learning

by Sean Fitts
Peoria Academy

Today’s education model must employ a curriculum based in collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, technology and imagination.

As an adult, it’s difficult to look back on your early education and understand how you acquired the knowledge and skills necessary to become the person you are today. The thousands of hours that you spent in classrooms during grade school seem like a blur, and yet somehow you emerged from this time knowing how to communicate, make rational decisions and cultivate a career.

The United States has spent the past several decades trying to develop an educational system that increases the chances of success; however, we still struggle with confidence in our system. Because of information technology, we are finally making progress in identifying the key components to successful education. One of these key components is the “21st century learning” model.

It was the “Committee of Ten,” a group of educators appointed by the National Education Association in 1892, which set America on its current path of education. At the time, industrialization was replacing agriculture and the need for an educated workforce was becoming more critical. The committee established many of the characteristics of school that we as adults nostalgically hold on to: a 12-year school system, 180-day school year, six hours of classes with eight periods, and subjects like English, history, mathematics and science.

The key to this system—and where it went wrong—is that it was based on standardization and not on individual student needs. Under this system, the only sources of classroom information came from the teacher and a limited book supply. For the past 18 years, I have been fighting the inadequacies of our 120-year-old educational system; however, my enthusiasm for education has been revitalized by the shift away from standardization to a more student-centered approach called 21st century learning.

What is 21st Century Learning?

Simply put, 21st century learning is based in a curriculum that requires collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving and imagination. It utilizes technology to extend classroom resources and improve efficiency. It breaks down the “structure” that inhibits true learning, and it places the burden of learning on the student.

If you think about it, you can remember certain moments of your education. Maybe it was something exciting that your teacher did in class, a project you completed, or a memorable field trip. You remember because it meant something to you at the time. It’s hard to determine how these events influenced your life choices, but if you remember them, they had an impact. The knowledge that was tied to these events is probably easy to access as well. Your teacher may or may not have predicted the impact that the event had on you, but what if your curriculum was designed to do this on a daily basis? What if your day was a series of challenges that excited you, interested you and created a need to acquire new knowledge? Welcome to the 21st century learning model.

Strategic School Design

Designing a school for 21st century learning is challenging because every aspect of school design is currently geared toward the 20th century, from the structure of our buildings to the reliance on a bell schedule. I had an advisor in graduate school who would say to me, “The best solution to a problem blends several different certainties.” We cannot jump from the 20th-century model to the 21st-century model immediately. At this time, the top schools are blending the best practices of our 20th century system with bold movement toward 21st century learning. At my school, we have committed our-selves to evolve into the 21st century model while allowing time for 20th century practices to expire.

Here are several examples of what we have done to ensure this commitment. Our schedule has been formatted to accommodate flexible groupings that allow students to move between grade levels in specific subjects for acceleration or reinforcement. Classroom teacher-student ratios must be low to practice 21st century learning effectively; we have found that a cohort of 12 to 16 students per teacher is ideal for collaboration and problem solving.

On Wednesdays, our middle school students do not have regular classes, but instead participate in problem-based learning activities (PBL). Problems are assigned to students via a project board, and they are expected to work together by sharing information, using their imaginations and presenting solutions. I am often asked how this covers the content required by our education standards. The answer is simple: there is no content that cannot be learned through a well-designed problem. Using a technique called “backwards design,” teachers can inspire students to learn content. A teacher decides exactly what students need to know and designs/finds a problem that requires or creates a need for that knowledge. While PBL is studentcentered, it is teacher-guided.

A new enrichment program spanning from pre-kindergarten to 8th grade is also centered on 21st century learning. At the end of each day, students transition from the classroom to participate in activities such as Lego Robotics, Math Olympiad, Destination Imagination, Geography Bee, Scholastic Bowl and Project Lead the Way. These activities not only connect the curriculum to an event, they also spark that “need-to-know” desire which drives not only the acquisition of knowledge, but the 21st century skills that will be so important for future success in a global society. Through the help of our parent community, we have created an outdoor education center with a box garden that allows each classroom to grow their own vegetables and participate in soil studies, composting and agricultural education. At every level, teacher-guided and student-led learning flourishes.

Keys to Success

Schools need to create exciting, progressive learning environments to compete with countries that force learning more rigorously than we generally do in America. Students are being trained for careers that do not yet exist, and for this reason, our students will need to become experts at learning and assimilation in order to be successful.

We will continue to lead the world in innovation and creativity only if schools can allow for this practice to unfold. Flexibility and a willingness to adapt to best practices outside of our standardized system are keys to successful education. Schools that are capable of implementing change will be better positioned for the 21st century, and nurturing this theory is why I am excited to be a part of Peoria Academy. iBi

Sean Fitts is the head of Peoria Academy, an independent, private, nonprofit school in Peoria serving students in kindergarten through 8th grade.

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