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Educators need to become 21st-century learners

Educators need to become 21st-century learners by embracing modern connected learning environments and changing mindsets.


  1. The need for educators to become 21st-century learners requires a fundamental adjustment in the way educators approach professional development. The nature of technological advancement, ubiquitous access to information, and changing digital environments will require educators to change to better serve a student cohort that require a different skill set than previous generations. New technologies and social media are driving changes in information and learning. This leads to an emergence of a new dynamic and global economy that requires agile adaptation to changing technologies (Marquardt & Kearsley, 1999, as cited in Holt & Brockett, 2012, p. 2075). Along with the interconnectedness of our global economy, ecosystem, and political networks, they now require that students learn to communicate, collaborate, and problem solve with people worldwide (Saavedra & Opfer, 2012, p. 8). All this can be overwhelming for educators as the pace of the change and demands on their profession intensifies. The clips below from the MacArthur foundation discusses how learning is changing.
  2. Re-Imagining Learning in the 21st Century | MacArthur Foundation
  3. There is a feeling of disconnect between centuries past and the one into which we are now emerging, and that this new century requires new ways of thinking and learning (Gardner, 2008). Wismarth (2013) writes that there is a move away from the traditional lecture-by-expert model of instruction towards a 21st century pedagogy of collaboration, and this demands a concurrent shift in the role and attitudes of the educator (p. 88). This new dynamic society requires innovative uses of technology, and a much greater emphasis on collaboration and problem solving according to Ball & Forzani (2009, p. 497). Haste (2009) agrees with this when she describes the 21st-century student as a collaborative tool user who needs a new brand of competencies to thrive within a changing environment. The connections that today's students make with others online and via their devices, creates a participatory and collaborative culture that surpasses the connections they previously had access to informal learning environments such as schools and libraries (Kumasi, 2014, p. 9).
  4. Rethinking Learning: The 21st Century Learner | MacArthur Foundation
  5. These digital natives, as Prensky (2001) referred to people born after 1980, are active experiential learners who like receiving information quickly, multi-task and prefer visuals over texts. Wan Ng (2011) explains that the ability of digital natives to embrace information and communication technologies so rapidly means that they possess a certain level of digital literacy (p. 1065). Digital literacies play an important role in how students use their digital devices and social networks in a constant cycle to connect to their friends, family, and others. Students are thus connected in more ways than can be imagined and it is shaping their access to networks of information. Thomas and Seely Brown (2011) contend that “as information is also a networked resource, engaging with information becomes a cultural and social process of engaging with the constantly changing world around us” (p. 47). This video below showcases brillaintly the future of a connected and networked society.
  6. The Future of Learning, Networked Society - Ericsson
  7. At the heart of the debate on 21st-century skills is not the knowledge, but rather what students are able to do with the information. The 21st-century skills, then, are not new, just newly important (Silva, 2009, p. 631). Many skills or competencies have been proposed, but with the general theme remaining based on the four C’s - Critical Thinking, Collaboration, Creativity & Communication. Here is a great example of the four c's in action:
  8. The Four C's: Making 21st Century Education Happen
  9. The Connected Learning Hub (2015) also provides an excellent set of ‘Connected Learning Principles’ that further explores the skills required. It has at its core the connected, networked, collaborative nature of skills required.
  10. This is supported, and expanded on, by Tony Wagner's (2008) research that students will require seven key skills for the future that needs to be developed:
    - Critical thinking and problem solving;
    - Collaboration across networks and leadership;
    - Agility and adaptability;
    - Initiative and entrepreneurialism;
    - Effective oral and written communication;
    - Accessing and analyzing information.
    - Curiosity
  11. Reinventing Education for the 21st Century : Tony Wagner at (co)lab summit 2013
  12. What a constantly changing, demanding and evolving landscape of students for educators to interact with! Where do educators even start to address these changes, what are the roadblocks and how can they adapt to meet these new demands?
  13. These are key questions to address to help educators to become 21st-century learners too. As George Couros (2014) puts it, “One of the hardest things to do in education is to not change others, but to change ourselves.” Tom Whitby’s (2015) point that “the gap between teacher and student will continue to widen if the educator's’ mindset for learning does not evolve”, further strengthens the idea that educators need to change. The educators themselves are the key to any changes that are required, and this needs to be addressed by focusing on changing existing professional development to a more networked, collaborative, and self-directed model.
  14. The Role of Leaders in 21st Century Education
  15. An area that Professional Development would need to focus on is on training educators how to use technological tools and understanding the when or why. Educators will need to know how to use technology tools and model their uses or explicitly teach their students about the technologies and their uses.
  16. Lieberman & Pointer-Mace (2009) also propose that with the advent and ubiquity of new media tools and social networking web resources provide a means for networked learning to scale up (p. 77), and thus create personalised learning networks. Wenger (1998, as cited in Lieberman & Pointer-Mace, 2009, p. 79) described the idea that most people learn in “communities of practice” and again the concept of connecting through collaboration comes in for developing educators.
  17. When changing traditional professional development to allow the development of 21st-century learning skills, the creation of a Digital Personal Learning Network (PLN), or sometimes referred to as a Professional Learning Network, becomes essential. A PLN consists of a network of individuals that all contribute in some form to the development of an individual. Will Richardson states that, ‘everyone’s network will look different’ (Richardson, 2007, as cited in Way, 2012, p. 16). As Buchanan (2011) notes, “at the heart of a PLN are people. These are fellow professionals, people from whom you can learn and with whom you, in turn, can share and converse.” (p. 19). Igel & Urquhart (2012) explain that social and constructivist learning theories assert that humans acquire and extend knowledge through interaction with one another (p. 16). A PLN requires interaction and participation, it grows and changes over time to reflect individual requirements and interests.
  18. Image by Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano- based on image (CC) by Alec Couros-/ shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license