What is the meaning of “learning” in the 21st century? In a time of debate in Latin America over the role of education, it is worth returning to that essential question. If we don’t, we run the risk that governments and social movements are apt to believe that they can create a new educational system merely by approving or rejecting some law, improving a couple of rules, putting a little more money here, a little supervision there.
Learning in the 21st century means something clearly new. The knowledge society demands new knowledge and skills, and offers new tools and ways to achieve these. That is the main thing that is new. In this century, a body of existing and innovative educational initiatives, although limited and specific, will be creating a new norm in the way we provide education.
What are the main characteristics of learning in the 21st century? I think there are four new realities that our educational systems must address.
The universal, democratic, and industrial educational systems of the 20th century have reached their limits of productivity and cannot take on the new challenges: diversity in the classroom, access for disadvantaged students, the role of school in knowledge building, and productivity. Each student must be treated as an individual, and educational systems are obligated to develop the potential of each young person. In tailoring education to individual needs, schools must recognize rhythms, interests, abilities, and different backgrounds, so that every student acquires the skills and competencies demanded by the knowledge society.
2. Learning experiences
Pedagogical methods and teachers must be geared to offer meaningful learning experiences to each student. There must be much more individual tutoring and coaching, and not just teaching classes and content. Students must be much more engaged in discovering, creating, constructing, and sharing knowledge, and teachers must work with them, using their access to data, methodological options, and rich content (interactive and multimedia), with a focus on basic curricula (mathematics, languages, science, the arts), but with flexible systems for fostering participation and moving forward.
Learning can take place anytime, anywhere, not just in school. The media, mobile devices, social networking, and collaboration all offer opportunities for continuous learning.
4. Educational systems with focus and direction
All of the components of the school system, from national ministries to local organizations, should streamline their vision and organization with the aim of focusing on student learning. Each participant in the system must have a clearly defined role. Their job of each is to teach students and provide support for the development of meaningful educational experiences, and to do so at any time and place.
With these four concepts in mind, we must examine the role of the teaching profession (recruitment, training, and compensation), the school curriculum, how education is organized, when teaching takes place, infrastructure and content, and the way we evaluate and measure results.
Some may continue to look backwards, complaining that schools fail to achieve the quality levels we expect, looking for guilty parties, and dreaming of the way things were. I believe we should talk about the future, the education that our children and our grandchildren will have, not as students in the 19th century, but as learners in the 21st century.