Ron Brandt is former Assistant Executive Director at The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and an award-winning journalist. He worked with the Initiative in the 1990s, and in early 1998 he wove the basic themes of our work into the following platform. It is still representative of the spirit of the Initiative in 2000.
The 21st Century Learning Initiative is a transnational movement committed to development of learning systems that: apply and extend our growing knowledge of the learning process and are suited to current and future technological, social and economic conditions.
Briefly, our new knowledge about learning suggests that institutions intended to produce learning (schools) require relationships with their surrounding communities. Some of these relationships should make effective use of rapidly changing information technology.
We now have much better understanding of the brain and human learning than was available when existing education systems were established. For example, we have convincing evidence that:
- Intelligence is not fixed at birth. Brain development is largely shaped – for better or for worse – by children’s experiences in the first few years of life.
- The growing brain is especially well equipped for particular kinds of learning at certain stages of development. For example, young children can learn foreign languages more easily and with greater fidelity than can adolescents or adults. Similarly, the social and emotional qualities essential for working and living successfully with others are acquired most naturally through suitable experiences in the early years.
- Although some things are learned most readily during these windows of opportunity, the brain is highly adaptable and capable of continued growth throughout life.
- The human brain is extremely complex and adept at dealing with many things simultaneously. When provided the opportunity, every brain has immensely greater potential than is sometimes assumed.
- Individual brains are very different from one another. This is partly from inheritance but also because brains are self-organizing, making connections and allocating space in response to each individual’s experiences and perceptions.
Schools alone will never be good enough to provide the learning young people need to meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. Learning and schooling are not synonymous. Much of what young people need cannot be learned well in classrooms. Complex learning requires negotiating meaning with others through frequent social interaction. The qualities we most treasure – initiative, creativity, responsibility – are best learned in sustained relationships as teachers and learners engage together in activities they consider useful, sensible and fulfilling.
Such relationships were at the heart of apprenticeship learning, which in earlier times was the way of providing young people with essential adult skills and adult expertise. Restoring the connections among learning, living, and working will require that young people have extensive involvement with adults other than their parents and professional educators.
New information communication technologies enormously expand opportunities for individual and group learning. They offer multi-sensory, reflective, and collaborative learning environments unconstrained by time, place and formal structures. When combined with the latest understandings about how knowledge is constructed, these technologies challenge conventional institutional arrangements for learning.
Current education systems were designed with assumptions about the development of human capabilities and learning which are now being systematically revised in the light of new research. Designed to serve the needs of an earlier age, these systems are limited by the technology of the classroom, instruction, uniform progression, and prescribed knowledge. Perversely these limitations inhibit our ability to see radical alternatives based on new understandings about effective learning. Organized around the ideas of the factory and mass production, most current school programs are incompatible with our emerging understandings that learning must be active and that people learn in different ways, and in a variety of places. While most teachers are dedicated and hard working, honestly striving to provide young people with a good education, their capacity to tap into new ideas is frustrated by these outdated arrangements.
Responding to public dissatisfaction and evidence that an increasing number of young people are not being adequately challenged for work, nor successfully prepared for citizenship, by current forms of schooling, governments have responded by tightening controls in ways which often compound the problem. The Initiative believes that rather than simply exerting increased pressure on institutions to do more of the same it is now time to investigate new relationships among educational institutions, the community and information technologies so as to create deeper, more varied and more meaningful opportunities.
What Must Be Done
When we fully consider what we now know about the brain and learning and the potential of information technologies in connection with changing societal conditions, we can begin to see the outlines of what future learning systems might be like. For example, most countries should be investing a higher proportion of resources in the care and education of young children, weaning them from dependence on teachers and schools as they gradually assume responsibility for their own learning. Adolescents, in turn, should be inducted into management of adult responsibilities and more connected with the life of their communities.
We can point to programs and practices that seem headed in the right direction, but we cannot as yet offer comprehensive models for the new arrangements we believe are needed. The changes are of such a scale that normal processes of incremental innovation are likely not to be adequate. They will require vision, courage, and long-term commitment.