Feb 4, 2012

Over the Rainbow to Extreme 21st Century Learning

"Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas any more"

The world of today is very different than that of the 20th Century, which much of our education system is based.  The 20th Century was a much simpler world, although not necessarily easy.  People worked individually on singular tasks, through top down command and control structures.  You had little collaboration or creative thinking by the general workforce.  Problems were solved primarily through defined process controls, in which defined inputs entere a repeatable process that deliver specific and expected outcomes.  The great strides of the industrial revolution was based on such processes, such as Taylor's Scientific Management and Henry Ford's Mass Production System.  The brains of management directed hands and eyes of the worker. Just as Dorthy was swept out of her simple Kansas farm, into a radically new world of Oz, we have left the 20th Century world for a brand new world, operating under different and novel rules, that our schools need to quickly adapt to in order to prepare our students for.

If I Only Had a Left Brain...

In the 21st Century, the Knowledge Age was born with the advent of digital technologies and the Internet. The worker was lifted out of the shop floor to the cubicle, putting her brain to work.  The skills required by the knowledge worker resided primarily in the left brain, such as analysis, logic, computation, and fact retrieval. The paradigm of the 20th Century management still remained the defacto standard, top-down command and control utilizing defined process controls for knowledge workers, called knowledge management.  

If I Only Had A Right Brain

The world is very different today in America from the Industrial Age.  As schools, and many businesses I might add, were just coming to grips with thr Knowledge Age, we already entered a new age.  The Conceptual Economy or Conceptual Age, was initially described by Alan Greenspan in 1997, and later made popular in Daniel Pink's bestselling book, A Whole New Mind. 
"The growth of the conceptual component of output has brought with it accelerating demands for workers who are equipped not simply with technical know-how, but with the ability to create, analyze, and transform information and to interact effectively with others." -Alan Greenspan (source:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conceptual_age)

Conceptual Age skills reside in the right brain, such as, creativity, empathy, collaboration, design, and meaning.  Where knowledge work was about left-minded individuals working individually and together, conceptual work often needs collaboration of diverse whole-brained team members, taking divergent paths to creative solutions.  It is about designing for meaning, emotion, connections, and beauty, as well as function. Take a look at this toothbrush holder design in the image below which transcends commodity function into a design that expresses beauty and fun for the owner.
Conceptual Age Style Toothbrush Holder
From "15 Cool ad Unusual Toothbrush Holders"

"The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind. The era of “left brain” dominance, and the Information Age that it engendered, are giving way to a new world in which “right brain” qualities-inventiveness, empathy, meaning-predominate" -http://www.danpink.com/whole-new-mind

Not only is the Conceptual Age growing, but, Daniel Pink describes how the left brain knowledge work is being eroded in America due to automation of these skills and the outsourcing to cheaper labor overseas. This does not mean we can abandon these skills, since the left brain skills are still necessary, but no longer sufficient in the Conceptual Economy. Our sense of urgency to implement 21st Century Skills should be at code red!

There is No Yellow Brick Road in a Complex & Flat World

The world today is increasingly more complex.  I use the term complex as defined in the field of Complex Adaptive Systems. Complexity is defined as one that is connected, interdependent, diverse and adapting. The 20th Century was not complex, it was relatively stable and predictable, which is why defined process controls and top-down command and control approaches worked so well.  A complex system generates novel and unpredictable phenomenon, with entities constantly adapting to one another in an interconnected world. Look around, from the flattening of the world, the Cloud, to financial markets, our lives are filled with complex interactions.  The 20th Century model fails miserably in a world of novel and constant changes.   

An empirical process control approach, in which exists variable inputs, a variable process, with emergent outputs along with a bottom-up self-organization style of management, is the approach we should for the 21st Century. Emergent processes in a complex system rely on adaptive decisions of those closest to the action.  Think of the game of chess, where you must adapt and make iterative decisions based on the move of your opponent.  You can not go into a match of chess with a specific, step by step plan, because one must continuously adapt to his opponent's moves.  The gameplay emerges, it is not defined.   A simple path to follow like the Yellow Brick Road can not exist in a terrain that is constantly moving and shifting. One must constantly explore and exploit this dancing landscape and learn to dance with it.

Over the Rainbow to 21st Century Skills
"Do you suppose there is such a place, Toto? There must be. It's not a place you can get to by a boat or a train. It's far, far away. Behind the moon, beyond the rain... [begins to sing 'Over the Rainbow'] " - Dorthy

Permission granted. Source P21.org

21st Century Skills is an attempt to develop students who can tackle 21st Century problems in a complex and conceptual world. It is a great foundation to build on.  The Partnership for 21st Century Skills outlines a framework for 21st Century Outcomes and Support Systems.

Learning and Innovation Skills
  • Innovation and Creativity
  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving 
  • Communication and Collaboration

Information, Media and Technology Skills*
  • Information Literacy 
  • Media Literacy 
  • ICT (Information, Communication, and Technology) Literacy
[*John's side note: I believe these Information, Media, and Tech Skills  falls short, which we'll discuss in a future post]

Life and Career Skills
  • Flexibility and Adaptability 
  • Initiative and Self Direction
  • Social and Cross-Cultural Skills 
  • Productivity and Accountability
  • Leadership and Responsibility

Extreme 21st Century Learning

 "Why, anybody can have a brain. That's a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain. Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have. But they have one thing you haven't got: a diploma." - Wizard of Oz aka Man Behind the Curtain

Like many adoptions of new innovations, we approach the future from where we are, with legacy approaches.  In this case, I fear most schools will be approaching 21st Century Skills armed with 20th Century instruction and tools.  Many of the books and training for schools to adopt 21st Century Skills do just this. We run the risk of walking our students backwards into the future. For example, in a wonderful and free online course created by Intel, 21st Century Assessments**, it suggests for students to keep a problem-solving log so the teacher can assess the skill of problem solving. This 20th Century approach of documentation over demonstration still lingers, serving as a disincentive to student self-directed problem solving & creativity, the explicit goals of 21st Century Skills.  20th Century style burdensome compliance through documented reports and logs kills 21st Century Learning. Our students need more than a diploma. [**Don't get me wrong, these Intel Elements Courses are great, but, there is enough legacy creep to demotivate students to be true 21st Century Learners]

I argue that we must immerse our students in 21st Century environments with a toolkit that has proven to innovate in this conceptual age and removes the impediments toengage in 21st Century Skills. It can not be seen as another standard to adopt or a module to be taught in isolation to the curriculum. It must be taken to their extremes and engrained as the only way we teach and learn, displacing legacy learning that does not add value to an empowered 21st Century Learning environment. 

We have a model of this in the software development world, called Extreme Programming.  Software projects were failing at a staggering rate, being run from a 20th Century engineering approach.  Extreme Programming was born from the question, what if we took the things we know about teams and practices that make great software, and take it to their extremes, and threw out the legacy approaches.  Extreme Programming is uniquely a 21st Century approach, adopted by software teams around the world, due to the amazing success it helps teams achieve. 

We can draw parallels from Extreme Programming to 21st Century Learning. Just as a new 21st Century discipline such as software development, failed miserably when it was managed from a 20th Century paradigm, so will 21st Century Skills fail if instructed and learned in a 20th Century classroom paradigm.  21st Century skills require approaches, environments, and resources that are native to the 21st Century environments. What if we took 21st Century Skills to their extremes? What if we took innovative approaches, environments, and tools that were developed in the real world 21st Century to solve 21st Century problems and applied it boldly to the classroom?

No Yellow Brick Road, yet, There is Still a RACE

The 21st Century landscape dances before our bewildered eyes. A defined path of the Yellow Brick Road crumbles beneath our dancing landscape. In a dancing landscape, we are in a race to adapt and relearn and to toggle between exploration and exploitation. Extreme 21st Century Learning cross-pollinates innovative 21st century approaches to challenges in the real world to the classroom. These 21st Century approaches, combined holistically, is called R.A.C.E..  Real power in Extreme 21st Century Learning comes from using these approaches in an integrated combination, although each component could be used independently.   
  • R is for Real and Relevant
  • A is for Agile Based Learning Environment [see "Scrum in the Classroom" for a teaser]
  • C is for Creative and Makers
  • E is for Engaged Passions and Strengths
We'll take a deep dive into each of these in a series of upcoming posts and map how each takes the 21st Century Skills to the extreme using innovative 21st Century approaches. We'll explore the innovative approaches in todays world, such as crowdsourcing, gamification, agile, makerspaces, and design thinking, and cross-pollinate them into Extreme 21st Century Learning. I am very excited to be able to share these ideas and hear what you think!

John Miller
The Agile School Blog

1 comment:

  1. John,
    I enjoyed yout post and so much great information from top to bottom. I like your statement, "A simple path to follow like the Yellow Brick Road can not exist in a terrain that is constantly moving and shifting". Today's world changes so quickly and the amount of information so readily available is staggering. Our students need to learn how to handle this information and 21st century skills should have a place in every classroom.


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John Miller