Creating a systemic approach to 21st century learning has frequently been like the story of the blind men and the elephant. Each blind man finds a different part of the elephant and thinks that is the elephant, but in fact it is only a part. Much of what has been written and discussed about 21st century learning are only parts, and sometimes the parts have unfortunately appeared as heated advocacy and debate. Therefore it is now invigorating to have a systemic model that best serves a holistic approach to student learning.
An important systemic model has emerged through a research paper by Michigan State University faculty members Kristen Kereluik, Punya Mishra, Chris Fahnoe, and Laura Terry that is entitled "What Knowledge is of Most Worth: Teacher Knowledge for 21st Century Learning," and is a brilliant synthesis of key research studies on 21st century learning. In addition to receiving a distinguished award and publication in the Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education, the results of this research will also be a featured keynote at the ISTE Conference in summer of 2014.
This 21st century learning model has three main categories for student learning: Foundational Knowledge (to know), Meta Knowledge (to act), and Humanistic Knowledge (to value). Each main category has three sub-categories that articulate direction and intent.
The three sub-categories of Foundational Knowledge include: Digital/Information Literacy, Core Content Knowledge, and Cross-Disciplinary Knowledge. Within each of these it becomes important to identify what is of most worth for learning (as opposed to voluminous learning for the sake of learning) and to also look at ways to pursue authentic learning that establishes relevance and integration. There has sometimes been a struggle for dominance within these three sub-categories in schools, and this approach recognizes purposeful balance.
The three sub-categories of Meta Knowledge include: creativity and innovation, problem solving and critical thinking, and communication and collaboration. These are the critical processes necessary for developing high levels of foundational knowledge. These skills involve processes for effectively working "in the box" and also "out of the box,"so that learning is an act of production and creation. There has been justified criticism of education that it has become too much about learning and not enough about doing. This meta knowledge level is very much focused on active and engaged doing.
Finally the three sub-categories of Humanistic Knowledge include: life/job skills, ethical/emotional awareness, and cultural competence. These attributes focus on empowerment of the learner through awareness of self, as well as development of social and global context. Humanistic knowledge is sometimes an area that is slighted in schools, and this model suggests that success in life is interconnected with a humanistic perspective. There have been many brilliant people throughout history who have done horrible things, and this area of emphasis says that we need to pay attention to quality of life and to recognize our interdependence in the world.
In many ways this research shows that "nothing has changed" and also shows that "everything has changed." I have seen schools that have had a dominant focus on one or two sub-categories of Foundational Knowledge, and not recognized the important skills of Meta Knowledge. I have seen schools that have largely ignored Humanistic Knowledge. There are a multitude of variations that lack focus, coherence, and direction, and yet there are also pockets of excellence almost everywhere. The challenge is bringing it all together in ways that are purposeful, universally understood, and that allow people their creative modes of expression.
Ultimately it's important to understand the distinctions within Foundational Knowledge, Meta Knowledge, and Humanistic Knowledge, so that a well-rounded, comprehensive, liberal arts education is made possible in the education of the whole child for ALL children.
For staff at schools who are serious about developing a systemic approach to 21st century learning, I suggest looking at Appendix B in the research study to see all of the descriptors identified for the main categories and sub-categories. This could be an excellent source of conversation and self-assessment for identifying where to celebrate and where there is work that could lead to meaningful strategic planning and long-range goal setting.
For people who would like to read the full research study, here's the link: