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Dr. Kris Magnussen

Making Sense of 21st Century Learning

Late last Spring, I was invited to participate in a local TEDx event hosted by the West Vancouver school district. I had recently given a talk about the kinds of technology needed for supporting learning in changing school climates, and they wondered if I might give a similar talk for their TEDx event. Because the event was still several months away, I readily agreed to participate.

The gist of my earlier talk was based on a commonly held belief that digital technology plays a central role in 21st Century learning. I think of technology in more generic terms, as a means to solve a problem, and I proceeded to show 4 main “problems” that needed solving in our K-12 school system – and thus that were in need of “technologies”. We need to better integrate learning opportunities and methods. We need to educate in multilingual, multicultural and multi-historical contexts. We need to better document the real impact of our interventions. And, we need to provide a framework of meaning for learning. The ways of solving those problems may involve digital technologies, but they are equally likely to take other forms as well, and we can’t lose sight of the need to continue to refine our technological capacity in each of those areas.

Throughout the latter parts of the spring and into the summer, the organizers were encouraging us to be preparing, practicing and rehearsing for our talk. For some reason, I could not bring myself to do so, and kept putting it off to a time when I would be less “busy”. The real issue was that my heart was just not into that talk – even though I strongly believe in the need to solve those four general problems.

The more I struggled with the presentation, the clearer it became that the thing I most wanted to talk about was the problem of making meaning in one’s learning. In all of the writing about 21st century learning, and all of the calls to personalize learning, I had not heard anyone talking about the sort of framework that would be needed for this learning to make sense to the individual. We want to create more opportunities for self-directed learning, we want to have more creativity, more collaboration, less content and ultimately more engagement in the learning process. And we want all of those things, it is argued, to make learning better. But, it seems to me that we are busy personalizing learning without helping people construct personalized pathways. And so, the talk that I ended up giving spoke to this fourth problem: How do we provide a framework of meaning? In other words, how do we make learning relevant, other than by simply relying on better processes? Better processes will indeed yield better engagement, but it will still ring hollow if there is not a higher purpose for those processes.

To me, coherent career practice is not just something that should from time to time enter the K-12 curriculum discussions. It is not something that we leave to overworked and often under-trained school guidance counsellors. It is the frame that holds the personalized learning picture, that gives it meaning and purpose, and that impels the individual down that personalized learning path. Without such a frame, personalized learning can easily degrade into nothing more than meandering. Meandering can be a useful strategy, but at some point, one has to make sense of all of that meandering. It can be an effective way to explore if one is at least heading in a general direction, but it can also be frustrating and feel pointless. It would be a shame to replace one disengaging educational system with another more energizing but equally disengaging one. We can and should do better.

If you are curious about how that talk ended up, you can find it at:

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