Reimagining Education and Learning in America

Educators, policymakers, and members of the media are convening in New York City in a few weeks to take up the future of schools in America. The case for rethinking and reimagining learning in America for 21st century schoolchildren is as compelling as it gets.

America's education system is rooted in late 19th century ideals mostly driven by industrialization. The industrial model is focused on achieving efficiency above all else. It treats children and students as a massive group. In today's highly interdependent, technology-based global economy, American students are not faring well. The Internet and digital media offer the promise of an extraordinary new model for America's education system. It's a model that harnesses the emerging learning potential of the Internet and digital media, and maximizes individual talents, skills, and interests in the pursuit of producing engaged citizens equipped to take on 21st century problems and opportunities.

To date, however, America's schools have proven highly resistant to change, when it comes to technology and learning.

At the heart of education is the creation and transfer of knowledge and the cultivation of critical thinking capacity in the next generation -- both of these areas are experiencing transformational shifts driven by the Internet and digital media. The information age is dramatically changing how youth learn, communicate, problem-solve, and participate in society. We need to understand and take advantage of these digital-age possibilities.

Research has shown that today's generation of students is learning very differently than prior generations. This is, in part, because the Internet and digital media greatly encourages and enhances informal learning, which has always been a powerful mode of education. Today's youth are using the Internet, digital media, and the globally networked 24/7 connectedess of the Worldwide Web to learn in at least four ways that are very different than pre-digital era students:

1) They can pursue interest-driven learning at a tantalizing pace and to fascinating degrees;
2) They readily collaborate and learn from their peers, across geography and cultures;
3) They are participating and producing in learning, skill-building, and knowledge-sharing, as opposed to just being receptacles for information;
4) They can communicate directly with knowledge-giving institutions and individuals all over the world.

Unfortunately, very little of this kind of learning can take place in schools. Schools in general still rely on a pedagogical approach that calls for a teacher to be the anointed expert in the classroom. Consequently, much of this new form of learning is taking place elsewhere.

Research has also shown that young people who are participating in these new learning activities demonstrate greater civic engagement. They are more self-directed, more adept at critical thinking and problem solving, and, perhaps most important, they are much more proficient at collaborating -- a skill that will be essential for 21st century society and work.

These technology-enabled shifts in learning are dramatically altering what learning looks like and how youth experience it. Today, a student in the Gulf can produce a video or a blog on the environmental crisis there, and publish it to the Internet for the world to see. A classroom of students in Ohio studying apartheid can use Skype to have a video conversation with a classroom of students in South Africa. A youth in Iran can post a blog or use social networking to talk about the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution of 2009 and receive encouraging messages from students all over the world. But, to take advantage of these tectonic shifts in learning and education -- to learning that is driven by interest, peers, collaboration, interaction, multimedia, and the networked nature of the Internet -- schools will need to embrace significant change.

We must create a new vision of learning for schools. We don't have to wait, either. There are already "beacons" that demonstrate a new vision for learning. The Quest to Learn school in New York City is exactly that. It is an expansion of an after-school program, the Institute of Play, that uses video game design theory. It has re-imagined the relationships between teacher and student, student and knowledge, student to other students. Another beacon, YouMedia in Chicago, is using digital technology and the Web to help urban youth develop skills and talents for productive careers in college and beyond.

There are other beacons around America, too. All, illuminating examples of a new path forward. At risk is our society's ability to succeed at accomplishing the still-admirable goals of public education: to develop citizens empowered to take on 21st century problem-solving and workplace innovation, to participate in democracy, and to be life-long learners.

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