Why 21st century education is not just about technology

Seth Rosenblatt

Seth Rosenblatt

Our district, like many others, has been having lots of conversations about “21st Century Education” and what it means for us. There are many books and articles written on the subject, but I think the big picture tends to get lost in the discussion, particularly at the local level. When one speaks of “21st Century Learning,” many people just assume it means adding iPads or other technology into the classroom. It’s much more than that, and actually speaks to a complete rethinking of the very structure of schooling.

These conversations sometimes generate controversy as well. I’ve witnessed educators (and school board members) instinctively go on the defensive because any talk about changing public schools appears to be an attack on what they have committed their life to and reminds them of the continual onslaught of attacks from “reformers” who often oversimplify problems and/or know very little about how public education works. So although I am a staunch defender of public education (and so many of our hard-working teachers, administrators, and other staff who do amazing work every day), I can also realize we have inherited a system that no longer applies to our current era.  21st Century Education, viewed very broadly, is critical because it is based upon a permanent change in the context of teaching and learning.

For 19th century public schools, there was a very logical reason why they were designed the way they were – there were few alternatives in how one could organize students, teachers, facilities, and resources in an orderly way. But today, almost all of those former constraints no longer exist.  What has changed? Here’s just a sample:

  • A networked infrastructure: All human enterprises are connected by series of information networks that allow both the creation of content and the sharing of content at unprecedented levels. Also, the “social construct” has changed the way we create and nurture relationships among individuals as well as share information.
  • The flattening world: Traditional barriers among countries – both literal and conceptual – have broken down. Information travels freely and near instantaneously to all corners of the globe, and citizens around the world can participate in the political process like never before.
  • Digital (& diverse) generation: Children today were born into a world where digital access to information was the norm. For these “Millennials,” it is not considered “technology,” but rather the normal way of interacting with the world.
  • Facts are free: How do you educate children in a world where the sum of human knowledge is available instantaneously, for free, at their fingertips? Adults and children alike just “Google it” when they want to discover the population of a country or learn about some world event. The real challenge has shifted to understanding, analyzing, and using information.
  • The primacy of mobile computing: The tremendous advancement in information technology has allowed us to hold a device in our hand as powerful as most computers, allowing it to be a primary information resource for most citizens. We have been freed up from “place” as a requirement for learning and sharing.

So although technology advancements catalyzed the above changes, just adding more technology into a 19th century classroom doesn’t make it a 21st century learning experience. We must understand the implications of our new context, including (a) the impact on both the content of our curriculum and the process of teaching and learning, (b) the design of the physical environment both inside and outside of “school,” (c) the human resource model to best leverage talent, and (d) the structure of the school day, school year, and the “categorization” of children. If we ignore these trends or their implications, we risk making public schooling less and less relevant for our children.

If we were to start over and design a public school system from scratch, would we have physical structures that have a single hallway with a series of equally sized “classrooms” with a single teacher assigned to single room and a few dozen students? Would we use time, rather than achievement, as the constant in our formula? Would we be likely to let all kids out for the summer to tend the fields? Or would we leverage all of the worldwide resources available to us to enhance learning? Would not the roles of our “educators” be much more varied? We must rethink all of the former “walls” that no longer exist.

Of course this is easier said than done. It’s hard to actually start over. Some schools, including both traditional and charter schools, are experimenting with some of these changes, but the real question is how do we create the policy and economic infrastructure to allow school districts to design an educational experience that will serve children growing up in the modern era? In many ways this task is daunting because the implications are so far-reaching. This task will certainly take time, but public education’s transformation appears inevitable. The question is how to best approach it and create a rational and effective transformation. Public school advocates can recognize that many of our schools are doing amazing things with the resources and structure they have inherited, but also admit that we must open everything up to potential change.

Download the complete white paper outlining the argument for structural changes to our public school system required by a 21st Century approach to education.   

Seth Rosenblatt is the president of the Governing Board of the San Carlos School District, currently in his second term. He also serves as the president of the San Mateo County School Boards Association and sits on the Executive Committee of the Joint Venture Silicon Valley Sustainable Schools Task Force. He has two children in San Carlos public schools. He writes frequently on issues in public education, in regional and national publications as well as on his own blog. In his business career, Seth has more than 20 years of experience in media and technology, including executive positions in both start-up companies and large enterprises. Seth currently operates his own consulting firm for technology companies focused on strategy, marketing, and business development. Seth holds a B.A. in Economics from Dartmouth College and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School.

Filed under: Commentary, Curriculum


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11 Responses to “Why 21st century education is not just about technology”

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  1. Nancy White on Sep 25, 2012 at 4:39 pm09/25/2012 4:39 pm

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    I think an important part of this conversation is how the role of the teacher shifts. I see the teacher more as a designer of learning. Given the group of students that they are responsible for (who are not neccessarily grouped by age – but perhaps by where they are in the process of mastering a particular standard) – they would design learning taking advantage of technology where appropriate and differentiate that learning based on different learning styles. Face to face time (or synchronous online time) could be used for some direct instruction, socratic seminar, or sharing learning – putting students in the role of “teacher” . The teacher would also take on the role of coach –working one to one with students or groups – assessing, giving feedback – for any real-world experiences students are participating in to see how they are progressing towards mastery of standards. The teacher would also orchestrate learning in partnership with community and business – creating real-world problem solving and relevance for students. Our current structures and expectations of grade-level standardized testing prohibit these kinds of changes from taking place in public schools.

  2. David B. Cohen on Sep 20, 2012 at 9:17 pm09/20/2012 9:17 pm

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    Glad to see some important questions here that need to be raised about how we organize schools, which will also require a consensus about the purpose(s) of school. One significant challenge I see is that as much as I want to move away from managing time and people in strict quantities and spaces, and more towards individualization, I still want ample opportunity for students to interact and share educational experiences. Schools are the really the one institution that brings together the greatest breadth of our society in one place for extended interaction. There’s a socialization and democratization that happens, and the potential for those to be improved, but I worry about keeping that in mind as it becomes conceivable that we could hyper-individualize and customize much of the learning we focus on in school.


    • Seth Rosenblatt on Sep 20, 2012 at 10:19 pm09/20/2012 10:19 pm

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      David — I of course agree on the value of interaction and sharing among students, and between students and educators. However, I would postulate that breaking down the virtual walls of how we organize school would actually increase such interaction. There could be more project-based learning, more smaller-group instruction, etc. It does not follow in my mind that customization of each student’s path means he or she is isolated — I would suggest that it’s the opposite, and in fact that our current cookie-cutter system of organization is actually a dampener on such sharing and interaction.

    • Paul Muench on Sep 21, 2012 at 8:23 am09/21/2012 8:23 am

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      What does it mean to you to share an educational experience?

  3. el on Sep 20, 2012 at 6:10 pm09/20/2012 6:10 pm

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    One of the things we have to come to terms with is that if you wanted to go whole hog on Seth’s suggestions – to let kids move at their own pace through the material, to worry less about specific facts being in memory – our standardized test system pretty much precludes it. In the Spring of your Nth year, you must be tested on a particular subject area… which means that you can’t set up a “successful” school where it might be learned in the N-1 or the N+1 year.

    I think Seth is right that many facts are disposable although I’m sure he’d agree with me that many or not. For example, dates of specific battles in the American Revolution maybe aren’t so important. But, that 1776 is the year of the Declaration of Independence is pretty important to Just Know, and that battles took place before and after.

    One theory I’ve seen is that different languages facilitate different brain structure. So for example, English, with it’s crazy irregularity, perhaps makes logic less natural but nonconformity and unusual combinations more natural. Mandarin creates brains that are very sensitive to changes in tone and also is beneficial for creating a structure where memorization and adherence to logic is more natural.

    Whatever the truth of that turns out to be, it’s important to remember that what we choose to teach changes how brains are organized. Some skills and ideas and elements taught, then, might be less interesting for their specific content and more for their general beneficial effects. When you do a big research report, the specific topic of that report is less important than the process of doing it, for example.

    And I think before we decide that summers off are not beneficial, I think we should consider who does benefit from them – kids who can go away to summer camp, who can travel, who get to do sports or activities or projects that cannot be done during the time constraints of the school year, and figure out how to bring activities like that in and make them available to all kids. I think it would be a horror to put kids in an indoor classroom for two extra months just doing the same stuff they do now during the year.


    • el on Sep 20, 2012 at 6:11 pm09/20/2012 6:11 pm

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      Oh, and for goodness sakes, can we PLEASE get air conditioning in every California classroom?

  4. Regis on Sep 20, 2012 at 12:46 pm09/20/2012 12:46 pm

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    Navigio, thank you and I almost feel like a luddite myself sometimes. Your point is well taken and summarizes nicely, what I was trying to get at, though you have to travel that path of logic, before you can get to a destination!

    Especially interesting is your comment: “In that light, it seems clear that changing the extent to which one must work to ‘get’ it will change the nature of the value of that thing.” I agree, if it takes no effort to get it, then you are correct, it is of no value, because in a sense, it is disposable.

    Since we both come from the tech sector (former Electronic Technician), I sometimes wonder what information will be deemed ‘disposable’ now, that may be of value later? With physical data, you have to physically destroy it, versus a ‘delete then it’s gone’, in the name of preserving storage space.

    I believe that the critical thinking skills are being shunned or pushed aside and this amazes me, because at a certain maturity level, many young people aren’t ready for it and don’t see an immediate ‘reward’ or career enhancement value to it. An excellent example of this is video games vs. chess. On one hand, you have instant gratification (which dominates our society) and I truly believe that there are behavioural PhD’s, who help design these games to tickle the reward centers in the brain.

    I was a victim of that with the first Mario Brother’s games and boy, I couldn’t stop playing. Very bad for an OCD type like myself and I had to permanently stop playing, as I could see myself getting pulled in. Then you have Chess, which is easy to learn, but very difficult to master and having played for 25 years, I am not bored with the game and there are many studies showing the benefits to the mind with this.

    Unlike reacting to a situation, there is a deep thought process to turn over the situation on the board from many angles, perspectives and possibilities. There is no ‘luck’ nor computer manipulation of the circumstances, they are, truly what they are and you will know your limitations quickly. You will be struck down by superior players and be humbled, but you will remember the awful circumstances that lead to a defeat far better than a video game.

    Technology is the genie that we let of the bottle and it will never go back in. How we harness it is another thing.

  5. Regis on Sep 20, 2012 at 9:45 am09/20/2012 9:45 am

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    Good article! I especially liked the roll-up of the technological changes and what role they are playing (and would play) in an educational system that is going through a transition.

    The technological innovations, such as instant information at your fingertips presents a challenge unto itself. One has to view this through the history of how information itself was handled in the past. Through the centuries, physical print on paper was acknowledged as THE method for recording, storing and disseminating that information, be it a business process, a school text book or fiction as an example.

    Before the introduction of electronic information, conversation and print were the sole means of communications. This is important, because the attention span was longer and the knowledge exposure was much deeper. I inherited an extensive library from a very educated person decades ago, that included the hefty two volume set of the Dialogues of Plato, the Essays of Montaigne, Thoreau and others.

    I can safely assume from my college-attending kids (now adults at teh community college) that most College level students of Philosophy only get exposed to a tiny fraction of what Socrates had to say, because there is a wide area to cover in one semester. I’ve read the two volume set of Plato (actually mostly about Socrates) and it has to be some of the most difficult, time-consuming reading I’ve ever done in my life!

    The scenarios and arguments were beyond belief! These gentlemen literally sat around for at least four to six hours at a time and bounced some very, very deep subject matter between them. They’d argue, dissect, examine from every possible angle many important subjects, such as justice, death, what an idea republic would be, the argument of Socrates against the justice system, when he was accused of corrupting the youth. I’d often have to reread two, three and even four times the arguments presented, just so I could understand what was being discussed in its proper context.

    Montaigne was a little easier, as this is a conversation he had with himself and he covered a lot of very relevant subjects that still hold weight today; of the education of children, cowardice, cruelty, aging and dealing with adversity. I have exposed my children to this and my 20 year old daughter and I have covered much of this between us and she found it fascinating! I’m telling you, it takes real discipline and hard work to properly soak up this, but I truly believe that this exercise deepens the thought process, expands the thinking capability of the young brain and molds them for a better future.

    Our modern electronic-based society has done a very good job of shortening the attention span of our children. Watch any kid show and the scene changes every ten seconds. With all this information at our fingertips, why work your brain at all, because you really don’t have to know much, you can always look it up. And in doing this, we cut out tiny snippets of information, not too much, because they really can’t handle it anymore and I find this a travesty.

    The electronic element has taken out the direct relationship between an author and his reader. Often, the old information is culled, trimmed and changed to suit the modern thinking and politically correct views of our times. I find this distressing and thus my attempt to intervene in at least my children’s life, so that they may experience the genius of big thinking and what it meant back then and how it applies now. I have three children that are grown. Two are very much into what I’ve been discussing and one will probably never embrace it, because that’s just the way it is and she reflects very well, the modern aptitude for live now and worry later.

    I’m not sure throwing more money, resources and computing power at the educational system will accomplish anything, considering the track record of what we’ve done. I do like the attempt to think out of the box. I also don’t think every single student is going to be college ready either. Like it or not, there are significant IQ, cultural and circumstance-based differences to overcome, that the Government really has no business interfering with.


    • navigio on Sep 20, 2012 at 10:48 am09/20/2012 10:48 am

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      Regis, that is one of the best posts in the history of posts (except for your last paragraph of course.. 😉 ). Thank you for that!
      I also tend to believe we value the things we work for (in fact I would go so far as to say that is how we define value). In that light, it seems clear that changing the extent to which one must work to ‘get’ it will change the nature of the value of that thing. I almost feel like a luddite saying that, which is especially problematic given I come from the tech sector, but I do think its how humans work.
      And there is a crucial distinction between information and knowledge or understanding. Easing the access to information may or may not have the same impact on the extent to which knowledge or understanding is gained. And as Regis so eloquently states, it may very well have just the opposite effect. If all we care about is information, them maybe that is ok. But I dont believe thats true.

  6. Seth Rosenblatt on Sep 20, 2012 at 8:01 am09/20/2012 8:01 am

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    Navigio — I appreciate the concern, and of course people are always free to use whatever excuses they want to advance their own agenda. But I would like to be clear on my point of view — public schools in California are woefully underfunded by any measure, and all of these changes would be a very poor excuse to reduce funding. If done correctly, these transformations would actually require much more resources to public schools.

  7. navigio on Sep 20, 2012 at 7:51 am09/20/2012 7:51 am

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    To be honest, this kind of discussion has always bothered me. Not because I dont agree with what Seth says, but because I think too many policy-makers see this kind of change as nothing more than an opportunity to reduce costs (independent of whether the change in question yields a more effective educational system or district). More substantive comments later..

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