The new paradigm of 21st century learning

The new paradigm of 21st century learning

Published on
Jul 5, 2021
Guy Levi

Why? Because something happened in January 2007

In January 2007, Apple announced the first iPhone, now part of a family of devices generally defined as smartphones. It was a singular point in the history of modern times. It was the beginning of a paradigm shift, and an event that forever changed the way billions of people live, act, communicate and… learn. Most of us could not understand the vision of Steve Jobs, were unable to perceive what he could do, and were unable to grasp what he envisioned. Ever since, we no longer learn the way we did before.

One of the most important observations of the 13 years that followed this announcement is that most of us are still not aware of the fact that we are learning in a different way. There are a number of reasons for this sad reality. Students are still taught and assessed using 20th century methods and are still going day by day to the same 20th century brick and mortar schools, sitting in 20th century classrooms and listening to teachers who teach a 20th century curriculum. Then, these students are going to colleges and universities where they get the same experience, teaching, learning, and assessment.

We have the best personal technology in our hands, accessible to everyone. AI and machine learning are rapidly changing everything — health, communication, leisure and entertainment (before COVID-19) and other spheres of life. However, education and learning, if harnessing AI and machine learning, focus on improving traditional learning, old-style evaluation methods, outdated and old-fashioned certification exams… a dead end. We need to disrupt our own learning, and we must begin by disrupting our own thinking. The new paradigm of learning should no longer hide in the minds of few; the new paradigm of learning should go out of darkness and embrace us all.

There are eight characteristics that construct the new paradigm. They connect the scope, methods, time and space, types of communication, and the way in which to empower the self-directed learner. Let’s look at each of these eight characteristics and view the connections.

The eight characteristics of 21st century learning

Why eight? Good question. Some would say that the number eight signifies the completion of a particular action, but also represents new beginnings, others would argue that it signifies infinity (turn it 90 degrees). Well, both are correct, as we must analyze the way we learn today differently. The eight characteristics, when combined, create a harmonious piece of music, a work of art or a learning poem.

In a storytelling mode, it goes like this: the new paradigm is an ongoing or continuous learning process through the day (and daily). It encompasses the way we live (mobility), enabling us to learn in small portions, in bite-sized chunks. However, our learning today is clearly an action-oriented effort, shared by everyone, analyzed and nurturing metacognition and reflection. The innovative outcome and effect of this learning process is an unprecedented level of self-awareness and self-initiation.

Let’s now dive into each of them.

The first characteristic is Ongoing or Continuous learning. It is rather simple, because we intuitively know that we need to keep on learning. However, there is something else involved: learning serves as “food” for our brain and memory. The concepts of the spacing effect or spaced repetition, which demonstrate that learning is more effective when it is spaced out, show that significantly more information is encoded into the long-term memory when learned in intervals, in repetitions and continuously. So continuous learning is not just life-long-learning in a new wording, it assures a process of deeper understanding and deeper learning which is critical for 21st century learners.

Second is Through the Day or simply Daily. It is not enough to continuously learn, we must keep it a daily practice, and as we already stated in the introduction, smartphones are now ubiquitous, and we can use them for learning constantly. Well, we are doing that as the smartphone became literally part of our body, yet, most people do not really understand that learning also became literally their second nature.

We identify the third characteristic as Mobile. The Cambridge English dictionary defines mobile as “moving or walking around freely” and “able to be moved from one place to another”. This means that “through the day” does not confine learning to one or several locations: home, school, workplace, etc. We now are learning anywhere and anytime. We are now free to learn. In this case, we may refine the dictionary definition to adjust it to our context and say, “learning around freely”.

Now it’s time to get to the scope (“size”) of learning, it is Small Portions or Bite-sized Chunks. If we are continuous learners, learning throughout the day while we freely move around, we need to pay attention to how much time we spend when we practically engage in learning. The formula is this: “shrink” the time and increase the iterations, inhale spaced repetition. It is important to note that the concept outlined here complements and synchronizes with other types of learning — group learning, peer learning, in-depth discussions, etc.

The fifth characteristic takes us deeper into the kingdom of learning and, in particular, that of the 21st century. Learning, regardless of size or duration, must be Action-Oriented. A model of interplay between emotions and learning demonstrates a learning sphere that differs from the teaching sphere. Pedagogy, according to Seymour Papert, is the art of teaching. But what about the art of learning he questioned. He developed the concept of constructionism in opposition to that of instructionism, described in The Children’s Machine. Papert argued that learning is effective when learners are active and building their own knowledge. Constructionism is built on the assumption that learners will do best by finding for themselves the specific knowledge they need. This was in the 1980s, and 40 years later, conditions are now fully realized for action-oriented learning.

Learning is Shareable. This is tricky; shareable with whom? Peers, teammates, colleagues, managers? The answer is yes and no. Yes, the entire list, but no, because something is missing from the list. Our learning is also shareable with the ‘cloud’, and the ‘cloud’ is loaded with “heavy rain” of big data, and “thunder storms” of AI and machine learning are accelerating to provide us with feedback, recommendations, and reflections. Yes, this is the human-machine interplay, which takes learning to new realms.

Well, the seventh characteristic is Reflection and it stems directly from its predecessor. There is no use in sharing what one is doing if one doesn’t get feedback, and it is useless if the feedback doesn’t include the learning, knowledge and understanding of our millions of global peers. As AI and machine learning progress, they will deliver the benefit by harmonizing learning in a new way, which can be defined as human-machine pedagogy.

Finally, yet arguably most importantly (to some it may be a revelation), a significant portion of our learning can be considered as stealth learning. We constantly use our smartphones to look for information, to find answers to questions, to enhance conversation when we just need a piece of a missing fact, to communicate with friends or colleagues to discuss something we started before. Unfortunately, most of us are doing all these things, i.e. learn, without self-awareness. The vast majority of people are not aware of the fact that they are continuous learners and without this awareness they can’t connect the dots. They can’t transfer something understood in one field or domain to another. They are simply “using” smartphones and “use” is a physical action while “learn” is a mental and perceptual one. In the dawn of the third decade of this century, learning becomes second nature. It is thus essential that we exploit its potential. Self-awareness, we argue, is a necessary condition to stimulate curiosity and develop intrinsic motivation which drives ongoing learning building a lifelong cycle of intellectual growth and sense making.

Technology provides the missing piece of the puzzle of 21st century learning. Technology makes everything possible and promotes better learning when used effectively. It enhances our capabilities as continuous learners, as reflective learners, and as self-initiated learners.

Let’s sum it up.

Get your learning ongoing, throughout the day, at home, at work and everywhere while you are on the move (mobile). Use bite-size chunks of content each time you engage in learning and make sure these are active and interactive chunks (action-oriented), then shared with your peers and yourself (in the ‘cloud’) to reflect upon your own and your peers deeper understanding. Finally, make sure you are self-aware that what you have done is 21st century learning and you are a continuous learner.

Guy Levi is a 21st century learning innovation expert. For the last 15 years, he served as the Director of Innovation of the Center for Educational Technology (CET) in Tel Aviv. Guy currently consults to a number of learning organizations and develops innovative projects in the unique model of digital Nano-courses.

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