What People Need to Learn

What People Need to Learn

Winona Middle School’s Cultural History Project

Education is an enterprise that asks: What’s worth knowing and being able to do?

Education experts have proposed answers to this question, and although they differ in the details all recognize that what we need to know goes beyond the traditional three Rs of Reading, ’Riting, and ’Rithmetic. Whether the domain is English language arts, mathematics, sciences, social studies, history, art, or music, 21st century competencies and expertise such as critical thinking, complex problem solving, collaboration, and multimedia communication should be woven into all content areas.

Experts also agree that people no longer can learn everything there is to know in a lifetime, and the economic reality is that most people will change jobs throughout their lifetime. Therefore, we need adaptive learning skills that blend content knowledge with the ability to learn new things. This requires developing deep understanding within specific domains and the ability to make connections that cut across domains – learning activities that should replace the broad but shallow exposure to many topics that is the norm in our education system today. We also need to know how to use the same technology in learning that professionals in various disciplines do.

Professionals routinely use web resources and participatory technology such as wikis, blogs, and user-generated content for the research, collaboration, and communication demanded in their jobs. For students, these tools create new learning activities that allow them to grapple with real-world problems, develop search strategies, evaluate the credibility and authority of websites and authors, and create and communicate with multimedia (Jenkins, 2009; Leu, Kinzer, Coiro, & Cammack, 2004). For example:

  • In the study of mathematics, professional-level interactive graphing and statistical programs make complex topics more accessible to all learners and help them connect to datasets that are current and relevant to their lives.
  • In earth sciences, collecting data with inquiry tools, adding geotags with GPS tools, and interactively analyzing visualizations of data patterns through web browsers bring professional scientific methods and techniques to learners of all ages and abilities.
  • In history, original documents available to historians as digital resources from the Smithsonian and other institutions are available to engage learners in historical thinking and reasoning.

As these examples illustrate, the world’s information and sophisticated tools for using it, which are available anytime and anywhere, demand that rather than being content experts we be expert learners in at least three ways:

  • As skillful and strategic learners who have learned how to learn new things and communicate what we have learned
  • As motivated and engaged learners who identify ourselves as growing in competence and want to learn even more
  • As networked learners, with the ability to tap expertise anytime and anywhere that can advance our learning.

A crucial step in transforming American education to produce expert learners is creating, revising, and adopting content standards and learning objectives for all content areas that reflect 21st century expertise and the power of technology to improve learning.

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As an 8th grade US history instructor I have made it a point to utilize technology in the form of podcasts, videocasts, wikis, live blogging, and the utilization of a wide range of sites with primary source documents. My fear is that although I have a classroom lab of computers which are accessed by my students for the above learning opportunities, what happens when the technology becomes obsolete. My students are using computers that are 5-6 years old, yet the technology we use is current. At some point the computers no longer serve their purpose and we will be in need (as we are now) of new computers. Yet funding is dried up especially in California where we stand to face even deeper cuts. I can prove that my students are deeply engaged in my classroom because of the use of technology, but I am not assured that this will continue to happen within the next two years. In order to maintain this 21st Century learning a full effort of funding must take place so that teachers can continue to provide a stimulating and engaging curriculum while tapping into our students knowledge of technology.