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21st Century Education: Thinking Creatively

This was originally written for publication for my school’s newsletter’s edition on “21st century learning”. I present it to you here not as an attempt to present any new ideas, but in the hope that it might help to pull together many of the ideas that are floating around in online education discussions. Those familiar with Dan Pink might see some of his influence here. Enjoy.

Twenty-first century education won’t be defined by any new technology. It won’t be defined by 1:1 laptop programs or tech-intensive projects. Twenty-first century education will, however, be defined by a fundamental shift in what we are teaching — a shift towards learner-centered education and creating creative thinkers. Today’s world is no longer content with students who can simply apply the knowledge they learned in school: our generation will be asked to think and operate in ways that traditional education has not, and can not, prepare us for.

Education has long tried to produce students who can think (and at times, think critically) and it has, for the most part, succeeded. As we move into a world where outsourcing, automation, and the ability to produce a product, physical or intellectual, at the cheapest cost, become the cornerstones of our rapidly evolving global economy, the ability to think critically is no longer enough. The need to know the capital of Florida died when my phone learned the answer. Rather, the students of tomorrow need to be able to think creatively: they will need to learn on their own, adapt to new challenges and innovate on-the-fly. As the realm of intellectual accessibility expands at amazing rates (due to greater global collaboration and access to information), students of tomorrow will need to be their own guides as they explore the body of information that is at their fingertips. My generation will be required to learn information quickly, use that information to solve new and novel problems, and then present those solutions in creative and effective ways. The effective students of tomorrow’s world will be independent learners, strong problem solvers and effective designers.

If we accept the above to be true, I would argue that there are two types of education that will prepare students for the world of tomorrow: experiential learning and project-based learning.

Experiential learning can be best seen in extracurriculars and in some schools, senior projects. These experiences give students the opportunity to face first-hand the challenges that arise when applying the theoretical knowledge provided by traditional classroom learning to real-world challenges. Light designing for MICDS Theatre has taught me how to take my technical knowledge of lighting and apply it to a creative and artistic end. As issues arise, I must problem-solve within the constraints provided by my technical knowledge and my creative vision — I must think creatively.

Project-based learning is the in-class complement of experiential learning. The concept behind project-based learning is simple: give students the basic tools, then ask them to go above and beyond on their own projects, exploring the information in their own way, and on their own terms. The effect can be awe-inspiring. Our students are diving deeper into subject matter than ever before, and doing so on their own terms in ways that they enjoy. Whether it is through producing a movie on burlesque dance or deriving Kepler’s laws using calculus, students are not only learning, but they are learning how to learn.

Traditional-rote learning has its place too, as a jumping-off point for our intellectual endeavors. We are, however, crippling our students if we don’t give them the tools necessary to be life-long learners.

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