Learners of the 21st century need to become part of a workforce where they can function as independent thinkers, have the ability to do research, have drill-down skills to get to the core of a challenge, have inquiring minds linked to strategic imagination for solving problems, are enabled to visualize challenges and solutions and are skilled to continuously learn, de-learn and re-learn. It is clear from the above description, that teaching and learning in the 21st century classroom should be based on active, constructivist teaching and learning principles, as opposed to passive, behaviorist teaching and learning principles.
Teachers following the active teaching and learning approach involve learners in seeking answers, sometimes enabling learners to create questions themselves before attempting solutions. These teachers encourage debate and research, and the classroom environments are characterized by learners interacting with one another, resulting in productive noise going on most of the time. In classes where the teacher follows the passive learning approach, the only voice being heard is that of the teacher while the learners are required to passively absorb the knowledge and insight the teacher shares with them.
Active learning requires critical thinking skills, learners need to be able to formulate their own viewpoint, formulate questions, as well as discuss points of agreement and disagreement from a variety of angles and perspectives. They need to be able to organize their thoughts, explain how they are thinking and manage their thinking, which is called meta-thinking or thinking about one’s own thinking.
Opposed to passive learning, which is associated with textbooks and pre-formulated answers, active learning implies that learners discover and create their own knowledge and insight. Passive learning belongs to an era where learning is seen as an individual process where learners have to memorize not only the prescribed curriculum content, but also solutions to problems. It could be argued that teachers who embrace passive learning regard their mind-sets and their ways of thinking and their subject as being the norm that ideally, each learner should live up to. Their calling revolves around cloning their mind-sets, and ways of thinking.
The success of passive teaching and learning is measured by how well the teacher’s profile, which includes their knowledge, norms, morals and values, are reflected in the lives of their learners. For decades, education systems have been stagnated on this exclusive approach where learners who are not meeting the pre-set norms and criteria are excluded. The system augmented the process of exclusion by calling it, ‘failing’. Learners fail, not because they cannot think and solve problems, but because they are not able to recall a critical mass of answers and pre-formulated solutions. The system can also be characterized as exclusive because learners are excluded from having a viewpoint or allowed to voice it.
For 21st century learners, this kind of exclusion is absurd. They prefer an inclusive, group-oriented social-working environment. They want to ask questions and take risks and have control of what they are doing and saying. If teachers do not take note of the thinking preferences of 21st century learners, teachers will increasingly get the feeling that they are talking to themselves. Learners of the 21st century are learning consumerists. In the same way they prefer specific clothing brands, and dislike others, they do not want ready-made answers and solutions. They do not want pre-digested packages of information dished up to them in bite-size chunks, of which the size is determined by how much an average learner can absorb within one sitting. They want to make their own choices, solve problems and do not merely want to be listeners who memorize information.
The minds of 21st century learners do not leave challenges unattended, they will normally not stop tussling challenges, until they are understood, unraveled or parked. Learners’ challenges become the playfield for mistakes and iterations until new insight is gained. The only way to grasp and keep learners’ attention in the classroom is to create an environment in which they believe that they are in control, can make decisions and have a feel-good-feeling of instantaneous achievement. Learners are growing up in a so-called data economy and are confronted with the knowledge explosion of the information age, which is a world closer to them than the world of the distant teacher in front of the class.
Learners of the 21st century want instant and incremental endorsement or support on their learning progress. Listening to an explanation today, only to be assessed on it in two weeks, is not on for them. They want to construct their own ideas, concepts, hypotheses or theories that serve as platforms for further thinking that enable them to understand their worlds, gain insight, solve their problems and be creative. They want to know for what reason they are learning.
Social interactions which become the playground for teamwork collaborations, creativity, imagination and problem-solving, are important for 21st century learning. For learners learning is about buy-in, creativity, co-creativity and collaboration. In this co-creative milieu learners enjoy it if their viewpoints are moderated by others, and true north (direction) is gauged – whether it involves a subjective topic such as politics or an exact science such as mathematics. Buy-in, creativity, co-creativity and collaboration become the powerhouse that provides energy for the learning journey. It is in this powerhouse where learners share knowledge with others and utilize other learners’ knowledge; use individual skills in joint efforts and make best use of other learners’ skills; strengthen own creativity and are influenced by others’ creativity; have the courage to offer new ideas and solutions and have the courage to try others’ creative ideas. In this way, learning becomes a team sport. This makes a question such as: ‘What did you learn?’ less important than the question: ‘How did you go about learning?
The 21st century classroom should emphasize learning that allows for self-expression of each individual learner and simultaneously also for self-expression of the group, irrespective of how diverse the viewpoints and subjective the topics are. This learning environment demands socio-emotional literacy and an abundance of refined emotional intelligence skills, which calls for knowing oneself, awareness of one’s own skills and the skills of others, knowing one’s own competencies and talents and that of others, self-management, personal responsibility, and problem-solving skills.
The 21st century learner needs to be equipped with tools to explain how they think, which signifies the importance of metacognition that enables them to control their thinking processes. They need to have the vocabulary to deal with their thinking, to forecast and explain their learning journeys. They also need the vocabulary to describe and evaluate their thinking processes, e.g. in retrospect saying that they spent too much time on seeking the bigger picture instead of asking critical questions. Their proficiency in using thinking skills vocabulary in their day to day reflections will echo their level of thinking maturity. This phenomenon applies to all types of learning, not only learning in the classroom. For example, the more one plays chess, the more proficient one gets in chess terminology e.g. a back rank, back rank mate and castling. The more the player uses these terminologies, the more thinking handles they have in order to devise winning strategies. The less thinking handles the greater the chance of losing a game.
In the same way, enabling learners to apply thinking handles to switch from one thinking angle/mode, approach or process to another and even block out or park ideas that need to be blocked out or parked for future use, are important for 21st century learning. Meta-thinking (the ability to switch from one thinking mode to another) empowers learners to explore different ways of reasoning, opening up new thinking horizons and exploring critical thinking avenues never explored before.
The 21st century learner wants to evaluate the influence of views of others and weigh it in terms of their own argumentation. They do not want to ponder on views; they want quick wins in terms of formulating their own views. They immediately want to know if a piece of information fits in somewhere or whether it is useless for the moment or just trivial information.
How 21st century learners think, aligns with the fact that the brain can think in non-linear ways. The non-linear working ways of the brain become eminent when we explore an idea. After a while, we find it impossible to backtrack our thinking from our last idea to the original one. Our minds enjoy wandering around, and cannot resist being distracted by pop-up ideas. This becomes even clearer when the mind is forced to listen to a boring speech or lecture. In no time, the mind can take us on a holiday or plan something closer to our heart. Metaphorically speaking, the brain operates in hyperlinked ways. Whenever the mind gets to a challenging idea, it ‘clicks’ on that hyperlink and within a split second the mind finds itself in another realm. If this is how the mind works, teachers should take note because it has implications for the way they should teach to enable learners to acquire important critical thinking skills and dispositions.