WHAT should students learn for the 21st Century?

Luminaries answer CCR’s seminal question


Elliot Masie

Elliot Masie

Founder of the MASIE Center and chair of its Learning Consortium

Failing Safely

Learning in the 21st Century is deeply about a change in our relationship to content. In past generations, the content lived at the front of the room, in the minds and words of teachers, in textbooks and other prepared and approved material. The learner’s job was to absorb and understand the content – passing their way to success.

Now, content is “cheap and overabundant”. The learner is surrounded by explicit and soft content – on the web, from social networks and is able to access an increasing and divergent supply of expertise. We would advocate that the learner needs to gain a deeper, wider and more personalized mastery of the educational content – massively enriched by both context and yes, failure.

Context takes the curriculum and maps it to the referential world that the student is building. Access to reality based examples, conflicting perspectives and the ability to personally test the “truth” and relevance of new content is key. The learner must be able to build her own “story” from the content – with a sense of confidence that they can apply it safely.

When I took drivers’ education in high school, we were told to “steer into the skid” when the car might be skidding on ice. But, there was no simulation, no reality opportunities and we never got to try it out. So, it went into an untested, academically required pile of content. 6 months later, I skidded and went in the wrong direction – mashing up my parent’s bumper.

You see, failure is a deep part of the process. The student should have the experience of choosing multiple approaches to skidding – either in a tablet simulation, a global game of students or through other activities. Failing in a safer and evaporative environment will deeply enhance both their learning but also the likelihood of applying it at the moment of need, months or years later.

Unfortunately, our schools are failure aversive. We won’t allow our students to fail – on the way to success. We count their mid-­term exams into the final grade – and often reduce the complexity of the exam accordingly. Why not worship failure as a key part of the learning process – with the ability to use our failure to re-­work our growing understanding of the newly acquired skill, content or information. Teachers that really get to understand failure – often live in the arts and athletics – but are rarely found in the other departments of the schools.

One of my colleagues, Secretary of Education Richard Riley, often counsels that the half-­life of most school curriculum is measured in a few years. Learning new content with richer context and in a failure friendly environment will truly create the 21st Century Learners that employers and society will need. Learning will be a non-­stop, continually updated and changing, failure enriched, success celebrated process.

Copyright – Elliott Masie