Of all the phrases floating in education’s buzzword soup, 21st Century Learning has become one of the soggiest. It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with it. On the contrary, its ubiquity speaks to its relevance. It’s used by everyone everywhere. We’ve used it ourselves! Chances are, you have too.

But what do we actually mean when we talk about 21st century learning? Is it related to student’s proficiency with technology and familiarity with STEM? Or more human-oriented skills like collaboration and communication? Or maybe it’s about individual habits of mind and social emotional learning? Systems thinking? Entrepreneurship? Something new entirely? Depending on who you ask, you’ll probably get a lot of different answers.

That’s the thing about language—it’s  slippery. Even more so when we’re trying to nail down something complex as the future of education in an age of exponential growth and change.

In addition to helping us communicate, sociolinguist James Paul Gee also believes we use language as a means to enact specific identities and signal to others we’re members of a community (Gee, 2014). By talking about 21st Century Skills, educators signal to each other, our students, even society that we’re aware that the world is changing, and we know education must change with it. Our use of sleek, modern phrases like “Future-Ready” and “21st Century Skills” is how we push back against the cognitive dissonance caused by wanting to change the world through education while working in a field often associated with the monotony, uniformity, and misery of Industrial era factories.  

We believe that, whether you’re passionate about cognitive load management, critical theory, or digital citizenship, whether you’ve implemented CASEL’s social emotional learning framework, or Partnership for 21st Century Learning’s 21st Century Competencies, or whether you simply don’t know why your tech savvy seniors don’t know how to send an email, we’re united by our belief that traditional coverage based curriculum isn’t enough to prepare the students of today for the problems of tomorrow.

It is in that spirit that our team has decided to create a conceptual umbrella for the countless programs, initiatives, philosophies, and pedagogies that all seek to bring in new ways of thinking, knowing, and doing into education.

We’re calling these: Modern literacies.

Much the same way disciplinary literacies equip students with the confluence of knowledge, skills, and habits of minds that comprise each academic discipline (these are important too!), we believe the myriad of skills, initiatives, and programs detailed above are all working to help students become meaningful participants in modern social, political, and economic life. For the last century, traditional print based literacy (also still important!) has been vital in helping citizens engage and navigate those domains. Soon though, modern literacies will become just as vital. Consider the skills necessary to accommodate the changing norms detailed in Bill Cope & Mary Kalantzis’s Literacies (2016).

Literacies for work Literacies for citizenshipLiteracies for 
community life 
Multimodal meanings in team, customer, corporate, and training including reading oral, written, visual, gestural, and spatial cues. Many levels of citizenship from self-regulating interest or community groups to corporate citizenship, local government and issues of national and international concern Using the new digital and multimodal media to access culture and express identity 
A range of formal and informal texts from emails to reports websites and management information systems. ‘Reading the sign’ of each of these levels of participation and contributing to debate and thoughtful decision making Negotiating diversity in everyday interactions in families, neighborhoods, online, etc. 

Competencies like these will require we begin incorporating new bodies of knowledge in to school’s curriculum. They will force us to look beyond the current opposing binaries of content knowledge vs. generic thinking skills and start considering how disciplinary ways of knowing, thinking, and doing are converging in ways that create new transdisciplinary hubs like the “Digital Humanities” or “Evolutionary Anthropology.”

But regardless of whether we’re teaching students to infer like a historian or code like a programmer (or something in between), we must ensure they can transfer their understanding to new situations. One of the most powerful aspects of the Learning Transfer Mental Model we released last month is that it can be used to break down traditional learning standards and the bodies of knowledge we’re calling modern literacies. It’s our hope that it will help teachers more easily incorporate these new bodies of knowledge in to their curriculum.

Better still, broadening the scope of our inquiry will help us center ways of knowing, doing, and thinking that are more representative of our increasingly multicultural and multimodal society. These are the types of literacies that help students design a better future (Kalantzis, Cope, Chan, & Dalley-Trim, 2016). It is the type of learning that will eventually take students beyond our curriculum, pushing them to ask deeper questions and seek more profound answers.

Importantly, the term “modern” is evergreen—able to bend and flex with the unseen changes that will occur after our world adjusts to new technologies, possibilities, and events like COVID-19. Some of these skills are actually quite old. For instance, collaboration was just as vital in penning the Bill of Rights in 1791 as it will be embarking on an entrepreneurial venture decades from now. Others are incredibly new, like being able to discern if the video you’re watching is a deep fake or designing an effective social media campaign. What we must come to acknowledge though, is that change doesn’t occur in a centennial vacuum. The skills and competencies necessary to succeed today are a product of the systems and structures of yesterday.

We want to capture the fact that, with the sun setting on the first quarter of the 21st century, we must start looking forward, but also do better acknowledging how our past continues to shape our present and future. And, in that same spirit, consider how tomorrow might look different. What if we devoted time studying ethics in schools today? Or anti-racist pedagogy? Or systems thinking? Or ways all three bodies of knowledge can be used in conjunction with each other to create a more equitable society?

Of course, one blog post isn’t going to do much in changing the way we think, frame, and phrase the future of education. But like any successful shift in language, we must name our intention to know it.

So, we hope that you’ll join us in starting to consider the Modern Literacies you believe your students and children will need to navigate modern life. This blog post is just the beginning of a much longer conversation and body of work and we’ll need all the help we can get!

Regardless of whether you’re a teacher, program lead, researcher, or passionate futurist, we hope you’ll stay tuned for our upcoming work around modern literacies. If this post has captured your interest or imagination, we invite you to fill out our Google form so we can form a community who share our vision.

Work Cited:

Gee, J. P. (2014). An introduction to discourse analysis. London: Taylor & Francis.

Kalantzis, M., Cope, B., Chan, E., & Dalley-Trim, L. (2016). Literacies. Port Melbourne, VIC, Australia: Cambridge University Press.

%d bloggers like this: