Should We Define the 21st Century Learner?

This buzz word has been grating on my nerves recently. I’m sure I’ve used it in twitter chat euphoria; however, after thinking about it, I don’t understand the logic behind the moniker.  When I look at a list of supposed “21st century learning” competencies or skills, I often see things like: critical thinking, collaboration, problem-solving, communication, global citizenship, and technology/media literacy.  I’m forced to ask, why are these skills relegated to the 21st century learner? Are these competencies really that new?  They certainly aren’t innovative.  It seems to me that good teaching has held these skills as valuable competencies for at least since I entered kindergarten over 30 years ago (including preparing students for future technological advancements–though “technology” may have had a different label back then).  I’m not sure why the advent of the iPad and other mobile technology suddenly makes for overhauling pedagogy.

I think there needs to be a discussion about best practices and not on defining and labeling learners in the predictive sense.  Developing best practices requires us to look at the learner on an individual basis and adapt instruction accordingly.  We don’t need blanketed cookie-cutter curricula claiming to be the academic elixir for the so-called 21st century kid.  We definitely shouldn’t be shoving technology down students’ throats simply because “they should know this stuff by now!”  Skilled teachers know that every year we usher in a new blend of students that will ultimately change how we approach instruction.   Master teachers also know that technology should be approached as a tool to support curriculum and not the foundation by which we build curriculum.  I’m not alone in my thinking either.  I was happy to find this post.  The author summarizes my thoughts exactly:

I’m not particularly bothered by a murky vision of the future ahead, or the prospect of making it all up as we go along–curriculum, instruction, technology use, learning goals and prioritized skills. You can (and probably will) interpret that as typically muddle-headed eduspeak, but truly proficient teachers adjust the parameters of their practice constantly, to fit the unique students in their class, the resources available and, sometimes, the day’s headlines. Planning blind is sometimes part of an effective change process. And sniping over an exact delineation of what 21st century learners need is more about the snipers than the students.

Are today’s students different from yesterday’s students? Yes. Do we need to adjust instructional methods to reflect that change? Yes.  Is this an innovative concept? I should hope not!  I’m not against finding innovative ways to meet the needs of current and future students.  I am against labels that serve to pigeonhole an entire century’s worth of students present and future under one brand. I think our students deserve better.