21st Century Learners

Below is the answer I gave to a discussion board post this evening for one of the classes in my masters degree program. Feel free to pick apart my thinking or let me know if there are any holes in my logic!

The writing prompt was as follows:
Post your own definition of a 21st century learner and what it means for them to be literate in the 21st century. What does this mean to you as you consider NETS-T, Standard Two, designing and developing digital-age learning experiences and assessments?
I would define a 21st century learner as someone who knows how to utilize ALL of the tools available to him/her in the learning process, regardless of what the tool is. Most likely the resources will be digital, but it is a wise and learned pupil who can differentiate the correct resource for the task at hand. More importantly, I see a 21st century learner not learning in isolation, but rather learning as part of a community or network.

I get my broad rationale for this definition based on the directions I have seen my own personal learning take. Nearly all of my learning, with regards to technology use in education for example, have come from a learning network or a personal relationship within a socially connected environment (Both traditional F2F connections and online). I frequently meet new teachers, consultants, vendors, or experts based on previous connections with other teachers, consultants, etc. In the past 12 years I've been teaching, "school" has not been a variable in my learning experience. It is the connections I have made that have created the learning and none of these connections would have been possible without the digital tools of the 21st century.

In his explanation paper on the learning theory of connectivism, George Siemens concludes his ideas about 21st century learning in this way:

The pipe is more important than the content within the pipe. Our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today. A real challenge for any learning theory is to actuate known knowledge at the point of application. When knowledge, however, is needed, but not known, the ability to plug into sources to meet the requirements becomes a vital skill. As knowledge continues to grow and evolve, access to what is needed is more important than what the learner currently possesses.

Connectivism presents a model of learning that acknowledges the tectonic shifts in society where learning is no longer an internal, individualistic activity. How people work and function is altered when new tools are utilized. The field of education has been slow to recognize both the impact of new learning tools and the environmental changes in what it means to learn. Connectivism provides insight into learning skills and tasks needed for learners to flourish in a digital era.
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

If learning in the 21st century is a matter of connecting, then it is up to teachers to help students create those and/or evaluate, critique, and filter those connections. In his February 2010 Blog article entitled "Teaching in Social and Technological Networks" Siemens lists what he believes are the essential roles of a teacher with regards to student learning:

1. Amplifying
2. Curating
3. Way-finding and socially-driven sense-making
4. Aggregating
5. Filtering
6. Modeling
7. Persistent presence

Not ironically, these ideas dove-tail nicely with the technology standards for teachers. Teachers are to create the environment within which learning can take place, but they are not the ones responsible FOR the learning. Teachers also assess whether learning has taken place and it is up to them to adjust the learning environment when connections aren't being made by the learner. This is a markedly different approach to the teaching/learning relationship we saw and experienced in the 19th and 20th centuries. Technology and personal access to information has fundamentally changed education in the 21st century.

Now, without got go back too much to our previous discussion about literacy (the term I'm sure we flogged pretty well), being literate in the 21st century is more than just reading and writing. Yes, one needs to know HOW to read and write, but those skills are a far cry from the ONLY skills necessary to learn in the 21st century (which it sounds like we mostly agreed upon). The more I think about it, the more I want to define literacy in the 21st century as the ability to learn.

You may have already heard this quote from Alvin Toeffler before, but I think it's worth repeating in this conversation:
"The illiterate of the future are not those that cannot read or write. They are those that can not learn, unlearn, relearn."

Teaching "New" Literacies

Got this email from one of our awesome first grade teachers this morning and I wanted to spend some time thinking about it:

"I have some photographers who will take a billion pictures of what they think is important. That’s not a big deal… When I asked them which pictures we need to keep, they truly think all of them… and they don’t. Do you have some suggestions/parameters which might help them to decide what they think is a “good” picture or what they think is “best”?"

What a great question! So, how do you teach visual literacy. Better yet, how do you help students discern, make judgments, and create meaning from visual material? How do you teach students that images not only convey meaning, but that they also create meaning in a similar way that text helps create meaning for its reader?

Here are some of my initial thoughts:

1. I wonder if a conversation needs to happen with the students about what an "important" picture is? Could that be causing the randomness of the image taking? That could very well be the case, but every good photographer knows that the best images happen in the moment and are not staged. So how do you separate the wheat from the chaff? The issue could also be that students frankly just don't want to delete anything they've done. They are so excited to have created something that they don't want to think about what to give up; they want to keep them ALL for posterity.

2. Teachers should reinforce with students the idea that images tell a story. If students can identify the "story" behind an image, they are on their way determining its potential place in and among the other "stories" in a group. Only when students begin to see that some images fit better than others will they be willing to pick and choose. The Tell a story in 5 frames Flickr image group comes to mind when thinking about this.

3. Images can be combined to convey a message in a broader context. While each image in itself can create meaning for students, putting pictures together in a sequence also create a larger "big picture" idea. Now this process can go both ways! Students can either start with the big idea and create images that support or tell the story, or they can make a judgement about what the "big picture" is based a given set of images. One is obviously more subjective than the other, but if students can come to a big picture understanding of the images, maybe we can help them re-evaluate their choices. This may very well need to be caught through aggressive modeling more than taught?

4. Along the lines of images telling a story, would be the students ability to put events in sequential order. If the bulk images can't be put in order in which the "story" of the day happens, then they shouldn't be kept. This is a skill that most early childhood and elementary teachers work on with their students. Can you use similar teaching strategies in making the transition from text to images? When students can identify the beginning, middle, and end of literature, I would think that would also be the foundation for helping students discriminate sequences in images as well; as long as images are thought of as meaningful and not just "pretty" things to look at. ECE teachers are already doing this with emergent readers anyway. Emergent readers are constantly connecting pictures to text for the purpose of helping them create meaning. Why couldn't teachers build on this process?

It would be interesting to see if research could provide a link between traditional literacy sequencing skills and the discrimination of meaning from images. What are the preparatory skills needed for students to effectively make subjective decisions about the meaning derived from images? Are both both visual and text literacy two sides of the same coin?

So is "visual literacy" really a NEW literacy or are digital photography and the Internet just amplifying something that has always been important?
Image: "Small DSLR" by Flickr user: jonr. Used under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 CreativeCommons License
Image: "life.turns.clockwise #1" by Flickr user: delphwynd. Used under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 CreativeCommons License