At a recent conference, I was asked to speak on “21st Century Education 101,” a primer for those who might still be new the concept. People started talking about 21st century education already twenty years ago, but since 2000 there are countless books and articles that use this phrase to talk about what students need to know to thrive in a 21st century world. Others use it to think about what a school of the 21st century should look like, often comparing industrial and post-industrial age schooling. Still others use the phrase to discuss the changing “how” of teaching in an increasingly digital world, leveraging current and emerging technology for teaching and learning.
I started my talk with a five-minute highlight of such ideas, listing seven or eight of the often-referenced books on this subject. Then I decided to do something different. Taking the advice of a professor years ago (He said, “We learn too late that our convictions matter.”), I decided to create and share my own list for 21st century learning. In this list, I focused on the types of learning environments and experiences that I consider valuable for learners of all ages, the types of learning challenges that stretch us, inspire us, and equip us to flourish, create, inspire, and live with a deep sense of meaning and purpose.
Number seven on my list was, “Accomplish tasks that are impossible alone.” I suggested that many group projects in schools miss the mark because the group members don’t really need a group to accomplish the tasks. In that sense, they are not authentic. The assignment or challenge is set up in a way that one person can do most or all the work for the rest of the group. Or, perhaps led by a teacher who studied cooperative learning, the assignment requires that all students play a certain role to get full credit, but it is still not authentic. The only thing that requires that the team work together is the list of rules made up by the teacher.
Instead, what if we provided learners with more authentic group challenges, the kind that actually requires a group to accomplish the task or face the challenge? In my job, I can’t possibly carry out my work without other people. I depend upon others. Not only that, my work would not have a point without them. I need them, and sometimes they need me or someone who can do what I do. Some people don’t like such arrangements and they try to design a life that avoids them as much as possible. This is a persistent value, especially in the United States. It is likely why we like to elevate leaders with special titles and sometimes enormous salaries. As noted by Edgar Shein in Humble Inquiry, even when we do teamwork, we often seem to think that the success is truly a result of a single strong leader, because that is rooted in the work and character of an individual. Or, if we recognize the interdependent work of the team, we are inclined to celebrate or highlight the work of the highest performers on the team or someone who was especially important in the project. The American mind tends to resonate with Igor Sikorsky when he states, “The work of the individual still remains the spark that moves mankind ahead even more than teamwork.” Of course, regardless of what we emphasize or how we try to arrange our lives, we still need other people.
While I respect and value different types of people, some energized by time alone and others by spending time with a group, learning about leaning on others is a life skill, especially in our increasingly specialized world of the 21st century. We see this throughout nature and society. Teams sports give this experience for some people. It isn’t possible to play such games without others, and it is unlikely that one will be successful in the game without a team of walking, running, jumping, thinking, breathing others.
Why not create or pursue group challenges in learning communities that mirror this? Carry an object too heavy for the strongest kid. Write a 20 page essay with a two-hour deadline (think of how Wikipedia articles are written). Host an event. Publish and disseminate a journal or e-newsletter. Make a documentary on an important social issue. Plan and take part in a flash mob. Engage in a complex community service project. Play music together. Participate in games and simulations that replicate the sort of interdependence common in many workplaces and communities outside of school. Learn something that only another person knows (think jigsaw problem solving). Another way of getting at this is using the approach described by Spencer Kagan called positive interdependence. These represent authentic projects where people depend upon one another to get the job done and to do it well.
What are the first steps for an interested teacher? I will conclude with five suggested starting points.
- Identify and Use Student Gifts and Abilities – Learning about the distinct gifts and abilities of learners in a class can help a thoughtful teacher devise any number of authentic challenges that highlight these gifts, allowing students to discover the joy of accomplishing a task that is impossible alone while also coming to appreciate the uniqueness and valuable contributions that others make to the group.
- Choose an Authentic Group Project -Work with the class/group to find one or more authentic projects that can’t be accomplished alone.
- Teach About It – Plan time to teach about interdependence and find times during and after the project to debrief it.
- Model It – Model interdependence by refusing to be the lone ranger teacher who closes the door and does his/her own thing in a class. Instead, aspire to work with parents, students, teachers and administrators to do tasks that you could never do for yourself. Then, in appropriate ways, share your excitement about these experiences with your students.
- Find, Tell and Discuss Stories – Read up on interdependence, including examples from history about how groups of people came together to carry out great things, things impossible for any one person to do along. Use these as case studies, discussion starters, and sources of inspiration with the class group projects.