Our idea of what the 21st century classroom looks like is different from what most of us experienced a few decades ago. The physical space can be reconfigured to meet the different needs individual and collaborative projects. Digital devices are used in ways that transform experiences. Learners are actively engaged rather than passively receiving information. This concept of active engagement is nothing more than a complicated way to say that students need to be involved and find meaning in their own learning, to have agency in the learning. Learning happens when students feel they have a stake in what they want to learn, when they want to learn, how they want to learn, and from whom they want to learn. This may seem to go against everything we remember from school, but we need to rethink, even reimagine, school to bring it back to where learning has always happened and can only happen, the point where learning meets the personal needs of the learner, for whatever reason it may be. It is at that point that the learner takes agency.
Many of us won’t like the idea of students taking agency over their learning because that could mean losing control. Having students tell us what they want to learn and deciding their own outcomes puts us in a position of vulnerability because we no longer control what is being taught, perhaps taking us outside our comfort zone. This shift won’t go away, not with the way learners of all ages have access to the world through digital devices. There used to be a time when we could only experience our immediate surroundings or, at best, travel with our imagination through books. Today, we can access the universe through one handheld digital tool without getting off the sofa. We are now unfettered to pursue any interest we have, explore any subject that intrigues us, discover anything upon which we happen to stumble. Our students have never known a time when this freedom did not exist and this means our schools need to play a new role in learning.
To paraphrase Seymour Papert, the tragedy with school (or the way school used to be) is that one has to resign oneself to stopping learning and accept being taught. It is naive to think that young learners do not have the developmental wherewithal to make choices about their learning. They learn everyday to problem-solve matters about which they are curious and in which they are invested, whether it be a board game, a technical concept, or a relationship with a peer. Teachers have to let go of the credence that they must impart a certain set of knowledge (that is usually accessible on a smartphone anyway) and they should let the students work through their own goals and interests, providing them with targeted, just in time lessons that meet the students’ needs at the appropriate level of challenge. Young learners acquire technical skills such as reading and computation because they serve a purpose and these are not ends in themselves. This is the fundamental shift in education: identifying what the learner needs to know to solve a particular problem at a particular time to meet a particular objective that is meaningful and interesting to that particular learner. Our schools have embrace the idea that learning only happens when it is meaningful to the learner, not necessarily the teacher.