By Tiffany Wycoff

When our team (LINC) speaks about the urgency of 21st-century learning, we cite futurists’ predictions about the uncertainty of tomorrow’s world – that by 2035, when today’s youngest students emerge from college into the work force, at least 38% of today’s jobs will no longer exist (lost to automation); that those students will have to reinvent themselves five or more times in the workforce to stay relevant; and that the only way to prepare students for their future is to address the issue of skills ambiguity by teaching 21st-century skills over traditional content. But what we don’t often address is something that we recognize we need to start talking about much more — the urgency of 21st-century learning for the social-emotional wellbeing of students.

Today’s students are experiencing a social-emotional crisis. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that 25% of children between 13 and 18 years old experience anxiety disorders. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention notes that diagnosable mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders impact children as young as three, and that recent research indicates a rise in serious depression and suicide amongst teens. It seems we are finally moving past the denial of the trend by attempting to identify the cause and solution. Educators are playing their role too by increasing professional learning in social-emotional support and empathy based learning.

One frequently cited villain in the youth mental health crisis is technology. Even our youngest children face a barrage of stimuli from an increasingly noisy and confusing digital world. Our current system does a poor job of helping children safely navigate, understand, and self-regulate their use of the excessive information. Instead, we rely on enforcing (mostly) ineffective disciplinary measures to keep “distracting” personal technology out of classrooms rather than building a culture of agency and responsible use. Without modeling, students are left to teach themselves by trial, and too much error. From this failure to teach children the benefits and detriments of technology, and the ability to self-regulate, we see a correlating rise of detachment, depression, and anxiety alongside the rise of mobile technology.

Opponents of blended and 21st-century learning point accusing fingers at this trend as justification for not using technology in the classroom without recognizing that all screen time is not equal. 21st-century learning that models the healthy balance of face-to-face and digital interaction, and teaches the purposeful, responsible use of technology, is as essential as gradual release of responsibility in students navigating a busy city on their own or teaching them how to ski alongside them on the greens before they hit the black diamonds. Technology access without education is playing out in a highly detrimental manner, and balanced integration of technology in learning is the solution.

As harmful as it is, unmoderated consumption of technology is only one culprit in today’s social-emotional crisis. While the world has evolved, much of education has remained stagnant, yielding an ever-widening gap between what is taught and what is relevant. Students cannot feel connected to what is irrelevant to them. The abstract relevance of grades only further exacerbates the social-emotional issue by proliferating the competitive, comparing mindset born early on in traditional education.

For students to feel truly connected, they must experience real curiosity, self-discovery, and purpose. As students spend the majority of their lives at school, school must be a place where purpose and relevance are nurtured. By guiding students in the discovery and actualization of unique purpose, we are preparing them to be generative learners able to reflect on their own curiosities and passions in the context of real-world problems and responsibilities.

To recognize this purpose, students need to be taught connectivity to self in relation to others, and have agency in their learning. Agency is at the heart of 21st-century learning. The personalized learning movement is often maligned by those who misconstrue the end goal to be the replacement of human connectivity with technology. On the contrary, personalized learning provides teachers with not only the models and tools to help create individual academic paths, but also the time and tools to connect with students on a deeper level.

Here’s a snapshot of how the best practices of 21st-century learning can address the increasing need for social-emotional support for today’s students.

Teachers as Mentors & First Responders

  • Teachers meet with students individually or in small groups on a regular basis in a Station Rotation or Individual Playlist model.
  • As guide on the side, teachers are in the position to listen more. They ask questions and are in the best position to understand what social-emotional climate a student is experiencing while learning and be first responders in a social-emotional crisis.
  • Through leveraging the power of technology to plan many academic pathways, teachers are able to focus more time and energy on mentoring students and providing social-emotional support in learning.
  • Teachers become creators or facilitators of relevant projects that can help students bring their own curiosity to light and connect with peers within and beyond the classroom walls.
  • Through the power of technology, students can connect with even more teachers and world-class experts, something that is not possible in a traditional classroom. Classroom teachers play a pivotal role in making these connections and curating the resources.

Technology as Pathways

  • Adaptive tools provide numerous pathways to right-fit learning, making different the norm rather than the exception. When everyone’s path becomes unique, students move beyond the crippling comparing mindset embedded in competitive, achievement rooted education to a growth mindset.
  • Technology opens pathways for more student-teacher communication and peer-to-peer help. When teacher utilize tools such as surveys or chat, students have many more private channels to share what is bothering them or what they have observed in a peer that needs help.

Students as Agents

  • When coupled with purpose, technology empowers student agency through self-exploration. Students can control the pace and path of their learning and gain access to relevant resources for their passion projects.
  • In a 21st Century classroom, students have authentic audience and connectivity. They are heard and respected as co-creators of their learning paths and environments.

We are faced with two alarming trends in helping today’s students — one is a crisis of today and one is a crisis of tomorrow. We are used to defending the age-inappropriate sacrifices we demand of today’s children — exchanging play time for rigor in the early years, family time and sleep for long hours of homework as children get older — by citing tomorrow’s benefits. I have long argued that this sacrifice is an erroneous and even dangerous path. But it is now so clear that both tomorrow’s world and today’s children require a new approach that we must acknowledge the urgency of 21st-century learning and move forward in shifting mindset and building teacher capacity to enable this transformation.

For more, see:

Tiffany Wycoff is Co-Author of Blended Learning in Action, and is Co-Founder of LINC (Learning Innovation Catalyst). Connect with Tiffany on Twitter @teachontheedge.

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