It’s 2017…. So What IS 21st Century Learning?

When my son Gunnar was a little over three years-old, having recently watched his dad put in the garden, he came inside one spring weekend and asked for a shovel:  “Just a little one for my hand,” he said. “Because I really wanna dig a hole.”  A quick set of questions established that he wanted to dig this hole in the exact center of our newly-green back yard, “just to see.”  Of course we can’t have this, I thought… a boy can’t think he can just dig holes!  In my yard!  I offered for him to dig in a patch of bald dirt closer to the back of the house, not visible from most of the driveway or any of the windows.  He didn’t want to dig there, he insisted, but I said digging is digging, and stood my ground (so to speak).

Gunnar moped out, and his dad walked in.  He’d heard the exchange and said, “Come on, look how much he wants to. Let the kid dig his hole.”  After initial protest, I said fine, as long as he understood he would be in charge of the anarchy of it all—cleaning up our son, filling in the hole, even putting down new seed if necessary.  He understood.  We gave Gunnar a small spade, and he spent the rest of the morning digging.  By afternoon, he’d found a cow bone.The next day, he found part of a license plate.  Periodically into summer, he’d dig when he felt like it; the hole got pretty deep.  One day, way down, he found a lump of coal.  No one was more excited about these artifacts than me.  We called this area ‘the hole’ as if it were an acknowledged location, like ‘the porch’ or ‘the doghouse,’ and when Gunnar headed out there, I almost came to feel like he was going to work.

In the years since, I’ve often thought of my son’s request and ensuing project—as well as my own disregard for his curious impulse, instantly inclined as I was to say ‘no’ and let order, instead of discovery, rule the day.  I offer the memory here as a simple analogy for a basic educational truth whose time has come, divergent though it is from much traditional philosophy and practice.  We adults need to get out of the way with so much packaged information, tidy testing, and answer sheets: children will learn more and learn better if we let them ask and just plain DO more.  The starting point is in recognizing an inquiring mind and the opportunity to act as makers of meaning.

In essence, the phrase ‘21st century learning’ embodies the notion that this complex world and its various marketplaces demand re-evaluation of pre-K-12 educational aims; see Patrick Bassett’s seminal 2009 article, “Demonstrations of Learning for 21st Century Schools.” Then the president of the National Association of Independent Schools, Bassett called for independent schools to revisit their traditional emphasis on subject-matter mastery and infuse it with equal emphasis on integrated, skill-based learning.  The root skills to which he referred in this article have since taken on specific shape in NAIS’s “Essential Capacities for the 21st Century,” a list that emphasizes analytical thinking, problem-solving, communication, and ethics.

Those with the good fortune to have attended effective schools may well look at this list and think back on memorable classes, teachers, and opportunities and wonder what is supposed to be so provocatively new here.  Fine schools have always fostered critical thinking, good writing, and character formation alongside the mastery of course content.

The difference is twofold:  first, in the degree of intentional skills development happening alongside the mastery of information, and second, in the sophistication of how we assess not just what kids know, but also what they can do. Below, Bassett’s sample of ‘essential demonstrations of learning,’ generated by university presidents themselves, along with Bassett and numerous NAIS school heads, asserts that quite apart from their SAT scores, well-educated, well-prepared high school graduates ought to be able to do the following:

1) Conduct a fluent conversation in a foreign language about a piece of writing in that language.

2) Write a cogent and persuasive opinion piece on a matter of public importance.

3) Declaim with passion and from memory a passage that is meaningful—of one’s own or from  the culture’s literature or history.

4) Produce or perform a work or art.

5) Construct and program a robot capable of performing a difficult physical task.

6) Exercise leadership.

7) Using statistics, assess whether or not a statement by a public figure is demonstrably true.

8) Assess media coverage of a global event from various cultural/national perspectives.

9) Describe a breakthrough for a team on which he/she served and to which he/she contributed to overcoming a human-created obstacle so that the team could succeed in its task.

10) Demonstrate a commitment to creating a more sustainable future with means that are scalable.


In all honesty, I could confidently perform only seven of these tasks… with some guidance, maybe eight; it’s a pretty ambitious list.


Traditional education has typically not made time for the value of more open-ended or experience-based learning, focusing instead on the delivery of x-amount of subject matter across a school year. Again, done well and for a certain type of learner, this focus can be rigorous and effective. Often, though, it can be dry and fixed, prizing the highly manageable, repeatable task of delivering answers ‘for the test’ over most students’ need to experience the information’s relevance.  

21st century learning entails expansion—not replacement-- of our traditional concepts of academic excellence and rigor.  It aims for students to demonstrate that they are not just storehouses of fact and other people’s knowledge, but creative, discerning producers and consumers of it.  It aims for educators to foster throughout students’ adolescence the curiosity and experimentation with which small children encounter each day, even as they help develop disciplined habits of mind, method, and practice as expected in all settings after high school.

Consider again Bassett’s suggested competencies.  Now contrast a standard, end-of-semester final exam in, for example, a statistics class, with an exit demand for the skilled use of statistics to assess the validity of claims by a public figure.  Both require a mathematical understanding of statistics, but what does the second entail that the first does not?  The application of the discipline in a real and relevant context, and in a way that makes the student an authentic participant in the discourse of his world.  He is not graded on perfected problem sets; his ‘A’ is for Authority.  He gets to ask and to answer what is true.  

Conventional exercises and tests will always be tools for acquiring and remembering new information. Beyond these, educators must integrate the chance for learners to use that information.  We must do what art and technical education teachers and athletic coaches have always done as a matter of course: get students ready for the big show, play, project, game. Provide them with the performance moment where all instructional strands come together. Provide the chance to use information and demonstrate competence by doing or making something real.  Provide the chance to address a need.  

As a second example, imagine an exit requirement from, for instance, Spanish IV, that pairs up a student with an area elementary classroom studying Spain.  She will interpret as they skype with a tourism official in Madrid.  Or maybe she meets the requirement by translating 20 minutes’ news coverage in Spain of a global event, then comparing its emphases against 20 minutes’ coverage of the same event in the U.S.  She then presents and defends her findings-- in Spanish, of course.

 In order to achieve mastery aims like these, schools must evolve, implementing a continuous program that cultivates questioning, flexibility, and application, ensures hands-on experience and interdisciplinary connection, and gives students authentic opportunities to have an impact outside of their classrooms. Fryeburg Academy and the schools of ISANNE are by no means alone in contemplating and answering this call to change. Letting it guide us in mindful decisions about curricular, professional, and facilities development is our strategic charge and obligation as we prepare our children to thrive in an ever-transforming, complex, and exciting world.


About The Author

Erin Mayo

Erin Mayo is Head of School at Fryeburg Academy in Fryeburg, Maine.  A 1987 graduate of St. Johnsbury Academy in Vermont, she received her BA from Georgetown University and her MA from the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College.  From 1991-2007, Erin worked at St. Johnsbury Academy where, over time, she was an English teacher, dorm parent, debate coach, department chair, and Assistant Headmaster for Academic Affairs.  In 2007, Erin and her family moved to Texas, where at the Episcopal School of Dallas she first served as Head of Upper School and then as Assistant Head of School for Academics. Erin returned to New England in 2013 to lead FA.  She has consulted for the College Board and Independent School Management, and she was a founding board member of the Good Shepherd Catholic School in St. Johnsbury, Vermont.


Erin, her husband Peter Gurnis, and their son Gunnar, Class of 2019, reside on campus at Fryeburg Academy. Daughter Maeve graduated from FA in 2014.