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OCT. 21, 2013

21st Century Education

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On a near daily basis, I come across an article about “21st Century Education.” There is often cogent discussion of what are coming to be known as the 4 C’s: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. These are, of course, not new concepts; they are at the heart of experiential education. When we think about what we do and have been doing for almost 20 years at The Outdoor Academy, often these “4 C’s” come up, but not as abstract concepts. Instead, these are our daily practice. A discussion around the dinner table about where our meal comes from ties into Environmental Seminar readings. An A.R. Ammons poem changes the way we notice the world on a hike. Paddlers have to quickly communicate between bow and stern to avoid hazards, and climbers must have total trust on belay as they solve problems. A music circle quickly becomes a dance party. And always, the challenges of living well together in a small community require us to act with compassion and understanding as we create an environment where we can each be our best selves.

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Most often in educational circles, discussion of the 4 C’s is quickly followed by whole-hearted endorsements of more electronic technology in classrooms. The argument goes that the quickest path to achieve the educational objectives of the 21st century is through greater use of computers and social media. And yet every day I see that this is not the only way forward. Our students have limited access to these kinds of technologies and emerge from their semester more fully aware of what they think about the world, how to have great conversations with peers and adults, and how to more fully express all that they are. We don’t need Twitter for that. I’m reminded of the old story about some fish. On old fish swims up to a group of young fish swishing about. The old fish says, “How’s the water?” The young fish reply, “What’s water?” By taking a break from the electronic stream they swim in, our students are able to gain some distance from the ordinary. They step back and see these technologies for what they are: useful tools but not the complete kit.

In one of these recent discussions, Diane Ravitch, author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System, was a welcome voice among many who simply equated 21st century education with more electronics. She observed,

“To be prepared for the 21st century, our children require the following skills and knowledge: an understanding of history, civics, geography, mathematics, and science, so they may comprehend unforeseen events and act wisely; the ability to speak, write, and read English well; mastery of a foreign language; engagement in the arts, to enrich their lives; close encounters with great literature, to gain insight into timeless dilemmas and the human condition; a love of learning, so they continue to develop their minds when their formal schooling ends; self-discipline, to pursue their goals to completion; ethical and moral character; the social skills to collaborate fruitfully with others; the ability to use technology wisely; the ability to make and repair useful objects, for personal independence; and the ability to play a musical instrument, for personal satisfaction.”

These comments resonated with me for probably obvious reasons. As I go down that list, I nod and say, “Yes, yes, yes, that’s what we do.” The student described above is precisely the kind of student with whom I get to spend my time at The Outdoor Academy. They give me hope for the next 100 years.

Michael Brown
Head of School

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