What Always Seems Missing in '21st Century Learning' Frameworks

christhinnesUncategorized1 Comment

A process post and provocation


Chris Thinnes

The core of what we do is create community, because
without community nothing else has any meaning.


Last week, I enjoyed a full week of dialogue and design thinking sessions with teachers in a new school leadership position, during which we had the rare opportunity, as someone once described it, “to take the time it takes to take the time” to ask deep, purposeful, and collaborative questions about the explicit commitments to deeper learning AND social justice we want to express in our middle school’s mission and vision, educational program, and learning community. I capitalize ‘AND’ because it so often seems, as I’ve frequently opined before, that many schools have frequent and important conversations about transformative curriculum, teaching practice, and assessment — and many schools engage in purposeful dialogue about diversity, inclusion, cultural competence, and public purpose – but in those schools where both conversations take place, they tend to be convened in separate rooms, scheduled at different times, and to involve different people. Much of our dialogue last week was framed, in my mind at least, by the belief that deeper learning and social justice are inextricably intertwined.

It was from that perspective, then, that I was grateful to learn about the extraordinary work of the Center for Curriculum Redesign (CCR), as represented by Charles Fadel in this piece posted by NAIS (which I learned about – thank you very much – from the amazing Bo Adams). I appreciated both the framing conceits of “The Four Dimensions of an Education” outlined in that post, and the nuanced commitments to social/emotional learning I see developed and articulated in CCR’s more elaborate “Character Framework” that Roo Stenning shared with me.

But the purpose of this post isn’t to express my appreciation for that excellent work – or, strictly speaking, to critique it — but to represent my fascination with a broader question that came to me while thinking about this visualization of this “Four Dimensions” framework, and all of the other visualizations of “21st Century Learning” frameworks that I have seen and that come to mind:

21st century chart

I couldn’t help but notice not only what was included, but what remains invisible – specifically with reference to important goals of education that may transcend the boundaries of “knowledge,” “skills,” and “character” as they have come somewhat conventionally, and by seeming but problematic consensus, to be (re)defined.

Why, for example, are active citizenship, cultural competency, and social justice never explicitly represented in the most visible frameworks of “21st Century Education” we see on twitter, in blogs, on web sites, and in our mind’s eye? Where are the relational dynamics of learning represented in the ‘bones’ of such constructions? Where is the purpose of education in a democracy intentionally expressed? How do students’ agency, voice, and engagement in their community find expression in our programs’ core commitments? What priority do we assign to the cultivation of an intentional community of learning in the anchor documents that frame our educational programs? How do our commitments to inclusion, equity, diversity, and justice inform, extend, or define our commitments to ‘knowledge,’ ‘skills,’ and ‘character’? How does the exclusion of these domains entrench problematic assumptions about the purpose of schools? How does our focus on other, more commonly identified domains both privilege and reproduce classed and cultured ‘norms’ regarding the purpose and priorities of schools? Are these other skills, dispositions, and dynamics factors meant to ‘implied’ in or by our visible frameworks of “21st Century Education,” or should they be explicitly named? If so, how so?

In that spirit I mocked up a visualization of another ‘dimension’ in order to make it more visible. I’m aware of some of the limits of this first iteration, and probably unaware of others. I don’t know if this would complement the current CCR framework as another ‘dimension’ overlapping with the other three, or should be considered as a broader domain in which all of the other ‘dimensions’ are situated.


I realize this is messy, but one thing is perfectly clear to me: our commitment to community is no less important than our commitments to knowledge, skills, character, or metacognition. “How we relate to others” defines, in so many ways, “what we know,” “how we use what we know,” and “how we engage in the world.” Arguably, as @TheTeacherTom recently framed it, “the core of what we do is create community, because without community nothing else has any meaning.”

Have at it. I offer these thoughts by way of reflection, wondering how we might ensure that central goals of education in a democracy might be more visibly reflected in subsequent frameworks of ‘21st century skills,’ and our continuing efforts to (re)define the intersections of social justice and deeper learning in our schools. Please share your reactions, questions, and insights — and help me to explore this more thoughtfully…


You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes

  • PAGster

    I like community as the circle outside everything else. The knowledge-skills-character model seems to me to be all about what’s going on within the student– we need another dimension of the model to talk about how the student interacts with the community outside.