More than just an education – building a school fit for the 21st Century

At our last open day, in May, I talked about the underlying theories we are building our curriculum on. Over the next few posts, I will go into more detail about the various elements of our curriculum, explaining how it all fits together. 


Part 1 – starting with the foundations.

A school committed to preparing young people for the future needs to rethink it’s very foundations on which it’s very purpose is prepared. The old foundations of the ‘Three R’s’ (Reading, Writing, Arithmetic) are fine, and still valid, but go nowhere near far enough in providing the skills needed for modern life. The three R’s come from an era where it was only necessary to prepare the bulk of school leavers to be sufficiently educated enough to follow instructions on the factory floor . . . 

Our students deserve to hope for much more than that and so need a much greater set of skills to enable them to succeed! Following global research, sponsored by Microsoft, we have placed a set of 6 skills as the foundations on which everything we believe in is built. These 21CLD skills, then, form our foundations and everything we are building rests on them.

These 6 skills from the heart of the 21st Century Learning Design programme and are:


The need to collaborate in the modern world is much more essential than ever before. Tasks are more complex than ever beforehand jobs today require teamwork and collaboration to be at the heart of our daily working pattern. The days of putting competition inside the classroom are long gone and schools that still see academic achievement as a competition between students is one still basing its practice in the 18th century! There is a healthy place for competition in schools (which is why we’re having traditional ‘houses’, with students competing to gain points for their house in various ways), but not in the classroom – learning is best done together, learning off and with each other in a collaborative environment. 

Knowledge Construction

This is a whole article in its own right, but simply, there’s three ‘levels’ to knowledge – factual acquisition, where we learn new facts, is the simplest. Young children learn facts very quickly, as any parent will testify when their 6 year old can recite the names of every dinosaur that ever lived!! This is the most basic level of knowledge, however (although it happens to be the most easily assessed and so forms the heart of western exam systems). 

Learning shouldn’t stop here, however & according to Costa (Costa, A., & Kallick, B. (2000). Habits of mind: A developmental series. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.), knowledge is better when it’s integrated into a student’s existing framework of understanding – when it’s ‘owned’ by them. This is, to a lesser extent still part of the examination system and so is sometimes focussed on by schools.

However, the highest level of knowledge is the creation of new structures, where the student is using the acquired knowledge to create new concepts in their mind; when they are extending and refining their understanding of the world around them. This is knowledge construction and happens to be almost impossible to examine in current systems (making it something that too many schools simply ignore). 


In order to collaborate effectively, a person needs to be in control of themselves first and foremost. Self-regulation, the ability to understand and control one’s own emotions and motivations, is a crucial ‘modern’ skill that our students need to learn. This is one of a broad umbrella of ‘soft’ skills that are frequently ignored, with the assumption that students will learn it through the process of growing up. This clearly isn’t the case for a significant number of young people.

Real World Problem Solving

The best educators always try to ensure that new knowledge is framed within ‘real life’, but for knowledge to be fully integrated into a person’s mind, it must be applied to something in the physical, real world. I can, for example, learn all about playing tennis from a book & watching it on the TV. I can even learn how to play using, for example, a hand controller on a console. I can compare it to playing other racquet sports I have played, but until I stand on a tennis court and play a real opponent, I have not fully learnt how to play tennis.

Effective use of ICT

I have said it before, but will say it again; Technology alone cannot change anything, but without it, we will not have lasting change. 

ICT alone will not transform learning, but learning will not be transformed without it.

Technology is an integral part of our world, our society, and we need to embrace it and use it in the most effective way possible. This is through embedding it’s use into the daily practice of school life, so that our young people learn how to use it to make their lives easier. 

We fall into the trap far too easily of assuming that all young people are experts in technology – in fact this is spread through concepts of ‘digital natives’ vs. ‘digital immigrants’. The truth is much more complex & our young people need as much help and support in navigating the technological world as they do navigating a new city. Whilst they may be the experts in using social media streams, they are no more confident or capable of using technology to enhance their lives as we are. We need to explicitly help and support them in this journey as much as any other.

Skilled Communication

With the world being so much more connected, the art of communication is another crucial ‘soft’ skill that our young people need now more than ever before. Whether it’s standing in front of an audience delivering a speech (Secret ambition – my lifelong ambition is to deliver a TED talk at their annual conference in Vancouver!), or ‘selling yourself at a job interview, the art of delivering a powerful talk, with passion and skill, is one that can enhance every young person and should be taught in school.

More than just an education – building a school fit for the 21st Century

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