The Facts About 21st Century Learning

Have you ever heard of the “Knowledge Doubling Curve?” First described by Buckminster Fuller in 1982[i], this curve notes that, until 1900, human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By the middle of the twentieth century, knowledge was doubling every 25 years. As of 2013, human knowledge was doubling every 13 months on average – faster in some industries like nanotechnology research. Now, human knowledge is almost doubling every day[ii].

Think about that: for eons, knowledge grew among humans at a pace that allowed societies to process, access and utilize that knowledge in a fairly smooth way. Entire societies grew up and trades were developed as knowledge inspired new technologies. At the peak of the Industrial Revolution, knowledge still grew at a reasonable pace. And then the Information Age began. Now knowledge is outpacing our ability to understand it fully. We’re launching our kids out into this world.

21st century learners

It may seem improbable now, but the careers that we as teachers are trying to prepare our students for – accounting, law, computer programming – may radically change within the next few years. Some careers may not even exist within a decade.

What Skills Will Students Need in the Future?

What that means is that students today will constantly need to learn and relearn skills as their career paths change. 21st century learning must find a way to keep pace.

“Coping with this knowledge tsunami may require new leadership in firms, new ways of working and studying, and alternative methodologies for quickly processing, comparing and evaluating information sources,” said Tim Sandle in an op-ed about the rapid rise in information.[iv]

Preparing Students for Future Jobs

We not only need to teach children how to learn and motivate them so that they want to learn – we now have to teach them how to continue learning and growing for their entire life. The days where a person could just go to high school and then get a bachelor degree, and then start their career and never worry about school again – those days are gone. Today, adults in every career field have to continuously train and retrain to stay on pace with the technological changes around them [v].

The thing is, we can’t just throw more information at students than they can handle. We can only give them new tools – and teach them how to use those tools to learn, and keep learning.

I’m passionate about making sure children know how to learn, and more importantly, how each of them learns. Because they need to know how they learn when they’re on their own in the world. There isn’t room for struggling learners out there. They need to be motivated to learn, and to do that they need to know what methods work for them so they can learn and retain information more easily.

Obsolete Technology Example – and it’s Personal

My son is a great example of what his generation faces with knowledge expanding so rapidly. He’s an engineer who works on diesel and gas engines. His field is constantly changing, and he has to learn along with it. In fact, he predicts that, within five years, he won’t be working with diesel and gas engines; everything is shifting toward electric motors and hybrid engines.

Now, my son was a struggling learner early in his school career. But he learned how he learns, and that made all the difference in his school performance and in his career. When he’s faced with new information or a new process, and realizes he’s not processing and retaining that information correctly, he knows how to approach it from a different angle so that he can learn it. You’d be surprised how many kids are never taught this or encouraged to find the approach that works best for them.

I introduced this post with a reference to Buckminster Fuller – an unorthodox learner if there ever was one! His own path to knowledge was indirect and riddled with challenges, yet he became a noted futurist and inventor, achieving success in several different fields because he approached new knowledge in a different way.

21st Century Learning Classrooms

We’re going to need a lot more motivated, out-of-the-box thinkers over the next few decades, as technological knowledge continues to gallop forward. It’s the biggest challenge that teachers face – and one we can’t afford to lose.

As 21st century educators, this is important for us to understand, not only for our own classrooms, but for the future of our 21st century learners.

References for 21st century learning

[i] David Russell Schilling, “Knowledge Doubling Every 12 Months, Soon to Be Every 12 Hours.” IndustryTap, April 19, 2013.
[ii] Feras A. Batarseh, “Thoughts on the future of human knowledge and machine intelligence.” LSE Business Review, Sept. 20, 2017.
[iii] Omni Legal, “Artificial Intelligence Won’t Replace Lawyers – It Will Free Them.” Law Technology Today, Feb. 27, 2018.
[iv] Tim Sandle, “Op-Ed: Knowledge Doubles Almost Every Day, and It’s Set to Increase.” Digital Journal, Nov. 23, 2018.
[v] Marc Rosenberg, “Marc My Words: The Coming Knowledge Tsunami.” Learning Solutions Magazine, October 2017.


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