The Intersection of Equity and 21st Century Learning


By Karen K. Garza, PhD

“No other developed nation has inequities nearly as deep or systemic; no other developed nation has, despite some efforts to the contrary, so thoroughly stacked the odds against so many of its children. Sadly, what feels so very un-American turns out to be distinctly American.” 
[Federal Equity and Excellence Commission, 2013] 

Learning organizations today remain challenged to achieve that very elusive goal of equity – providing all students with high-quality learning experiences. With the growing need for deeper learning, essential to thrive among the profound changes occurring in our world, the promise of equity for all students is not simply a worthy goal, it’s an imperative. It must be a reality. 

The world has changed dramatically, further exacerbating the education inequities that exist across our nation, and even within our school systems. The skills needed in today’s and tomorrow’s workforce go far beyond acquisition of academic content knowledge. And far too often, the intentional cultivation of 21st century skills and mindsets is reserved for only the advanced students, or for those who attend affluent schools. The future of our country, our fundamental democracy, and the overall economic vitality of our local communities rest on our commitment and ability to equip every student with these essential skills, mindsets, and literacies. 

The world of work has shifted from seeking workers prepared to complete routine tasks, to now needing a workforce prepared to solve complex problems, to collaborate, and to innovate. This underscores the imperative to ensure that every student is well equipped with transferable skills; that is, the skill to take deeper learning from one context or situation and apply the learning to a different context or situation. As Tony Wagner first emphasized in his book, The Global Achievement Gap, it is no longer important what you know; society today and into the future will place much greater value on what you can solve, contribute, and innovate. Today, we need our citizenry and workforce to be equipped to apply transferable skills to the non-routine challenges they’ll face throughout their lives and careers. 

To prepare our young people for this rapidly changing and interconnected world, our education systems must be reimagined to create learning experiences where content knowledge and 21st century, transferable skills are equally valued–and for every student.  

Now more than ever before, the stakes are extraordinarily high for our young people. With the advancement of artificial intelligence and other technologies, many of the entry level jobs available today will disappear and be replaced with new workforce opportunities–but only for those people prepared and equipped to thrive amidst these opportunities. 

“The skills students need to succeed in the 21st century are moving away from rote memorization and repetition. In modern, information-rich environments, people need to evaluate and synthesize more data inputs than ever and use them to draw reasonable conclusions. In its Future of Jobs Report 2018, the World Economic Forum ranks creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving among the 10 most demanded skills today and into the future.”  
[“Creativity in Learning” GALLUP, 2019] 

But it’s important to remember that making deeper learning a reality for all students requires more than just providing equal access to these 21st century learning experiences. It requires a complete transformation of the system. It requires intentional cultivation of student agency with more voice and choice for all students. It requires redefining success for our education systems with a broader definition of what it means to “close the gap.” It requires examining all structures and operations of the school system—including physical spaces, schedules, hiring practices, and a visible commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. And it requires creating learning experiences and environments that establish a sense of belonging for students by connecting learning experiences to issues and topics that matter to them and their identity, which often includes multiple dimensions of identity.   

So, education systems must evolve to be responsive to these new challenges so that every graduate is prepared to succeed with the skills, mindsets, and literacies to be lifelong learners and contributors. As we lead these changes in our education systems, we must approach these important changes with a focus on equity and inclusivity.   

When we deliver on a 21st century learning experience, students are active participants in constructing knowledge, understandings, and even solutions to real problems in their own communities. These experiences often include approaches such as problem-based, project-based learning, extended challenges, work-based learning, and applying immersive technologies. However, to ensure this is the type of learning experience that all students receive, we must examine whether these rich learning experiences are a reality for all students, or just for the privileged few. 

“In recent years, well-meaning efforts to close the achievement gap have sometimes unintentionally reified this divide, as disadvantaged students who are in danger of failing state tests get increasing amounts of test prep and a narrowing of the curriculum, whereas more advantaged students get a more varied and stimulating curriculum.” 
[“In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School” Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine, 2019] 

In response to high stakes accountability systems and the sorting and ranking of school systems, we have lost sight of the science of how people best learn. As a result, students living in poverty often receive an education that emphasizes memorization and regurgitation, which learning science has proven to be ineffective. Instead, we need to be engaging students in rich experiences that stimulate their desire to learn more. 

“Student-centered, inquiry-based experiences are better able than rote instruction to support the learning and understanding of diverse groups of students, especially those bearing the burdens of increasing poverty and social inequality.” We must “create learning opportunities that reflect the growing, research-based understanding of how people learn.” 
[Linda Darling-Hammond and Jeannie Oakes, 2019] 

High quality, 21st century learning experiences must be the standard for all students, or we risk worsening inequities that persist today. We have before us the exciting opportunity and responsibility to re-envision education systems that will prepare every student to thrive today and into the future. As we embark on this journey of transformation, we can finally realize the power and promise of equity in 21st century learning outcomes for every student—without exception. 

KarenGarzaHeadshotRound small
By Karen K. Garza, PhD 
President & CEO,
Battelle for Kids

Contact us to learn more about how we help districts realize the power and promise of 21st century learning for every student.


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