Practices and Participatory Learning Environments

Never been a fan of 21st century skills. I must admit, I even added to the hype; publishing a set of skills using the latest trope of alliterative “C buzzwords” in a white paper and then a special issue on 21st Century Learning. More so, Ian and I have  taken a stab at “measuring” these “soft” skills through research into self-report instruments.

We need to think of 21st Century Skills as practices of pedagogy rather than of performance. Instead of focusing on the learner we need to intentionally design the learning space to cultivate these practices.


The term “21st” century skills is dated. The Internet has seen more birthday candles than the students who walk the halls of our schools. The web outdates many of the teachers as well. We need to prepare students for the future not catch up to the past.

Instead of 21st century skills I think about our networked society. Castells and Cardosa discussed the need for self-programmable learners. So instead of the consonance of constant change, I tried to think about what the “soft skills” (stop calling them soft) people would need to be a self-programmable learner in a networked society.

I settled on: create, communicate, think, lead. I then wanted to start thinking about a map. Actually the thinking about the map started first. It lead me to the four practices found in participatory learning environments.

I was reading an article by Paul Deane on “Rethinking K-12 Writing Assignment” when he discussed competency models as a “detailed map of the skills that should be assessed.”

Dean, P. (2012). The CBAL Competency Model.

The infographic is great. So many layers of meaning in so few words. It also “mapped” writing in a way that I had never really seen before.

I was also, of course thinking about the Web Literacy Map and the working group efforts to release a second version of the Map. If you have been following the developments a series of focus group interviews is being conducted. Reading the questions being asked it seemed many people are trying to answer what are “21st Century Skills” we are trying to teach.

I am beginning to  wonder if that is the right question. Maybe we should be asking, “What practices should our learning spaces require and reinforce?”

Choosing Practices

I settled on these four practices because they are essential to self-programmable learning. I dropped collaborate because learning never occurs alone. We are social animals and I believe in many ways our humanity begins when behavior must conflict with instinct. When we run simulations in our mind, delay gratifications, weigh consequences, and consider others we become human.

I then placed a series of practices in concentric circles. I was intentional in my design hoping the practices grew in scope and impact on society.

I then looked around for the types of choices and practices I would want to see in participatory learning environments.

I lifted the entire Create category from an etherpad published by the Web Literacy Working Group. It is cool stuff. Gets at the whole design thinking thing plus puts a focus on making.

The Communicate practices are a mix from the Dean article and writings about rhetoric, reading, and writing.

The Lead category is something new to me. Garnder Campbell sparked my thinking around leadership and learning. The recent focus on leadership in the Mozilla Learning Networks has also honed my though.

In the Think category I dropped critical. Maybe its my natural aversion to totally useless and unnecessary  modifiers. I find them redundant and repetitive.

Part of it is just plain confusion. If I can think critically when do I think uncritically? When do I use my dumb thinking skills? Instead critical thinking usually refers to a specific subset of processes and practices. Yet these subset of competencies changes if we are talking Spache’s critical reading or the camp that grew from the Frankfurt school and  Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

I went with Think. You can Think Different, but just think.

Levels of Engagement

I then played with the idea that each circle represents some level or characteristic of learning. I tried using two dollar words like enculturation. I attempted to sound like the cool kids by using in words like affinity spaces.

Nothing work. So I tried to settle on simple:



Not sure if this works though. Still I would rather us invest time into ensuring are learning spaces afford the agency for these practices to be built rather than spending time and treasure chasing variance in scores.

42 responses on “Practices and Participatory Learning Environments”

  1. Kudos 🙂 You know how much I love meta-thinking!

    IMHO you’re right, the “21st century skills” meme is stale. I always kind of thought “Yeah, like nowadays we need to be able to communicate, whereas in the 15th century we didn’t? WTF?” Much more valuable to my practice has been the deconstruction of “21st Century Skills” into meaningful (and actionable) maps and definitions (e.g. WebLitMap or even, more broadly, elements of 21st century skills).

    “our humanity begins when behavior must conflict with instinct.” Yes, I think you’re right on this but those behaviors are wildly influenced by cultural and social backgrounds. “Self programmable” will be shifting depending on individual contexts. Although I like to think that I can create participatory learning environments for any social context, I’ve seen push back from communities where certain aspects of “participatory” is antithetical to their cultural or social values. I’ve used varying strategies when this happen, most often eliminating certain practices – for example, I drop evangelism fairly often. Even in certain 1st world countries evangelism on anything at all is met with distrust.

    I like where you’re going and would think about which of these practices are context contingent and which are not.

    1. Thanks for the thought. Especially on the context dependent. As I was placing practices in the circle and trying to get alignment it felt like a very self-reliant model of one western style thinking. Too American almost not just western. I always remember Mikko, when we were debating the map, discussing how there is no word for argumentation in Finnish. Rhetorically you do not try to change minds. You write well written pieces designed to help others choose.

      I do believe certain activities, both required and supported by the Web, are more favored in knowledge economies than they have been in the past. In the 1400s we did have to communicate but there was a 90% chance this communication was in small villages. The mercantile class in most urban centers was quite small. Now because of our Networked society greater emphasis is placed on these practices.

      I struggled with using communication. It is such a big term it often means nothing, but I went it trying to capture the reading and writing of literary practices as a social event designed to move others.

  2. Greg, thanks for sharing this post. It does seem to capture a lot of thinking about many issues that some of us in the connected mooc world seem to be collaboratively grappling with. Given this, I am trying to grok your post here. With this said, I think it may be useful to trying to summarize two things — what seems to be causing this struggle that you have that led to this post, and how can you suggest we read your final graphic? I am asking the first question as that may help me better understand how what you may mean when you try to answer the second one.

    Again, thanks for sharing such ways of thinking about these topics. Hey, if they were easy, they would not require our writing about them any more!


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