What Should Schooling Look Like in the 21st Century?

What should schooling look like in the 21st century? This is the fundamental question that we wrestled with — we being the co-founders of Templeton Academy — when we came together in 2014.

And we were not alone then, nor we are alone now.

Stanford University has done some of the best thinking about this question most recently, and if you haven’t checked it out already, the Stanford 2025 website is worth reviewing. Written from the perspective of the future well beyond the year 2025, they “look back from 2100 to the era when Stanford students began declaring missions, not majors.”

Though I’m admittedly a sucker for alliteration, this is a powerful idea that is near and dear to both my head and heart. I learned early as a fifth-grade teacher that one of the best axioms for an educator was never to be afraid to beg, borrow or steal the best ideas in the name of doing your best for your students — so let’s take this one and run with it, shall we?

Here’s What the Future of Learning Looks Like

I would like to posit that what schooling should look like in the 21st century is a place where learners declare a mission, first and foremost. In fact, for reasons that will become evident later, I believe it’s actually a place where learners develop a potential purpose, first and foremost.

This week I caught up with Ted Dintersmith, producer of the provocative documentary “Most Likely to Succeed.” Ted says it so well in his latest book, What School Could Be: “Across America, our kids study what’s easy to test, not what’s important to learn.”

This, in turn, begs an important spin on our previous question:

What types of learning actually matter in the 21st century?

The Learning Philosophy at Templeton Academy

At Templeton Academy, thanks in large part to begging/borrowing/stealing from Clark Aldrich, we believe that there are three fundamental types of learning: learning to know, learning to do, and learning to be. Put another way, there is learning to know facts and figures, learning to do actual skills, and learning to become your best self.

And we believe that “learning to be” is the type of learning that actually matters most in the 21st century. After all, though mental prowess is timeless, knowing/regurgitating the “correct” facts and figures in an age when 36% of the world’s population carries a computer in their pocket is arguably less important. 

And as important as skill development is, in a world of 7.5 billion people, unless that particular skill is really blowing your hair back, chances are you might have a difficult time becoming your best self if you’re solely focused on developing your “best” skill.

But actually is “learning to be”? How do you do it? How can you measure it?

Not surprisingly, our answers come from additional ideas that we’ve begged/borrowed/stolen. And though the same things have been said by many, from Joseph Campbell in the 20th century, to the sages of yesteryear Okinawa who centuries ago developed ikigai, the fundamental answer is to find the intersection of three things:

  • what you’re good at
  • what you’re passionate about,
  • and what you think the world needs.

In short, to find your purpose. And because we agree with those that think not all high school-age learners can or will land on their life’s purpose during those four years of their life, we push students to explore their potential purpose even if they do not land on a definite answer.

How We Engage Our Students in the Process of Self-Discovery

At Templeton Academy, our North Star is to help students find their guiding North Star. The first characteristic we aspire for all Templeton graduates is that they will understand their gifts and that they will understand how they might use their gifts in a way that brings joy to themselves and service to others.

As for how we teach that, it’s the focus of our Core Advisory program. Fueled in part by a curriculum developed by our friends/partners at Project Wayfinder, we simply ask Students the question: What are your gifts and how might you use them in a way that brings you joy and serves others?

There is no “correct” answer to regurgitate. Like most good questions, the learning really happens in wrestling with it.

From there, we take a page out of the Acton Academy playbook and offer two additional questions to move learners onward and upward: What skills will you develop/master (to explore your potential purpose)? What knowledge do you need and how will you obtain it?

As for how we can measure the growth that takes place in this process, we again simply ask the final two questions of the learner: How will you prove what you know and what you can do? Who will affirm you and hold you accountable?

In short, Students use Core Advisory time to develop a hypothesis around their purpose, then develop the skills and obtain the knowledge that they need to test that hypothesis and determine whether or not that is in fact their purpose. They then share with others on a regular basis what they’ve done and what they’ve learned — those whom they trust (adult and peers alike) to be equally honest when they deserve gracious affirmation or gravity-inducing accountability. And then they double down on their purpose or search for a new one knowing what they’ve learned about themselves.

Schooling in the 21st Century Should Be Easier Said Than Done

Easier said than done, for sure, but we believe that schooling in the 21st century should be easier said than done. And back to Ted Dintersmith’s point that I mentioned above, measuring 21st century outcomes is much easier said than done. However, in this new model of education, measuring outcomes should be largely learner-driven, since learning is more about uncovering life’s meaning and purpose and less about which facts and figures a student has retained.

Ultimately, right now, I’m getting to write about the things that I’m good at, that bring me joy, and that serve others, and that is the real fun of this blog post. So if you or yours are wrestling with what schooling/learning could look like for you/them in the 21st century, our purpose is to help you find your purpose, and we so look forward to meeting you!