Brandman News

Ep. 14a – Vicki Brannock and Kimberly Greene talk about 21st century learning (part one)

March 30, 2016 by Brandman University
Kimberly Greene and Vicki Brannock

Kimberly Greene, associate professor at Brandman University, and Vicki Brannock, senior director of programs for the School of Extended Education, prepare to record their podcast on 21st century learners. Photo by Gustav Deutsch

In this two-part podcast, Vicki Brannock, senior director of programing for Brandman University School of Extended Education, talks with Dr. Kimberly Greene, associate professor in the Brandman School of Education, about the paper Brannock asked Greene to write about teaching the 21st century learner. That topic is the focus of a certificate program designed by Greene for the School of Extended Education. The second half of the podcast can be found here or on iTunes.

To get a copy of “The 21st Century Learning Landscape for Elementary and Secondary Students in the United States: The Current State of Blended and Online Learning Opportunity” upon publication, email


Welcome to Brandman Speaks. In this two part podcast from Brandman University, Vicki Brannock, senior director of programs for the School of Extended Education talks with Associate Professor Kimberly Greene from the School of Education about the 21st century learner. There’s a lot to say about a topic that touches on everything from Common Core to how we learn, so we’ve divided the podcast into two segments.

Vicki Brannock: [00:00:28] So Dr. Greene it’s really good to see you again. I think the last time we met was back in the fall when we were talking in a faculty meeting. And I was wondering about any research that been done on 21st century learning. And you had said that there was a lot of studies done but there wasn’t much independent research. And so I ask if you undertake this research task and here we are today. So tell me a little bit about what happened between then and now.

Kimberly Greene: [00:00:59] Well, when we first started talking and you asked me the question all I kept thinking about were little individual piecemeal studies. And that’s when I came to the realization that there really wasn’t a big umbrella study — at least not a recent one that I was aware of — that would enable me to give you a straight answer. There really was this recognition of somebody needs to put the time and effort into looking at this from a bigger picture so that we can have a more informed discussion about making decisions. We didn’t even know what questions to ask back when we first started this conversation.

Brannock: [00:01:46] And it’s my understanding that you also have someone who coauthored this with you.

Greene: [00:01:50] Yes. Dr. William Hale.

Brannock: [00:01:52] Well I’m sure as you guys started that there was a lot that you could have said about this topic. Could you talk a little bit about that? Like what did you discover? How do you define 21st century learner?

Greene: [00:02:03] That’s a great place to start because it’s one of those terms that gets bandied about so much but everybody tends to have a different vision in their mind what it means. Basically after looking at ideas and definitions and concepts from tons of groups, and I do mean tons because there’s so much out there, it really boiled down to active critical thinking. Which if you look at what so much of what 19th and 20th century learning was, it really wasn’t focused on that active critical thinking, It was more about gathering knowledge that existed and being able to replicate or reproduce it. Active critical thinking, 21st century learning, is based upon verbs. It’s being able to use knowledge to do things to create new understandings to be able to solve problems in a creative fashion. So the easiest way to boil this down is to think about 20th century learning is all about nouns. It’s about a canon of knowledge to be memorized. Twenty-first century learning is about engagement, in doing things with all of that information. It’s about the verbs.

Brannock: [00:03:41] And it’s I think that’s very … correlates very well to how we’re how we’re tasked to work in the workplace nowadays. Because it used to be a very top down management style and now it’s much more about creativity. And the best companies that are really thriving out there are actually using this same .. just how you defined 21st century knowledge and learning.

Greene: [00:04:09] And what you said about creativity. I don’t want people to misunderstand and think that means everybody’s going to become a graphic designer. That creativity translates into innovative ideas in engineering, in science, in mathematics, in medicine, across the board. It’s not about simply being able to do what has already been done. It’s about being able to apply and handle new situations and create new ways of doing and being and thinking and seeing.

Brannock: [00:04:44] And so when I was reading your paper, there were four areas that I think correlate very well to what you were just talking about and tell me if I’ve got these right. One is that 21st century learning is really a personalized learning. The other is that it’s best done in groups that support individual learning. The third is that it’s deep learning, and the fourth, is it’s project based.

Greene: [00:05:08] Very much so and this is a podcast so no one can see me nodding but yes, I am nodding right now. That is correct.

Brannock: [00:05:16] So tell me a little bit about what is personalized learning what does that look like.

Greene: [00:05:20] I’m really glad you asked that question because I think most people have a — incorrect is a little harsh — but and understanding of it that tends to come again from that old paradigm of learning. Personalized learning doesn’t mean that it’s not rigorous and that there aren’t standards. Personalized learning means that the actual process, the experience of gaining understanding, of practicing skills, of working with different ideas and concepts and people, it’s all done in a way that affords the individual the greatest learning opportunity. So whether it’s enhanced by technology, or it’s the individual teacher creating learning in a differentiated fashion so that there’s some choice for the student. There’s voice in the projects that are done. It is rubric-based rather than fill-in-the-blank. Again going back to active. It is crafted in a way that the student is individually engaged in making understanding through the experience. Now there are a lot of technology tools out there, and whether we’re talking blended learning or talking fully online, that will afford differentiation within, let’s say, practice experiences. If the student is having problems with one specific area or skill, it will automatically bring in more opportunities to practice that in a slightly different fashion, whether it’s thinning out the language or offering tutorial steps so that it makes more sense for the individual. It doesn’t come from the cookie cutter, Industrial Revolution age, mindset of there is one way to learn. There is one pathway to learn. You follow that or you fail. It comes from the place of understanding that education’s job is to ensure the success of the individual.

[00:07:46] Not that the individual has to fit the way the learning has been designed. That’s what it’s all about. And there is no one simple way to do this, and I think that’s what throws a lot of people. Everybody’s looking for a magic pill. Right? But there is no such thing. And if we can start with that understanding and that personalizing a learning experience doesn’t mean you sit down and write 4,000 individual lesson plans to teach addition. It means designing the learning so that there are pathways within the journey that will allow for each individual to maybe stop and work on a specific skill, maybe go back if they’ve forgotten or they haven’t made the leap from step A to step C. Knowing that there is an end goal and that we will support the learner in whatever different way speaks to that individual to reach that end goal. It’s focusing on the success of the individual, not the ease of the design.

Brannock: [00:08:55] And I’m glad you said that about that it’s not about a lot of individual lessons plans because I think I almost heard people gasp, especially educators on how in the world am I going to make this personalized experience for each individual student. But that’s really our definition of personalized is not what we’re talking about here today. Also you had talked about that this is best done in groups that support individualized learning. What does that look like or could you give us an example of a classroom and how that would look.

Greene: [00:09:27] The student, the learner no matter what age, has to be involved in creating the understanding. Otherwise it’s simply memorization. And it goes away as soon as it’s not being used. Working in groups puts people in a position where they have to authentically be able to communicate what they’re thinking. So that process of being able to say to a partner, listen that’s not going to work because blah blah blah and then being able to put it into your own words. It forces you to be reflective in what it is you think your understanding. It puts language into a far more powerful place. So when we have to share information as we’re engaged in using it for a purpose, it changes the very structure of where it lives within our brains. There’s been an immense body of neuroscience that’s come out recently that supports this. This is basically a construct of this perspective of looking at learning. But what we’re finding now, in conjunction with brain science and brain scans and MRIs and FMRIs, is by putting the learner in a position of having to negotiate understanding, not just how the teacher will this is what I think, but to work with someone who maybe doesn’t also have a solid foundation of it. For those people to have to share language back and forth and come to an understanding. ‘Oh wait a minute. Yes. Hey I see it now what you’re saying blah blah blah is similar to what I’m saying. Blow blow blow.’ And that process, again I’m going back to a verb.

[00:11:31] It’s that process that truly takes a concept and makes it something that we not only “memorize” but we have structured it across our neurological pathways in a way that we can then continue to build on it. And as new information new experiences come in, it’s not a static entity. So it can grow. It can morph. It can go deep as well as wide.

Brannock: [00:12:01] So what you were describing sounds a lot like what the business community defines as soft skills. And that’s the one criticism I think that I hear universally in the School of Extended Education, where we deal with a lot of businesses as well as teachers, is that students are coming out of the classroom without the soft skills. But it sounds like applying this 21st century learning process to a classroom will really address those issues that have, that we were lacking, because we were using that 20th century model of kind of pouring the information into the student.

Greene: [00:12:39] Very much so. And it’s so funny because personally I dislike the term soft skills because I think it tends to have a kind of ephemeral, well it’s not real. You know you kind of almost you know like patting a child on the head. Good good, good boy. But I understand what is meant by that. And it is so crucial. I agree with you completely. You’re not the only one who’s hearing this from business leaders and educational leaders and all kinds of people and in all walks of life, that they’re getting students, graduates, coming out of universities who may have memorized all different kinds of fabulous facts but they can’t apply it, and they can’t work with the team over here and the team on the other side of the world, and they don’t know what to do with all of this. So this terminology, soft skills. Yes, the group engagement. Knowing how to work with others to accomplish something. It’s very interesting. The concept of collaboration doesn’t just mean you get in a room and fight over who has the best idea and then do that. It’s truly creating something that couldn’t have been made without each person’s contribution. It is again, whether it’s sales or manufacturing or advertising or neuroscience, nothing is linear. It’s such a disconnect and this focus on engagement, on active critical thinking, is so rich and delicious and empowering for the individual, for his or her community, for the organizations he or she serves, and really it’s so empowering.

Brannock: [00:14:41] I think that’s absolutely true and with that type of a vision for the future because as you said, I mean we we don’t, there was a reason at a time where we needed to provide students with all the information we could give them because it was housed in universities or housed at a place, and now it’s sort of the great equalizer, I think is to have that knowledge available to everyone. So having understanding how to get the information, how to interpret the information and how to communicate the information is probably going to be the key to a successful employee and entrepreneur or whatever that you’re going to do in your future world, that’s going to be a big, big part of your success.

Greene: [00:15:21] We can’t fall into the trap of thinking that as long as you can talk, well you’re set. As long as you can write well, you are set. You’ve got to be fluid and flexible enough to be able to cross over those skills and bring them all into conjunction. Because again you may be sitting down at a table with someone you know who works in the next office. You may have someone telecommuting in from the other side of the world. When you make the presentation to the other team that’s going to partner with you. It could be that you make a video and you show a Prezi or a PowerPoint slide. So we can’t fall into the trap of thinking, again one way to do it. Everything I teach everything, you learn, is going to use these four tools, and you’ll be set for life. It’s all about flexibility and the ability to recognize what you’re actually trying to do. And then which tools will best afford that, Which is why I personally am such a big proponent of blended and online learning when it’s designed properly

In the next segment, Vicky Brannock and Kimberly Greene talk about deep learning and project based education including some of the misconceptions the 21st century learners teachers and parents may need to overcome.

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