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The Bongiorno Theory on 21st Century Learning

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.

I don't mean to call my students horses, but if you can follow me here, there is no amount of expensive technology or trendy new resources a teacher can provide that can possibly force any individual to learn. You can give your students the "water"--or whatever new programs and devices your administration might be pushing--but you can't expect your students to learn just because they're told it will work for them. If we are to push anything on our students to promote learning, it should be the concepts of self-advocacy, perseverance, and exploration. Daniel Pink would at least agree with me on the latter. So, let's begin with promoting the ability to explore, or, as Pink calls it, "play" (Pink, 7).

In my classes that most represent a 21st Century Learning environment in their current state, students are surrounded by like-minded peers, open to new ideas and, yes, even failure. In these enrichment classes, or PEN (Program for ENrichment) courses, students are encouraged to explore various art media, through project-based learning.

Students experiment with new materials and art media

A student tirelessly strategizes over a material with which she can best complete an open-ended assignment, and asks, "How can I use ink, and one of those real ink pen things?" She's thought through everything, with a draft complete and even a back-up plan, should I be unable to present her with the desired color of ink. I could give her a demo, and walk her through the entire process. Instead, I give her the opportunity to explore something new, and learn it in her own way. The resulting artwork is more than a quality piece, it is a testament to her growth as a student. She's able to problem-solve and create new knowledge for herself. All I had to do was provide her with the materials, a space to experiment, and an environment conducive to play. She didn't have to worry about her peers looking down on her when she didn't get it right the first time, because they were challenged to explore their own new materials alongside her. Failures are applauded as necessary steps to eliminate poor techniques, and breakthroughs are treated as the obvious outcome of the students' hard work.

Of course, exploration and play cannot lead to learning without the presence of perseverance, or hard work. Without encouraging a student to work through her mistakes--or as Bob Ross would call them, "happy accidents"--learning can be stunted. Perhaps not surprisingly, something as simple as the wording of your assignment might discourage learning. For instance, "Students, you are going to mix colors to create your own color wheel today," can sound less appealing than, "Alright, teams, you have a compass, a palette of paint, and paper at your stations; your challenge is to create a color wheel with 12 colors; GO!" Even just the word challenge can trigger the idea that experimentation and failure are acceptable in the process, or assignment. From there, students can understand that learning is something worth working for, and that it's okay for it to feel hard sometimes. Encouraging students to persevere will give them yet another skill necessary for both the present and the future.

Students persevere through a painting challenge

Using a yellow "fidgety" device, the student in the middle has shown he can advocate for his individual learning needs

For this last point, let's return to the horse analogy. Who is to say the horse is thirsty for water? If only the horse could communicate its needs! Luckily, my students are more than happy to tell me when they need to get a drink from the water fountain. Unfortunately, they are not always as willing to self-advocate for their needs as learners. By providing an open atmosphere for multiple learning styles, or "intelligences," a student might be more inclined to let you know what he needs to learn (Gardner, 6). You see, when this student asks to look something up on his phone, work outside, use his headphones, ditch his chair, or partner with a different peer, it's possible he is trying to tell you something about the way he works best. Surely, not all student requests are legitimate needs for the individual's learning, but shutting down self-advocacy is more detrimental than allowing students to air their requests. Try to accommodate and encourage future attempts at self-advocacy. Students are often more in-tune with modern learning tools and their possible applications, so if a student wants to use Sway instead of Prezi, perhaps he's on to something. If not, at least he has learned that his voice was heard and respected, and that future attempts to advocate for his perceived needs will not be dismissed.

Instead of stressing over the resources and tools we can (or cannot) provide students to ensure they are getting a 21st Century Learning experience, it may be best to focus on some of the basic skills that will matter for students in every environment: self-advocacy, exploration, and perseverance.


Howard Gardner & Thomas Hatch, Multiple Intelligences Go to School: Educational Implications of the Theory of Multiple Intelligences

Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind

Bob Ross GIF provided by GIPHY

All Photographs by Alison Bongiorno


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