The merits of 21st-century-learning

Dr Sarah Aiono defends modern education practices against recent criticisms, outlining the evidence behind 21st century pedagogies.

Navigating the Complex Landscape of Modern Education: Beyond Knowledge and Inquiry

The emergence of the science of learning has sparked a contentious debate in educational circles, pushing us to reassess the balance between imparting knowledge and fostering inquiry. This ongoing dialogue reveals a deeper issue: the potential oversimplification of education through narrow scientific lenses and the cultural biases inherent in traditional knowledge-based approaches.

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The Dichotomy of Knowledge and Inquiry

The discourse around whether foundational knowledge should precede inquiry or whether curiosity should lead the learning path reflects a broader debate on teaching methodologies. Advocates of a knowledge-first approach argue that a solid foundation of facts is crucial for creative and critical thinking. This perspective is often backed by the “science of learning,” which suggests that systematic knowledge acquisition enables students to make meaningful connections across various domains.

In the arguments against modern learning strategies, a false dichotomy is drawn between inquiry and knowledge. AdobeStock by vejaa

Conversely, proponents of inquiry-led learning, like Mitchell Resnick (2017) argue for a curriculum that prioritises exploration from the start. Sir Ken Robinson (2015), a highly regarded advocate for creative educational practices, also criticised the view of teaching as merely a delivery system. He emphasised that teaching is fundamentally a creative profession aimed at engaging and stimulating students, not just transferring information. “Great teaching,” Robinson stated, “is about mentoring, stimulating, provoking, engaging. You can’t do any of that without understanding each student’s learning needs and aspirations.” (2013).

Simplification and Cultural Bias in Knowledge-Based Approaches

The push for a knowledge-first curriculum aligns with the ease of assessing educational outcomes through standardised tests. This method, while straightforward, risks reducing teaching to a series of measurable outputs and neglects the richness of the educational experience. Moreover, this approach often prioritises the dominant culture’s narrative, sidelining minority and indigenous perspectives and thereby perpetuating educational inequities.

Covington and Weingarth (2023) highlight these issues in their critique of the science of learning. They argue that this approach misleadingly simplifies learning to cognitive processes that can be easily quantified, such as memory and retention, while ignoring the complex, interconnected nature of the brain and learning that involves emotional, social, and physical elements.


Addressing the Argument on Missing Basics

Proponents of knowledge-based education often claim that students lack fundamental knowledge, arguing that modern curricula do not adequately cover the ‘basics.’ This viewpoint holds that the shift towards inquiry-based learning models has led to a generation of students who are ill-equipped with essential facts and historical perspectives, thus advocating for a return to more traditional, direct methods of instruction.

Proponents of direct instruction risk missing the crucial social and emotional aspects of learning. Image: AdobeStock by zinkevych

This belief underscores a critical misunderstanding of inquiry-based learning, which does not eschew knowledge but integrates it through explorative and contextually meaningful activities. Through formative assessment methods, teachers continually reflect on the knowledge and/or skills needed by students in their inquiries and then utilise the appropriate pedagogical tools to equip students with what they need to develop their learning further.  This can be using child-led strategies, explicit instruction, or a combination of both.  The point being that teachers who use this pedagogy competently do so with an understanding of the intricate nature of all teaching approaches and apply this skill in a timely and responsive manner.

Critics of inquiry-led models fail to recognise that when children pursue their curiosities within a well-structured inquiry-based environment, they acquire foundational knowledge effectively—often more deeply than through rote memorisation. Inquiry-based education is not the absence of knowledge but its contextualisation, making learning relevant and engaging, thus ensuring that knowledge is not only covered but also understood and applied.

Embracing Complexity and Inclusivity in Education

As educators and policymakers, it’s crucial to acknowledge that teaching is not a simple transmission of knowledge, but a complex interaction aimed at fostering lifelong learners capable of critical thought and innovation. Embracing the complexities of both the science of learning and the art of teaching involves creating a balanced curriculum that reflects the diverse cultural, emotional, and intellectual needs of all students.

Student-led learning can lead to deeper contextual understanding and ability to apply knowledge. Image: AdobeStock by IndiaPix

Ultimately, education should not just prepare students for tests but for life’s diverse challenges, equipping them with the ability to think critically, appreciate diverse cultures, and innovate in an ever-changing world. By moving beyond the false dichotomy of knowledge versus inquiry and acknowledging the broader dimensions of learning, we can foster an educational environment that truly nurtures and inspires the next generation.

Embracing the Future: Why 21st-Century Learning is Essential, not “Dumb”

In a recent critique, Dr. Michael Johnston dismisses 21st-century learning as a “dumb idea,” suggesting a return to more traditional educational methods. However, his choice of words could be seen as not only dismissive but also misleading, considering the substantial body of research supporting 21st-century educational frameworks.

Beyond Mere Ideas: The Foundation of 21st-Century Learning

21st-century learning transcends the notion of being merely a ‘new idea’ in education. It is a pathway of innovation, deeply rooted in extensive research from esteemed organisations such as the OECD, World Economic Forum, and the Lego Foundation. These frameworks advocate for integrating core knowledge with essential skills like creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration—skills necessary for success in a rapidly evolving global landscape.

Modern pedagogies go beyond simple knowledge and build critical thinking skills. Image: AdobeStock by WavebreakMediaMicro

Rethinking the Role of Knowledge in Education

Dr. Michael Johnston’s insistence on a “heavy focus on knowledge” and his view that 21st-century learning represents an “abandonment of knowledge” strikes a fundamental misunderstanding of what modern educational methodologies aim to achieve. Far from abandoning knowledge, 21st-century learning frameworks place it at the very core of the educational experience, but they do not stop there.

Knowledge as the Foundation, Not the Ceiling

In 21st-century learning paradigms, knowledge is not discarded; rather, it forms the foundation upon which skills and competencies are built. The goal is not merely the acquisition of facts but the ability to apply this knowledge dynamically and innovatively in a variety of contexts—both in the workplace and in broader society. This approach recognises that in an ever-changing world, being able to adapt knowledge to new situations and challenges is as crucial as the knowledge itself.

Translating Knowledge into Action

The crux of 21st-century learning is not just knowing ‘what’ but understanding ‘how’—how to translate knowledge into practical responses to real-life issues. It empowers students with skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity, which are necessary for applying knowledge effectively across different scenarios. This is exemplified in educational systems that integrate project-based learning and inquiry-based learning, where students actively engage with the material, learning to think like scientists, historians, and artists, thereby making knowledge applicable and alive.

This nuanced approach does not negate the value of traditional education but enhances it by adding layers of practicality and adaptability. It prepares students not just to pass tests but to solve complex real-world problems, engage civically, and contribute meaningfully to society.

Modern learning prioritises “how” over “what”. Image: AdobeStock by dglimages

Is Innovation Too Daunting?

Dr. Johnston’s characterisation of 21st-century learning as a “dumb idea” may hint at a deeper resistance to change. In an era marked by rapid technological advancements and shifting global economies, clinging to outdated educational models might seem simpler but is undoubtedly insufficient. The challenge isn’t just to educate but to prepare adaptable, innovative thinkers who are equipped to handle future challenges that we can’t yet foresee.

A Look Back or a Step Forward?

Suggesting a return to education models reflective of traditional pedagogical approaches, as Dr. Johnston appears to advocate, is to ignore the dynamic nature of the 21st century. Such a regression overlooks the necessity of preparing students not just for the jobs of today but for the creation of tomorrow’s industries. Education systems like those in Finland and Singapore, which embrace holistic and competency-based approaches, consistently lead in global education rankings—demonstrating the effectiveness of innovative educational practices.

The Role of Play and Modern Pedagogical Approaches

The Lego Foundation’s research underscores the importance of play in learning, which supports creativity, problem-solving, and emotional development—areas often overlooked in traditional educational paradigms. Play-based learning, project-based learning, inquiry and other child-led learning approaches is not an abandonment of knowledge but methods to embed it more deeply within engaging, meaningful experiences.

New methods of learning reflect the outcomes we hope to achieve for our next generation. Image: AdobeStock by cromary

Emphasising Competency Over Rote Memorisation

The OECD’s “Education 2030” project highlights the importance of competencies that allow students to apply knowledge creatively and ethically in new situations. These competencies are vital for personal success and societal advancement. They enable students not just to adapt to change but to drive it, preparing them to tackle global issues such as climate change, technological disruption, and social inequality.

Dr. Johnston’s dismissal of 21st-century learning overlooks a critical evolution in education that is supported by both empirical evidence and practical success stories from around the world. While the allure of a simpler educational past might be tempting, it does not serve our future. As educators, policymakers, and stakeholders, we must advocate for and implement educational frameworks that foster not only knowledge but also the critical, creative, and collaborative skills necessary for our collective future.

In pushing forward with these innovative, research-backed educational strategies, we prepare our students not just to meet the challenges of their times but to lead us into a new era of global understanding and technological advancement.

This article has been republished with permission from the Aotearoa Educators Collective. It has been adapted from two articles; the originals can be read here and here.


Covington, N., & Weingarth, M. (2023, November 7). There is no such thing as ‘the science of learning’. Human Restoration Project. Retrieved from

Resnick, M. (2017). Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play. MIT Press.

Robinson, K. (2013). How to escape education’s death valley [Video]. TED Conferences.

Robinson, K. (2015). Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. Viking.

LEGO Foundation. (n.d.). Learning through play. Retrieved from

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2018). The future of education and skills: Education 2030. Retrieved from

United Nations. (1989). Convention on the Rights of the Child. Retrieved from

World Economic Forum. (2023). The Future of Jobs Report 2023. Retrieved from

Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. (n.d.). RULER: An evidence-based approach to social and emotional learning. Retrieved from

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