“The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind–creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers,” says Daniel Pink on the opening page of the Introduction of A Whole New Mind. Of course, innovators still need to be able to (or have those around them who can) produce high quality products that are consistently good. As a result, the true victors of the 21st Century are the individuals (or more likely, the organizations) that are able to both:

  • create innovative new services and products that connect with the emotions of their users
  • produce services and products that are high quality, easy-to-use, and consistently improved

Apple, Inc.
One corporation that has been unrivaled in its success at simultaneously completing both of the above tasks is Apple, Incorporated. Led by Steve Jobs, Apple continues to create products that connect with the hearts and guts of consumers. Other companies simply do not elicit the same type of responses–tremendous rumors in advance of new product announcements, cries of excitement and disappointment when new products are announced, tremendously long lines when new products are first available (iPhone, iPad), and stores that are always full, even during the worst economic crisis worldwide since World War II. Steve Jobs and employees throughout Apple appear to be extraordinary “creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers.”

At the same time, these highly complex products require tremendous feats of engineering prowess. The creators must be able to think logically, analytically, and in very linear, mechanical ways. There must be strong processes in place to check for quality and to make adjustments quickly and completely when bugs are discovered. In other words, Pink’s most significant skills of the ‘last few decades’–“computer programmers who could crank code, lawyers who could craft contracts, and MBAs who could crunch numbers”–remain vital to an organization’s success. Apple’s programmers, attorneys, and MBAs are all top-shelf, and the company’s bottom-line reflects this.

Apple’s is successful because it creates new products that resonate emotionally with consumers and because it utilizes standards and processes from both engineering and technology as well as business and law.

Meaningful & Relevant Learning-Creative, Innovative, and Emotionally Connected
What Apple manages to achieve provides an exact model for what all students deserve in our classrooms. First, classrooms must strive for learning to be meaningful and relevant. Learning should be real, hands-on, emotional, and differentiated, and assessment should be the driving force behind instructional decision-making.


When a classroom captures all of these “21st Century Skills,” it begins to fulfill the implications of Pink’s point regarding who will rule the 21st Century. Do students and teachers need to use classroom technology in order to achieve these characteristics? No. Does it help? Certainly–or, at least, certain technology does. Technology, and in particular the Internet, can eliminate barriers and give students the opportunity to create authentic work that has a real impact on the world. Their products can be published and disseminated with virtually no additional financial cost and with great speed and power.

Of course, helping teachers and principals understand and implement a 21st Century vision of meaningful and relevant learning is difficult. Educators need to:

  • abandon their own experiences in the classroom
  • re-create how a classroom looks, feels, and sounds
  • reevaluate what concepts, content, and skills are most important for students to learn
  • analyze how to assess whether or not students are actually learning these concepts, content, and skills

Integrating Standards & Relevant, Meaningful, Emotional Learning
Where do the standards fit in to a louder, more collaborative classroom in which consumption is trumped by creation and in which published videos and blogs triumph over pencil-and-paper tests?

First, like Apple, schools do not exist in a vacuum. Apple uses a variety of standards as the very foundation of the products, whether it is developing and using HTML5 or other open source codes that serve as the foundation for products like iChat and even the entire operating system, Apple accepts and uses these as a basis for its work. The learning standards that are approved by a State Department of Education are akin to these agreed upon building blocks of programming code.

Apple might claim that it could make more money and better products if it was not constrained by government regulation, but Apple is, and it has found ways to thrive within those parameters. Schools are likewise, but even more importantly, accountable back to society at-large. While educators may not always like or agree with it, schools must be responsive to regulation and influence from both the legislative process as well as from other sectors of society. This does not mean that educators should not, at times, push back in the name of sound instruction and social justice. At the same time, as high-stakes assessments and accountability show, schools do exist within a larger set of parameters–standards and high-stakes assessments that are based on those standards. As a result, like Apple must learn to thrive with accounting rules and intellectual property law, schools must do their best work using the existing state standards and by performing as well as possible on high-stakes assessments.

Second, just like Apple relies upon application developers and musicians and filmmakers to generate its content, the type of high-level, original work that students ought to be doing in a model classroom exhibiting 21st Century Skills requires these students to wrestle with deep content and concepts. There is nothing wrong with the fact that these concepts and content is derived from learning standards developed in a state capitol (or even Washington, D.C. as will likely be the case in the coming years). Simply put, the standards themselves provide the meat of what students are working with.

stds meaningfullearn

What happens when a classroom really utilizes standards as what students are taught while engaging students in these concepts, content, and skills with increasingly real-life, engaging, integrated, problem-based units of instruction? So long as students are continuing to be challenged with appropriate literacy and math skills in the context of these units, these students should perform at least as well on standardized assessments as students who are learning with more traditional instructional strategies, such as teacher lectures, worksheets, textbook readings, and quizzes/tests. Schools must be on-guard to ensure that they are teaching to the same standards regardless of the methods employed. When schools utilize the standards as the basis of their creative work to develop meaningful, relevant instructional units, students will be engaged in that work because it is appropriately challenging, emotionally engaging, and real. Most importantly, these students will be on their way to having the skills necessary to be successful in 21st Century Society and even to begin influencing that society today while still in the classroom as well as performing well on state assessments.

Jason Klein has been a teacher, principal, and, for the past few years, is now a School District Director of Technology in Suburban Chicago. Today, he can be found online at twitter.com/jasonklein.