Big Ideas and the Big Picture

A.C. Grayling's book, Ideas that Matter: The Concepts that Shape the 21st Century, is a dictionary of ideas he believes are shaping the 21st century, but have also shaped our entire history. His dictionary list of ideas begins with Absolutism and ends with Zeitgist.

“Ideas are the cogs that drive history onward, for good and ill; understanding influential beliefs, worldviews, scientific ideas and philosophical theories is a part of the equipment needed by engaged citizens of the world to make better sense of it” (Grayling, 2012).
Perceptions of the Future

Throughout history generations of people all over the world have made assumptions about the future. For example, ten years before Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom she made the remark that she would not see a woman Prime Minister in her lifetime. In 1899, a U.S Patent Officer, Charles H. Duell claimed, 'Everything that can be invented had been invented'.

According to author, A.C. Grayling (2012), “we make all sorts of confident assertions about what the near and medium-term future will bring. But the very speed of change and technological development should make us extra wary" (Grayling, 2012). The Internet, which is constantly changing has transformed our experiences and how we view our world. Today's students are taught about digital citizenship and responsibilities in order to be aware of the impact of technological developments on them and society. For example, students are taught to be aware of how their behavior online can effect their digital footprints. “But even the ordinary electronically wired-up individual is today an almost naked creature in the cyber-reality he inhabits; from credit cards to mobile phones, email to Internet surfing, use of identity cards and bus passes, the individual leaves a bright shining smear of information about himself like a trail in his wake, which anyone interested can follow with the greatest of ease; and in addition there he is on the CCTV monitor as he waits at the us stop, peers into a shop window, meets friends, sits at the outdoor cafe, reads the book whose title the camera can pick up and add to the wealth of details about him that a central computer somewhere stores” (Grayling, 2012).

How do Big Ideas apply to 21st Century learners?

Autonomy - “The conditions of social life of course mean that individuals are subject to many constraints imposed by the requirements of living in community with others, but to the extent that they think freely for themselves, and make fundamentally important choices in the moral sphere about how to act in particular cases and what sort of person to be in general, to that extent they are autonomous” (Grayling, 2012). Students in the 21st century classroom develop learner autonomy by taking charge of their learning and setting learning goals. Autonomous learners require teachers to design and maintain learning environments to support learner autonomy.

Education - “The aim of contemporary education is mainly to equip the young with sufficient levels of literacy, numeracy and basic knowledge for participation in the complexities of modern work and society when they attain adulthood” (Grayling, 2012). In the Western culture the belief is education occurs roughly around the ages of five and twenty. The learning that occurs in the workplace is often considered a temporary 'training' and sometimes a 'retraining'. In the 21st century global world there is no barrier between learning in Kindergarten through college and than how learning looks in the workplace, instead students are learning how to learn and how to become lifelong learners. Students are being taught "that we have a responsibility to ourselves to be informed, knowledgeable and reflective, aware of what is happening in the world and able to be a good participant in debates and decisions concerning our lives and societies" (Grayling, 2012).

Games Theory - “Game theory is the analysis of strategies involving conflicts of interest, with a view to determining what counts as a rational strategy - and especially to determine when those engaged in making strategic decisions in such circumstances should cooperate and when they should compete for maximum advantage” (Grayling, 2012). Game-based learning and gamification are two games theories being utilized in the 21st century classroom. Game-based learning is utilizing games to enhance the classroom learning experience. Gamification, on the other hand, is adding game elements to a non-game learning situation.

Logic - “Logic is the study of reasoning and argument” (Grayling 2012). In 21st century classrooms learners need to be able to critically think and defend their arguments through collaboration and communication. "Critical thinking and problem solving, for example, have been components of human progress throughout history, from the development of early tools, to agricultural advancements, to the invention of vaccines, to land and sea exploration" (Rotherham &Willingham, 2009). Information literacy skills and global awareness are not new concepts, but what is new is "the extent to which changes in our economy and the world mean that collective and individual success depends on having such skills" (Rotherham & Willingham, 2009). Problem-based learning and project-based learning are two models which support students authentic learning and logical problem solving, as well as collaboration and communication.

Technology - Technology is not restricted to only digital devices, but also applies to the techniques these devices serve. Earliest forms of technology date back 2.5 million years ago to stone tools and the Acheulian era, 1.5 million years ago, humans began to specialize in how these stone tools could be utilized. For example, clear distinctions could be seen physically between tools, as well as how the various stone tools were used. Today's 21st century learners use digital devices in many facets of their life. In order for digital devices to be effectively used in the 21st century classrooms educators need to understand how these devices apply to effective instruction. Liz Keren-Kolb's article, "Engage, Enhance, and Extend Learning!" is a wonderful resource to help educators identify how to effectively incorporate technology into classroom practice.

How do these ideas apply to Instructional Technology?

“Strictly speaking, the word ‘technology’ should denote the study of practical or applied arts in all spheres of human activity, from industry to domestic labour; such is the meaning of the suffixed ‘-logy’ from Greek logos (theory of discourse). But its primary meaning now is the equipment - such devices as machines and computers - by which science and inventive common sense are practically applied to the purposes and activities of mankind” (Grayling, 2012).

“Because this is an age of expertise and specialization, in which almost all fields of learning are abstrusely technical, there is a need for concise introductions to key ideas, aimed at non-specialists” (Grayling, 2012).

The 9 Principles of Digital Citizenship and Ideas That Matter

Ideas that Matter: The Concepts that Shape the 21st Century identified and described many topics that apply to Digital Citizenship. For example author A.C. Grayling identified equality, ethics, freedom of speech, law, and privacy as concepts shaping the 21st century. These concepts are also included as principles of Digital Citizenship. As technology is increasingly integrated into society and schools it is essential to teach Digital Citizenship principles.

ISTE 9 Principles of Digital Citizenship

"Nearly all of the ISTE Standards list digital citizenship as one of the aspects of education technology that all members of a school or district should support. Specifically, the standards tend to focus on the safe, legal and ethical use of technology in schools" (Ribble, 2014). The ISTE Standards are organized into three categories, respect, educate, and protect.


  • Digital Etiquette: Rules and policies aren’t enough — we need to teach everyone about appropriate conduct online. Rules and policies can also be considered ethical behavior. According to Grayling, ethics has two main meanings: “In its ordinary general use it denotes the principles and attitudes which regulate the behaviour of individuals, groups or corporate bodies, the aim being to identify what they ought to do, in the sense of identifying what is the right or good thing for them to do. As a branch of philosophy, it is the study of concepts such as good, right, evil, wrong, moral obligation, duty, and of the kinds of reasoning (often called ‘practical reasoning’) used in working out what one should do in given circumstances, and more generally how one should live” (2012).
  • Digital Access: Advocating for equal digital rights and access is where digital citizenship starts. Equality as described by Grayling in Ideas that Matter: The Concepts that Shape the 21st Century, is a complex concept. "A general formulation of the ground for asserting equality as an ideal is this: there is no intrinsic feature of any individual or group which entitles them to preferential treatment in any respect over any other individual or group, or a greater share of any good than the share of any other individual or group" (Grayling, 2012).
  • Digital Law: It’s critical that users understand it’s a crime to steal or damage another’s digital work, identity or property. Another concept Grayling identifies and describes in Ideas that Matter: The Concepts that Shape the 21st Century is law. Although Grayling argues the rationale of law and the philosophical debate of the nature of law, he does recognize why law is important to societies and that law does matter.


  • Digital Literacy: We need to teach students how to learn in a digital society.
  • Digital Communication: With so many communication options available, users need to learn how to make appropriate decisions.
  • Digital Commerce: As users make more purchases online, they must understand how to be effective consumers in a digital economy.


  • Digital Rights and Responsibilities: We must inform people of their basic digital rights to privacy, freedom of speech, etc. Ideas that Matter: The Concepts that Shape the 21st Century describe privacy as "essential for human beings, who need it just as much as they need food, water and affection. It is a right that protects a vital margin of individuality: thoughts, ideas, memories, desires, intimacies, with others, projects and plans, the complex experience of selfhood, are matters that mainly and sometimes exclusively concern only individuals themselves, and which no one else has a right to trespass upon” (Grayling, 2012). Grayling believes freedom of speech "is fundamental because without it one cannot have any other liberties, or defend them when attacked; one cannot defend oneself when accused, or accuse those who do one wrong; one cannot have democracy in which information, views and policies are expressed, debated and challenged; one cannot have education worth the name, if there are things that cannot be said; one cannot express one’s attitudes, needs, feelings, responses, anger, criticism, support, approval or beliefs; one cannot ask all the questions one needs to or would like to; and for all these reasons, without free speech one would be in a prison made of enforced silence and averted thought on important matters”.
  • Digital Safety and Security: Digital citizens need to know how to protect their information from outside forces that might cause harm. Grayling's privacy concept is also important within digital safety and security. "Any laws that give the security and policing services powers to invade privacy should be limited by sunset clauses, necessitating renewed debate every time their expiry approaches, so that the justification for them can be reinforced - or if the justification itself has expired , for the powers to lapse. This is the right way to proceed on any laws that infringe civil liberties in the real or supposed interests of some greater good than the liberties themselves " (Grayling, 2012).
  • Digital Health and Wellness: From physical issues, such as repetitive stress syndrome, to psychological issues, such as internet addiction, users should understand the health risks of technology.

Issacs, S. (2015). The difference between gamification and game-based learning. ASCD IN SERVICE. Retrieved from difference-between-gamification-and-game-based-learning/

Grayling, A.C. (2012). Ideas That Matter: Concepts that Shape the 21st Century. New York. Basic Books.

Keren-Kolb, L. (2013). Engage, enhance, and extend learning! Learning and Leading with Technology, 40, 7, p. 20-27.

Ribble, M. (2014). Essential elements of digital citizenship. ISTE. Retrieved from

Rotherham, A.J. & Willingham, D. (2009). 21st century skills: the challenges ahead. Educational Leadership, 67, 1, p. 16-21.

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