What is 21st Century Learning?


I spend a lot of time in the school I lead talking about and explaining what a 21st Century Learning Environment is, isn’t, what it looks, like and feels like. I have similar conversations with other Principals and leaders within the department of schools in which my school operates.  

As educators, often times these conversations focus on the learning and skills we seek to develop within the students.  The educators I speak with agree that 21st-century learning skills encompass the ability of students communicate, collaborate, critically think and problem solve, as well as be creative.  These are commonly referred to as The Four C’s.

The Four C’s are incredibly important skills for today’s students to understand and master so that they can be prepared for the uncertain future work environments which they will be entering.  It should not be a secret that the dawn of the “internet of things” and Artifical Intelligence means that our students need to be prepared to enter a workforce who jobs do not exist yet.

However, if we only focus on the skills we want our students to develop we lose sight of the WHY we want them to develop these skills. Schools still need to continue to help students develop competency in the core content areas such as English, Modern Language, Fine Arts, Math, Economics, Science and Social Studies. In addition, we must develop students understanding of global awareness, financial and entrepreneurial literacy, civic literacy, health literacy, and environmental literacy.

In today’s technology-rich and rapidly changing society, we must develop students ability to access and evaluate high-quality information, in order that they are to able to utilize this information, navigate social media, and use technology effectively.

Educator’s today are tasked with developing students life and career skills in a much different way than in years past.  In order for students to be prepared to meet the needs of an rapidly evolving world, they must develop skills in flexibility, self-direction, productivity, leadership, and social & cultural competencies.

Given the complex nature of intersecting these various skill sets (the 3 R’s and 21st-century learning skills) within the classroom, it is unreasonable that we expect teachers to meet these needs in a traditional classroom setting.

Moving beyond just having technology such as iPads, Chromebooks or laptops in the classroom schools need to look forward to how instruction is delivered. It is even necessary to look at how many states establish curriculum standards and set expectations to evaluate student competency.  Standardized tests and school rating are not enough to determine if we are doing justice for our students.

As we look towards more student-centered learning environments Problem Based Learning or PBL, is one avenue wherein schools can look to bridge this gap and address the needs of today’s learners.

The efforts by High Quality Project Based Learning outlines a framework of six domains to make PBL effective in the classroom and prepare students to be successful in the world after school.

These domains include:

  1. Intellectual Challenge & Accomplishment – How do students critically think and strive for excellence?
  2. Authenticity – How do students work on projects that are meaningful and relevant to their culture, lives, and future?
  3. Public Product – How is student work discussed, critiqued, shared and publicly displayed?
  4. Collaboration – How do students collaborate with one another in person/online and receive guidance from adults and experts?
  5. Project Management – How do students use project management processes that allow them to start a project, ideate and complete a project?
  6. Reflection – How do students reflect on their work and develop their metacognition skills before, during and after a project?

If we want students to be prepared to enter the workforce ready to challenge and question the ideas before them and to have the stamina to focus and inquire over a long project we need to create environments for them that are authentic, give them a voice, and provide an opportunity for them to reflect on their learning.  In this way, they can develop the skills to critique in a professional manner and be proud of the work that they share in public.

To continue to teach using a traditional educational methodology that trains learners to become good at being students rather than become competent at becoming learners does a disservice to those who we are tasked with guiding and shaping into effective members of our society.

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