21st Century Learning

21st Century Learning

The term "21st-century skills" is generally used to refer to certain core competencies such as collaboration, digital literacy, critical thinking, and problem-solving that advocates believe schools need to teach to help students thrive in today's world. In a broader sense, however, the idea of what learning in the 21st century should look like is open to interpretation—and controversy.

To get a sense of how views on the subject align—and differ—below is a synopsis of what a range education experts use to define 21st-century learning from their own perspectives:

  • Adaptability, complex communication skills, non-routine problem solving, self-management, and systems-thinking are essential skills in the 21st-century workforce. From my perspective as a scientist and science educator, the most effective way to prepare students for the workforce and college is to implement and scale what is already known about effective learning and teaching. Content vs. process wars should be ancient history, based on the evidence from the learning sciences. Integrating core concepts with key skills will prepare students for the workplace and college. We need to move past mile-wide and inch-deep coverage of ever-expanding content in the classroom. Developing skills in the context of core concepts is simply good practice. It’s time to let go of polarizing debates, consider the evidence, and get to work.
  • Success in the 21st century requires knowing how to learn. Students today will likely have several careers in their lifetime. They must develop strong critical thinking and interpersonal communication skills in order to be successful in an increasingly fluid, interconnected, and complex world. Technology allows for 24/7 access to information, constant social interaction, and easily created and shared digital content. In this setting, educators can leverage technology to create an engaging and personalized environment to meet the emerging educational needs of this generation. No longer does learning have to be one-size-fits-all or confined to the classroom. The opportunities afforded by technology should be used to re-imagine 21st-century education, focusing on preparing students to be learners for life.
  • Twenty-first-century learning means that students master content while producing, synthesizing, and evaluating information from a wide variety of subjects and sources with an understanding of and respect for diverse cultures. Students demonstrate the three Rs, but also the three Cs: creativity, communication, and collaboration. They demonstrate digital literacy as well as civic responsibility. Virtual tools and open-source software create borderless learning territories for students of all ages, anytime and anywhere.
  • Powerful learning of this nature demands well-prepared teachers who draw on advances in cognitive science and are strategically organized in teams, in and out of cyberspace. Many will emerge as teacherpreneurs who work closely with students in their local communities while also serving as learning concierges, virtual network guides, gaming experts, community organizers, and policy researchers.


21st Century Learning Classroom Work

Some examples of how the vision might be further implemented include:

  1. All students in the classroom have a hardware learning device that they use throughout the day (e.g. a netbook or ipad).  The teacher transmits assignments/group work projects through the devices on their classrooms’ wireless network.  While the students are working, the teacher can remotely view any student’s computer device and view student progress from the teacher computer.  Students collaborate as they learn together and later transmit their individual or group products back to the teacher.
  2. The students often use their devices to respond to the teacher’s continual checking for understanding (e.g. by responding to a teachers online poll or on the actual device).  The students also watch a new video the teacher has provided for their next learning topic.
  3. Classrooms are also equipped with small, simple digital equipment and webcams to allow teachers to record their own lessons/student group work; and post that work online for students and parents. Teachers make a Twitter post that parents receive as a cell phone text message, alerting parents to the work that was just completed and posted online.  The students take their devices home each evening and watch a repeat video of the day’s lesson (i.e. a video of the teacher teaching the lesson).  Students (and parents) who don’t have internet are provided with a thumb drive of the days videos.
  4. Students also collaborate on a closed network with other students in their classroom – responding positively to one another’s work samples and communicating and collaborating on work projects.  The teacher has a repository of locally stored standards based videos (available in multiple languages and with closed captioning) and software that allows her/him to confirm which students have watched their assigned videos.
  5. Students use their devices to communicate with students in other geographic locations.
  6. Students are assigned work that requires creativity, group work and critical thinking. 
  7. Students are able to sit outside and use their devices anywhere on their school site.
  8. Students use their devices to comply with the new online Smarter Balanced Assessments that measure progress on the Common Core Standards.
  9. There is a great deal of ongoing training for students, teachers and parents on how to use the hardware and software as well as on the kind of 21st century learning skills needed for these types of lessons.


Current Innovation-Flipped Learning

We have examples of teachers who are flipping their classrooms through the use of technology.  Flipping a classroom, or flipped learning, is a form of blended learning (i.e. combining face to face learning with computer-mediated learning).  This type of learning uses technology to leverage the learning in a classroom, so a teacher can spend more time interacting with students instead of lecturing. This is most commonly being done using teacher-created videos that students view “outside” of class time.

Instead of the traditional pattern of teaching where students are assigned part of a textbook for afterschool work (and to be discussed the next day), students first study a topic by themselves using teacher created videos or videos created by another user (e.g. Khan Academy).  The student then attempts to apply the knowledge they learned by solving problems and doing work in the classroom.  The role of the teacher is then to tutor the student rather than impart the initial lesson. This gives the teacher more time for hands on instruction to guide students, time for differentiated instruction and time for more project based learning activities.

This work is in its early stages in our district, but we have identified some of these teachers who we are supporting by purchasing them software to simplify the creation of their videos.  Our Technology Department has also been working to create student based Gmail accounts so students can access Khan Academy.