Saturday, September 24, 2011

What is 21st Century Education?

What is a 21st century classroom? To understand, we must first understand what characterizes the 21st century. We must also look at what new skills are being emphasized in schools and society today. In an ever-changing world, such as the one we currently inhabit, there is the constant need to be prepared for whatever happens. Therefore, students today must adopt and apply these new skills in the classroom and in their every day lives. 21st century education embraces 21st century skills in combination with new forms of technology, and today’s media-centered digital learners. The goal of 21st century education is to prepare our children to become global citizens, capable of interacting and innovating to preserve our free institutions for a better tomorrow.

According to, 21st century skills include the following:

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

Collaboration across Networks and Leading by Influence

Agility and Adaptability

Initiative and Entrepreneurialism

Effective Oral and Written Communication

Accessing and Analyzing Information

Curiosity and Imagination

These skills help develop the “whole child” in their learning, instead of simply focusing on lower-order thinking skills like identification and recall. What’s more, these skills encourage the pursuit of a global citizenship, preparing individuals for interaction, communication, collaboration, and innovation with others across the world. In addition to these skills, the use of technology and its accompanying tools will assist in further connecting our children with their futures.

The 21st century classroom looks very different than the 20th century or “traditional” classroom. Take a look at these two classes:

What differences do you see? Aside, of course, from the nun at the front of the classroom, and the black and white grain of the first photo, you might note some stark contrasts. First of all, notice the way that students are arranged in the first photo (circa. 1950s, a Catholic school classroom). Where is the instructor standing, and what are they doing? This a “classic” classroom, where teachers lectured to students, and everyone sat in their own little desk, with their own little textbooks, taking notes and staring straight ahead. Rigidity, along with memorization of facts and passive communication between teacher and student were the norm.

Now look at the second classroom. Note that instead of neat rows of desks, there are circle tables with multiple students seated. The instructor isn’t standing at the front of the classroom, as a “sage on the stage,” demanding the students’ complete attention for an endless lecture. In fact, I can’t even discern where the teacher stands in the second class. So many students are gathered together, seemingly collaborating, working with computers and programs and immersed in their work. Active learning and outcome based assessment are present in this classroom.

The second classroom is an example of 21st century education at Clemson University. The Holtzendorff Teaching with Technology Experimental Classroom at Clemson, also known as the “sandbox classroom” was converted from an indoor swimming pool, and is now home to some pioneering technology and pedagogical practices. Originally dedicated on December 18, 2007, the classroom features a new philosophy of teaching and learning, very characteristic of 21st century education. “The classroom is called a sandbox because instructors and their students are exploring the use of technology in teaching and learning with an adventurous and curious spirit similar to that of children who explore and learn about their world in a sandbox. Interactivity, spontaneity, and collaboration are encouraged in this sandbox,” (Polowczuk). This reminded me very much of the research being done by Mitch Resnick and the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab.

He suggests that learning must be drafted to mimic that of kindergarten discovery, because it is the best form of learning. New technology supports this type of learning, which is why it is becoming more prominent in the classroom.

To give a comparison of 20th and 21st century education, I present a video by 21stEducator:

The biggest differences between 20th century and 21st century classrooms also appear in the inclusion of technology and multimedia in classrooms to enrich and provide a platform for learning. Although many of our "digital natives" have been used to using the Internet, electronic media, digital images and other devices strictly for entertainment, these tools can be utilized to promote media literacy in the classroom as well! Web 2.0 and the increasing popularity and functionality of social media are coming together to create massive potential for use in the classroom. Dr. Michael Wesch attests to how Web 2.0 applications and their respective medias are breaking ground for bringing media literacy into the classroom, and supporting 21st century skills and education in general. View his presentation An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube, where he discusses the importance of such social communication tools as Twitter, Jott, Diigo, YouTube, TeacherTube, and more.

You might ask now, will all of our classrooms end up looking like the "sandbox" at Clemson? There is all this talk of classrooms going 1:1, will every school truly benefit from the 21st century philosophy? The important thing to remember is that there cannot be a strict "department store model" for the 21st century classroom. Of course classrooms will need to incorporate technology. Globalization is one of the most prominent characteristics of the technologically-enriched classroom. The world is no longer a round, spinning place (ok, it still is, physically speaking) but communication and collaboration-wise, the world is now flat. Hey, there's a great book you can read to learn more about that concept (The World is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman)! Now our classrooms are becoming flat too, and with our new capabilities, students here in the U.S. can communicate and share ideas with students from China, India, Australia, really anywhere they have an Internet link and access to some type of social media or collaboration tool (like Skype, Adobe Connect, or Wetoku). Students and teachers can use epals to communicate and chat with other students and teachers from anywhere in the world! The global potential inside 21st century classrooms is powerful, and will be a key element in building connections for the future of the next generation.

So the differences between 20th century and 21st century learning are numerous. You might even say that they are so extremely different that we can't possibly be moving in the right direction, because everything is going so fast! But if you really look at our world today, with the way things are changing, in climate, political issues, social and welfare concerns, global communications, international relations, and more. 21st century education is "bold, it breaks the mold. It is flexible, creative, challenging, and complex. It addresses a rapidly changing world filled with fantastic new problems as well as exciting new possibilities" ( And I think that we are on exactly the right track. In changing the face and function of our classrooms, if we go about implementing technology the correct way, with support and real reasons for including it, instead of using it as a "quick fix," we will be preparing students for the continually changing future.

What will 22nd century classrooms look like then? It seems like our schools are changing every day, or at least reform is being demanded and planned. But what does this mean for students? I think the digital natives will thrive in the 21st century classroom, because it has been designed for them. In the words of Ian Jukes, an educator and Futurist "We need to prepare our children for THEIR future, not OUR past." I couldn't agree more Mr. Jukes. Readers, what do YOU think?

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