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What is 21st Century Learning?

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21st century learning can be defined as student-centered learning. We refer to it this way because 21st century innovations make student-centered learning possible on an unprecedented scale. At the same time, these advances create new demands that make student-centered approaches increasingly necessary.

Twenty-first century advances such as automation, big data, and artificial intelligence are decreasing the need for people to do routine tasks. The vast amount of immediately-available information diminishes the need for a person to be an organization's knowledge keeper. While employers need fewer people to perform repeatable cognitive and manual tasks, they are looking for people to take on challenges that are increasingly complex and new. By one popular estimate, 65% of children who are currently entering primary school will eventually work in a job that does not exist today.

The same technologies that reduce the need for routine tasks and knowledge keeping also allow us to educate our students as we have never been able to before. Anyone with a computer or smartphone can instantly access, copy, transfer, edit and consume massive amounts of information. Great works and ideas that once were cloistered away in Ivy League libraries are now immediately available with a voice command or a touch. New software and applications now make it possible for all students to receive educational experiences that are tailored to their individual needs. Educators can keep students moving forward with online teaching tools that immediately show each student's strengths, needs, opportunities, and level of participation. Just as the development of the printing press made possible the age of mass instruction, the advent of new technologies makes possible the age of mass customization.

21st century learning - student - centered approaches to seize new opportunities

One thing that defines 21st century learning is the emphasis on the students' roles as active discoverers who take ownership of their experiences. Many advocates of active learning consider it a more natural way for people to acquire and retain information, and that it more adequately prepares students to deal with situations that require something other than a memorized response. John Dewey said, "Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results."

Proponents of 21st century learning often refer to the need to shift away from 3Rs - reading, writing and arithmetic - to developing skills in the 4Cs:

  • Creativity
  • Creative Thinking
  • Collaboration
  • Communication

While the 3Rs emphasize repetition, memorization, and recall, the 4Cs focus on strengthening a student's ability to evaluate information and to combine that information with imagination and ingenuity to create something new and innovative.

There are a few broad educational approaches that are important to understand when transitioning from traditional, lecture-style teaching to active learning. These five high-level approaches can be categorized into two content-focused approaches and three project-focused approaches.

Content-Focused Approaches

  • Blended Learning
    This approach incorporates technology to better customize the student's experience. A mix of opportunities can occur in this learning space where teachers interact with students, students collaborate with each other in peer-to-peer discussions, and students work with devices that provide the individualized content that they need. Often, educators can opt to divide a larger space into learning stations and rotate students into different learning opportunities within the same instructional period.
  • Flipped Learning
    In this approach, students prepare for their lessons by consuming content outside of class time. During class, students work on assignments based on content they prepared ahead of time. Educators serve as expert mentors who guide students to individually master their lessons. Educators can opt for large-group discussion, small-group discussion, or individual mentoring during the class time.

Project-Focused Approaches

  • Teacher-Led Projects
    This approach gives the teacher a lot of control, while also allowing students to collaborate and actively apply their knowledge to projects. Educators create the plans and typically set-up the materials, allowing all the students to work on the same project. Typically, the project reinforces their lessons. Educators can choose the level of control that is best for them. Some guide their students through each part of the project. Others provide plans and materials, and allow their students to work at their own pace.
  • Student-Led Projects
    In this approach, control shifts from the teacher to the students. Educators set the parameters, and students determine the content, structure, and format of the project. Educators help students spark ideas, follow a process, collaborate with peers, and communicate outcomes while remaining within the set parameters. Students take responsibility for all aspects of the project from concept to completion.
  • Full Project-Based Learning
    Full project-based learning occurs when the entire curriculum centers around student project work. The projects can cut across many different academic subjects that a traditional approach would separate into distinct class periods. Educators who adopt a full project-based learning curriculum typically assign student-led project work, but they may also can guide their students through teacher-led projects, or apply some combination of the two.

Support for 21st century learning

The education philanthropist Dale Carnegie once proposed that, "Learning is an active process. We learn by doing. Only knowledge that is used sticks in your mind." Empirical studies offer support for this supposition; several studies find improvement in standardized test scores when applying 21st century learning concepts:

  • In the Detroit Public Schools, students who learned with an inquiry-based science curriculum achieved significantly greater scores on the state standardized science exam.
  • Students who opted into a rural project-based learning high school scored significantly better on standardized social studies exams when compared to their traditional parent school, less than a mile away.
  • In a sample of high schools in Arizona and California, researchers found greater economics test scores when high school students learned via problem-based lessons, compared to traditional economics instruction. In that same study, teachers also expressed significantly greater satisfaction with their teaching materials and methods.

In addition, a meta-analysis across a number of studies and educational outcomes found evidence that active learning approaches resulted in better academic achievement, improved interactions, higher self-esteem and better student attitudes when compared with more traditional methods.

Student-centered, 21st century learning prepares students for the challenges and opportunities that will arise from changes in technologies, economies, and societies. Active learning offers a path for them to develop the cognitive and interpersonal skills they will need to use information differently in the digital age. While this is the promise for the future, 21st century learning approaches bear fruit today, even reflecting well on standardized test scores.

At School Outfitters, we are happy to provide educators the information they need to prepare themselves, their institutions and their students for 21st century opportunities. The words of John Dewey echo, "If we teach today's students as we taught yesterday's, we rob them of tomorrow."

Davidson, Cathy. Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century. New York: Penguin Books, Ltd. 2012. p 18.

Grier, Blumenfeld, Marx, & Krajcik. (2008). Standardized Test Outcomes for Students Engaged in Inquiry-Based Curricula in the Context of Urban Reform. https://www.bie.org/object/document/inquiry_based_science_in_an_urban_setting

Summers, E. & Dickinson, G. (2012). A longitudinal investigation of project-based instruction and student achievement in high school social studies. http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1313&context=ijpbl

Finkelstein, N., Hanson, T., Huang, C., Hirschman, B., & Huang, M. (2010). Effects of Problem Based Economics on high school economics instruction. http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/edlabs/regions/west/pdf/REL_20104012.pdf

Prince, Michael. (2004). Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research. http://www4.ncsu.edu/unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/Papers/Prince_AL.pdf

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