Characteristics of 21st Century Learning

Educators, politicians and the general public believe that education has undergone a variety of major shifts and growth over the past 100 years. Policy makers, curriculum writers and teachers believe that the next major shift in education is upon us: 21st century learning. Methods for 21st Century learning are being shared worldwide instantly through social media and technology conferences. However, there is no absolute certainty about what current students in the education system will need to be successful in the future due to the rapid changes in technology. Among the many characteristics of 21st century learning being discussed in various forums, I feel learning in today’s classroom should be student-centered, should encourage communication skills, and should reflect the real world with its many challenges.

A student-centered approach to education is not a new concept to the 21st century. In 1929, while writing My Pedagogic Creed, John Dewey observed, “Education, therefore, must begin with a psychological insight into the child’s capacities, interests and habits” (p. 34). Children of all ages will not become engaged in their learning if the subject matter is of little or no interest to them. The educator can no longer simply impart “bits of information to be deposited in the students” (Freire, 1979, 2013, p. 160) but rather should seek to understand where the student is coming from and what they want to learn. Student centered learning also must take into account what their capabilities are. Asking a child to do a task beyond their developmental stage does nothing to encourage further learning, and often leaves the student discouraged. Dewey (1929) writes, “The active side precedes the passive in the development of the child-nature; that expression comes before conscious impressions; that the muscular development precedes the sensory; that movements come before the conscious sensations” (p. 39). The learning environment of the 21st century must allow the child to be active, not passive. We must have a genuine interest in the world of the child so that we may understand him/her. Even when we attempt to bring new technologies into the classroom, educators need to ensure the content has meaning to the students, and is not just there as a gimmick to be used. In a study done on massively multiplayer online games, a hypothesis was posed that the higher amount of interest during gameplay would have a positive effect on the engagement of the students (Eseryal, 2014, p. 45). The results of the study showed “interest and competence negatively predicted engagement” (Eseryal, 2014, p. 49). When questioned by the researchers, the students explained that the game did not fulfill their expectations, but that “gameplay was the only classroom activity during the class session”(Eseryal, 2014, p.49). Allowing only one activity for all students, does not address the variety of interests and capabilities present in any classroom situation.  As Dewey (1929) stated, “the constant and careful observation of interests is of the utmost importance for the educator” (p. 38). While technology may appeal to children, it is imperative that we match student interest to the digital media they are using.

The 21st century learning environment should also have a focus on communication skills. In New Literacies for Digital Citizenship, Kress (2010, p.6, as cited in Simsek, 2013) states, “that the communication practices transformed from reading and writing to designing and distributing” (p. 127). In order to communicate in the new, digital, 21st century learning environment, students and educators must be able to not only speak, read, and write, but have an understanding of blogging, tweeting, posting and more. Dewey (1929) believed “that the individual who is to be educated is a social individual” (p. 34) and a great part of that socialization is the ability to communicate. Communication has grown from the simple face to face conversation, to pen and paper reports and letters, to discourse handled instantly across digital means. However, our learners need to have an understanding of how to communicate in person as well as digitally. In Nancy Perry’s paper, Helping Young Students Become Self-Regulated Researchers and Writers (2002), the teacher she observed for a year, spent a large amount of time in the fall creating a learning community where students felt respected, valued and listened to. The learning environment in her classroom has the rule of “no putdowns” (Perry, 2002, p. 304) and she uses circle times and sharing to facilitate “encouragement and constructive criticism” (Perry, 2002, p. 304). Educators need to help guide this classroom culture of respectful communication for others into the world of digital communication and citizenship.

The last characteristic I chose of an effective 21st century learning environment is the inclusion of real world scenarios and problems. Students come from a wide variety of backgrounds and belief systems. If we wish to encourage them to be a contributing member of society, they must learn how to function in and understand the community. School should “exhibit these activities to the child and reproduce them in such ways that the child will gradually learn the meaning of them, and be capable of playing his own part in relation to them” (Dewey, 1929, p. 35). For example, the process of learning basic addition can simulate the real world by using a make believe grocery store. It not only teaches the students the process of adding numbers, but allows them the opportunities to make choices, wait in a line, bag products and figure out what to do when stock runs out.  As Noddings (2013) wrote, “real-life meaning is fundamental in learning to communicate, in developing the willingness to face changes and engage in analysis, self-reflection, and problem solving” (p. 402).  Using real world scenarios also allows students to learn an appreciation for and a love of the world in which they exist. Students are exposed to a wide variety of images in the multimedia world we live in, and often come to school with preconceived notions of how to treat others.  Using real world social media tools like twitter and blogging can provide educators with an opportunity to model appropriate digital citizenship. In Simsek and Simsek’s paper on New Literacies for Digital Citizenship (2013), digital responsibility, ethics and behaviours were mentioned throughout in several domains, theories and literacies for this new age.

In conclusion, there are many characteristics and skills which will be deemed important as the digital age continues to move forward. We, as educators, will have to reflect on the importance of past educational theories mentioned by such greats as Dewey and Freire, while we integrate new skills, literacies and methods.  We cannot remain stagnant in the belief that to educate is to impart great knowledge on our charges. Instead we must realize that we are here to facilitate student interest and communication. Ultimately we are here to guide them in their understanding of the digital world they are living in.


 Dewey, J. (1929). My Pedagogic Creed. In D. Flinders& S. Thornton (Eds.), The Curriculum Studies Reader (pp. 33 – 40). New York: Routledge.

Eseryel, D., Law, V., Ifenthaler, D., Ge, X., & Miller, R. (2014). An investigation of the  interrelationships between motivation, engagement, and complex problem solving in game-based learning. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 17(1), n/a-53.

Freire, P. (1979, 2013). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In D. Flinders& S. Thornton (Eds.), The Curriculum Studies Reader (pp. 157 – 165). New York: Routledge.

Noddings, N. (2013). Curriculum for the 21st Century. In D. Flinders& S. Thornton (Eds.), The Curriculum Studies Reader (pp. 399 – 405). New York: Routledge.

Perry, N., & Drummond, L. (2002). Helping young students become self-regulated researchers and writers. The Reading Teacher, 56(3), 298-310.

Simsek, E., & Simsek, A. (2013). New Literacies for Digital Citizenship. Online Submission4(3), 126-137.


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