21st Century Learning



21st Century Learning is a theory intended to revolutionize education in response to societal changes in the 21st century. The belief is that we cannot continue to educate students in a 20th century fashion; students must instead be given opportunities to learn 21st century skills such as learning and innovation, digital literacy, career and life skills. This approach to education intends that students obtain the following skills (Fadel and Trilling, 2009):

  • functional numeracy and literacy
  • critical thinking and problem solving
  • creativity and innovation
  • technological literacy
  • communications and media literacy
  • collaboration and teamwork
  • personal organization
  • motivation, self-regulation and adaptability
  • ethnics, civic responsibility, cultural awareness

The Skills

Traditional education has tended to be teacher directed and content based. Teachers have been expected to deliver a set number of learning outcomes to their students previously outlined by the Ministry of Education. Students are then assessed to determine if they have achieved the learning outcomes to an acceptable level and move on to the next set of outcomes. However, proponents of 21st Century Learning argue that this form of education is no longer relevant in our knowledge centered, digital, fast paced world. Instead, it is argued that teachers must educate in a student-centered manner that promotes the acquisition of 21st Century Skills.

Fadel and Trilling (2009) identify three main skill strands:

1)    Learning and innovation skills

  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Communication and collaboration
  • Creativity and innovation

2)    Digital literacy skills

  • Information literacy
  • Media literacy
  • Information and communication technologies (ICT)

3)    Career and life skills

  • Flexibility and adaptability
  • Initiative and self-direction
  • Social and cross-cultural interaction
  • Productivity and accountability
  • Leadership and responsibility

Within 21st Century Learning students use educational technologies to apply knowledge to new situations, analyze information, collaborate, solve problems and make decisions. The focus of education is to provide students with the skills they need to participate in our knowledge based society.

The Model

Although 21st Century Learning argues for a curriculum that encourages authentic learning and student choice, it is acknowledged that students require foundational skills. Therefore, in the early grades teachers would maintain a solid focus on the foundations (e.g. literacy and numeracy), and as students become more capable their education falls more heavily in the hands of the student.

To accomplish the above balance, 21st century learning models describe a flexible educational path. Room must be left for in-depth study and mastery of learning outcomes, however this is accomplished through the student interests and a student-centered/inquiry learning approach (e.g. problem based learning, project based learning). Incorporation of educational technologies is considered essential, and teachers are encouraged to use a blended instructional approach with both online and face to face opportunities. Learning objects and other technological teaching tools are thought to be beneficial for boosting foundational skills so school time can be freed up for focus on developing 21st century skills and a variety of different information systems should be used so that students have ready access to information. Finally, students in a 21st century model should receive constant feedback and assessment and this feedback should be used in a matter that informs instruction and learning rather than mastery of contact and standards.

The overall vision of 21st Century Learning in K-12 education is rooted in personalized learning for each student. As such, education moves from learning information to learning to learn; from data to discover; from one-size-fits-all to tailored/individualized learning; from testing to assess to assessing to learn; and from classroom learning to lifelong learning. Learning should be rich, authentic, critical and collaborative.

Role of the Teacher

A teachers’ role in the 21st century learning model will look drastically different. No longer considered to be the primary source of information dispensation, he/she will assume the role of a facilitator of knowledge. 21st century teachers must be willing to admit that they are not always the “expert” as students have multiple sources of information at their finger tips. Instead, teachers must focus on guiding students to analyze information critically, ask questions and be innovative. Confidence with technology is no longer optional as digital technologies are considered an essential component of the learning process. Parents should be invited into education as a participant rather than a supporter.


Our society has moved from an industrial economy to one based on knowledge, information and expertise. This knowledge based society will continue to grow exponentially and requires people to develop a new set of skills such as high levels of knowledge, expert thinking and complex communicating. Essentially, brain-power has replaced brawn-power.

According to Fadel and Trilling (2009) four powerful forces are leading our society towards new ways of learning for life in the 21st century. First, our society is experiencing a heavy emphasis on knowledge work requiring vast numbers of well trained workers.  Second, thinking tools (information and communication technologies) are developing at an astounding rate and heavily influence how individuals function in society. Third, today’s students are immersed in digital lifestyles, giving today’s students a whole new set of expectations. Fourth, learning research has resulted in a revolution around how people learn and given rise to new theories for education such as authentic learning, multiple intelligences, social learning and more.

Wenger (2008) argues that there are two achievement gaps in today’s education system. First, there is a large gap between quality of education for middle class students versus low class/minority students. Second, there is the global achievement gap between what our best schools are teaching and testing versus what all students will need to succeed as learners, workers and citizens in today’s global knowledge economy. To say the least, lifelong learning is a mandatory requirement for success in today’s fast paced society. 21st century learning intends to teach children how to think, rather than cover chapters of information and prepare for multiple-choice tests.

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