Fadel and Trilling (2009) identify three main skill strands:
1) Learning and innovation skills
2) Digital literacy skills
3) Career and life skills
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.
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.
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.