Learning in a 21st-century elementary school should be significantly different than it was in the 19th and 20th centuries, though this isn’t always the case.
Classrooms in the 21st Century
No More Rows
The days of desks arranged in straight rows facing the teacher and the blackboard are over. Classrooms in the 21st century invite learners and educators alike to come in and delve into deep and authentic learning. They are comfortably-appointed — like a family room — and rich in learning materials and resources.
In this sort of environment, there are all kinds of nooks and crannies to meet a variety of learning need, including areas for group work and discussions, areas for creating, places to study and think alone, and whenever possible, outdoor spaces to breathe in fresh air and actively play.
More Than Books
The classroom is also filled with all kinds of learning tools: mobile devices, art supplies, low- and high-tech materials for do-it-yourself projects, equipment for tinkering, and other materials as determined by the unique needs of the learners.
The use of flexible, interactive learning environments is supported by research on the ways in which spatial environments affect student learning. The HEAD Project (Holistic Evidence and Design), in a study of the impacts of the classroom environment on the learning rates of students, noted six factors that are particularly influential to learning progress: light, user choice, flexibility, connections (as in corridors and the ways different areas fit together), complexity (such as having different types of learning areas), and color.
The 21st-century classroom mimics the look, feel, and energy of people’s favorite informal learning spaces: coffee shops, libraries, makerspaces, art galleries, parks, and museums. They are places where students want to go and spend hour after hour of their time engaged in deep and meaningful learning.
Learning in the 21st Century
Choice and Multiple Modalities
Education in the 21st century offers a huge variety of learning options: direct instruction via a teacher; blended learning; face-to-face or virtual peer collaborations; and through local or virtual access to experts and professionals. Students are not dependent on the teacher alone for content specific knowledge, and can be the primary agents of their education with access to an almost limitless number of online resources — articles, informational websites, videos, social media sites, interactive features, simulations, and games. The result is a personalized learning environment in which students may choose what to learn and how and when to learn it.
Author and educator Barbara Bray explains that a personalized learning environment should allow each student to proceed according to her own level of competency rather than with a one-size-fits-all curriculum. This enables teachers to accommodate different learning styles and, in the process, change the educational environment as a whole.
Having multiple avenues, means, and methods to support students aligns with guidelines from the National Center on Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which state that learners should be presented with multiple means of representation. Learners should have options regarding the ways they are introduced to different ideas.
The UDL points out that learners take in and process information in varied ways, and that the most effective way of facilitating such learning is by using multiple representations. This sort of approach would provide models and examples that appeal to visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. No one way of representing information is best for every kid.
Interdisciplinarity and Context
Twentieth-century education often focused on learning the content and broader disciplines as separate — distinct both from one another and from the context in which that learning naturally occurs in the real world. Learning in the 21st century focuses on the exploration of authentic, real-world, and relevant topics, issues, and problems in the contexts in which they occur. Learning should not be thought of as memorizing subject-specific facts and concepts in a vacuum, but rather as cross-disciplinary and in real-world contexts.
A system that privileges learning in connection with the social state of affairs in which it occurs is known as situated learning. Two of its early proponents argue that learning is a social process and that teachers and learners participate in the co-construction of knowledge. As such, education should be experienced in an appropriate social and physical environment.
For example, learners might wonder how they could create more storage in their classroom. They would do research on types of storage, develop plans, and build storage units. Their learning would be cross-disciplinary — they would use research skills to conduct searches, group discussions to come up with ideas, and math and engineering skills to design and build their storage unit.
Personal Learning Networks
The Internet and social media enable networked learning, or learning that connects people to both information and other people. Learning in the 21st century takes advantage of those networks by encouraging students to make connections with peers, experts, and additional teachers — both locally and globally — in order to enhance their personal learning. Learning becomes connected learning, whereby students develop their own personal educational networks.
Professor of education Bernard Bull proposes that such personalized networks be a key part of the learning experience. Starting early, they’ll have the ability to increase both the depth and breadth of these connections. Not only will students learn about specific concepts, they’ll also learn to seek out and build relationships with both educators and learners.
Creation and Consumption
Today’s kids are creating — they are making videos, writing posts for social media, sharing where they go and what they are doing via Snapchat and Instagram. This need to create is part of today’s mainstream youth. This can and should be leveraged in the classroom. In a 21st-century learning environment, students are not just consumers of content, but should be given opportunities to have a voice and to contribute to the real world by creating content and artifacts to share with an authentic audience as part of their learning processes.
Kids don’t want (or need) their hands held throughout their education. And they certainly don’t want to be micromanaged. They are used to getting the information they need from a website or on social media. What they want and need is learner agency, which involves having the ability and opportunity to do things on their own. As one supporter of the practice puts it, agency in learning involves letting students have a say in decisions about curricula, projects, resources, and assignments. This might look something like phenomenon-based learning, which is gaining popularity worldwide.
Encouraging All Learning
Too often young people are bored by school and excited about pursuing their own hobbies on their own time. We should channel their enthusiasm for this informal learning (often using the Internet and other online tools and resources) in the classroom. Educators must implement strategies and teach in a way that provides students with the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that will assist them in successfully navigating the real world, both now and in the future.