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What is 21st Century learning? How a master’s degree can enhance the effectiveness of your classroom

Jess Scherman By  Jess Scherman  |  @jescherman  | 

21st-Century-Learning

If you're immersed in the world of education, the term "21st Century learning" is not a new one for you. Today's teachers have long been aware of the rapidly changing landscape of K-12 education.

"It is vital that teachers educate students in a way that is conducive to how new generations learn and how society functions in the present and future," explains Kelly Brown, assistant professor of educational leadership at Prairie View A&M University. "As the country continues to evolve, teachers must prepare K-12 learners to understand, navigate and create current and future realities."  

While one of the tenets of 21st Century learning is adapting classrooms for a new generation of technologically savvy learners, many may be surprised to learn it isn't just about the infusion of technology. There are multiple ways potential educators can make their classrooms conducive to today's young learners.  

What teachers need to know about 21st Century learning

The driving force behind 21st Century learning is preparing young students to be successful in today's world. And because the world is changing so rapidly, so too are the needs of students. The skills they learn should reflect the specific demands that they will encounter in a complex, competitive, knowledge-based, technology-driven society.  

The tricky part is, the definition of 21st Century learning is defined differently depending on the school district. "One problem we have with 21st Century learning is finding consensus about what these skills actually entail," says Sean Aiken, head of school for BASIS Independent McLean in northern Virginia.  

But, according to the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21) and the National Education Association (NEA), there are a number of skills educators agree are important for young minds in the new generation.  

1. Technology

Integrating technology into today's classrooms includes more than students using iPads and teachers using Smart Boards. Our lives today are so infused with technology that it is crucial to teach young students how to interact with the abundance of information at their fingertips. After all, the technology is only as effective as the person using it, the NEA emphasizes.    

Educators can teach students how to effectively use information, media and technology through interactive demonstration and by using internet learning portals to connect them to content that is both engaging and transformative. School districts can also use web platforms to connect students, parents and other educators.  

But the students' relationship with technology doesn't end there. "Students should be 'creators' rather than just consumers of technology," explains Dr. Chery Takkunen Lucarelli, professor of education at The College of St. Scholastica (CSS).  

2. Communication & collaboration

Two key skills that have become increasingly recognized as constructs of 21st Century learning are communication and collaboration, according to P21. To more effectively adapt to collegiate programs and contemporary careers, students must be able to demonstrate an ability to work in diverse teams and assume shared responsibility for collaborative work.  

Because collaboration can now be virtual as well as face-to-face, there is a growing need for young people to be able to articulate thoughts and ideas effectively in a variety of forms, including oral, written and nonverbal communication. This also requires an ability to listen effectively and be adaptable to a number of different environments and viewpoints.  

3. Creativity

An increase in collaboration will also call for an increased ability to work creatively with others while remaining open and responsive to new and diverse perspectives. When educators utilize a wide range of idea creation techniques — such as brainstorming activities — students learn to not only create worthwhile ideas, but also to elaborate upon, refine, analyze and evaluate them.  

Encouraging students to demonstrate originality and inventiveness while also understanding the real-world limits to adopting new ideas allows them to view failure as an opportunity to learn, P21 asserts.  

4. 21st Century themes

In addition to the fundamental disciplines we've long believed our young students should master — such as English, mathematics, science, history, etc. — this framework asserts that schools must move beyond basic competency by weaving in 21st Century themes.  

These interdisciplinary themes include global awareness, civic literacy, health literacy and environmental literacy. This provides students with the skills to participate effectively as citizens of the world by understanding issues on a global scale, including a working knowledge of the implications of our actions, rights and opportunities.    

How can a master's degree in education help?

As you can see, there is ample information available about the various constructs of 21st Century learning. But how can educators effectively implement these practices in their classrooms?  

Keeping current on teaching trends in the rapidly evolving world of 21st Century learning can be a challenge. Master of education (M.Ed) programs are designed to empower educators to use their teaching practices to improve student learning and address critical issues in today's schools.  

These programs exist to prepare 21st Century teachers who are both familiar and comfortable with the technology of the modern classroom, are committed to teaching students how to be successful in today's society and are equipped with strategies for using contemporary data and research to impact their classes.  

An M.Ed is also an effective way to help teachers develop cultural fluency, a great need within the increasingly diverse demographic of today's student body. Graduate programs aim to equip educators to think differently about teaching, Lucarelli explains, citing the need to explore student engagement in innovative ways.  

Are you ready to be a 21st Century teacher?

If you're eager for ways to enhance your teaching methods to best serve 21st Century learners, now could be the perfect time to expand upon your own education with a master's degree.  

At The College of St. Scholastica, the M.Ed program is committed to equipping 21st Century teachers to provide the most effective and comprehensive education to today's students. There are even a number of concentration options available to you to be sure the graduate education you're receiving is tailored to your personal teaching needs. Check out the master of education program page for more information.  


The College of St. Scholastica will be hosting the sixth annual 21st Century Teaching and Learning Conference on Tuesday, June 21st, featuring keynote speaker Dr. Thomas R. Guskey. Register today!   

Jess Scherman


Jess is a higher education content creator who writes on behalf of The College of St. Scholastica. She researches and writes content to help current and prospective students on their path to educational success. As a published poet with a passion for the transformative nature of higher education, she loves discovering new ways to use her writing as a tool to help others.

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