The Building Blocks of a 21st Century Classroom

The ultimate guide to preparing future-ready students.

Updated on: November 17, 2017

A 2016 survey conducted by Payscale found that 87% of new graduates feel prepared for the full-time jobs they’re applying for. Just 50% of hiring managers agree.

While many of the managers surveyed felt that new grads were lacking “hard” skills such as writing proficiency (44%) and public speaking (39%), the numbers for “soft” skills were much worse: a whopping 60% said that Millennials fall short on critical thinking and problem-solving abilities, and 56% felt they lack attention to detail.

Although these statistics sound dire, it’s also true that today’s students face circumstances and expectations that are almost entirely unique to the 21st century. Their academic instruction must rigidly adhere to a regular schedule of standardized tests, but the job market they will one day enter is constantly evolving as it adapts to new and emerging technology. This creates a dilemma for both schools and society: teachers cannot afford to stray from their prescribed curriculum, yet students are reaching adulthood lacking important “21st-century skills.”

Knowing that students must overcome this “skills gap” in order to succeed, how do teachers equip them to handle the jobs and economy of the future? First, let’s start with the basics.

Teacher resources for 21st century learning in the classroom

What are 21st-century skills?

The discussion around bringing “21st-century skills” into the classroom is not new, yet the concept remains loosely defined and difficult to implement.

  • P21 defines 21st-century skills in education as “The 4 C’s”:

    • Communication
    • Collaboration
    • Critical thinking
    • Creativity
  • ISTE’s Standards for Students prepares them “to thrive in a constantly evolving technological landscape.” They include:

    • Empowered learner
    • Digital citizen
    • Knowledge constructor
    • Innovative designer
    • Computational thinker
    • Creative communicator
    • Global collaborator
  • NGLC’s MyWays framework includes 20 areas of competency organized into four distinct domains:

    • Habits of success
    • Creative know-how
    • Wayfinding abilities
    • Content knowledge
  • TeacherVision’s FutureFit skill domains for the 21st-century classroom are summed up in this graphic:

  • Edutopia builds upon “The 4 C’s” with additions such as:

    • Personal and social responsibility
    • Cross-cultural understanding
    • Visualizing and decision making
    • Knowing how and when to use technology

These lists and definitions are useful in theory, but how are they implemented? Let's discuss best practices and why "whole child" education is a critical endeavor.

21st century skills in education

Project-based learning

21st-century skills are not built using rote memorization and standardized tests. Instead, they are taught most effectively through project-based learning. Mastering skills such as collaboration, self-awareness, and problem-solving means students must take initiative, tackle hands-on assignments, and creatively find solutions that can be applied real-world situations.

For teachers, implementing this project-based, 21st-century mindset requires flexibility — something that is often in short supply in today’s standards-focused classroom. In order to think critically and problem solve, students cannot be afraid to make mistakes along the way. They need the freedom to adapt to changes, reflect on their own choices, and find creative solutions to roadblocks — just as they would in real life. This means changing the way students are assessed and how non-traditional or non-academic skills are valued in the classroom.

Project-based learning also exposes students to new technology and new ways of using the technology they may already be familiar with. While many of today’s students have been raised on digital media and mobile devices, a significant percentage lack access. Technology-driven projects help to close the wide digital divide, encourage independent thinking, and create new opportunities for students of all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Social-emotional learning

Whether through PBL or other instructional methods, the most important 21st-century skills for students to master are social-emotional ones. Teaching solid communication, collaboration, and wayfinding abilities has been shown to have far-reaching, overwhelmingly positive outcomes. According to a 2016 report by The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), “Kindergarteners with stronger social and emotional skills are more likely to graduate from high school and college and have stable, full-time employment while being less likely to commit crimes, be on public assistance, and have drug, alcohol, and mental health problems.”

SEL skills also give future graduates an edge once they enter the job market. A 2014 Forbes article identified “good teamwork, decision-making and communication skills, and the ability to plan and prioritize work” as the most sought-after skills for employers. As we’ve already seen, they were also the skills employers had the most trouble finding in their potential new hires.

College and career readiness

Research suggests that up to 65% of current middle schoolers will one day have jobs that do not currently exist. How can educators prepare the majority of their students for a future they can’t speak authoritatively on or even predict?

While we don’t know what exactly those 65% of jobs will entail, we can infer a few things about the future job market. The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that healthcare and tech will continue to grow by leaps and bounds in the next decade. The demand for nurses, software developers, physical therapists, surgeons, market research analysts, marketing specialists, teachers, information systems managers, and many more highly specialized professionals is already surging, with no signs of stopping anytime soon.

These careers — and their as-yet-undefined future iterations — clearly demand a comprehensive technical education. However, professional accomplishments and career advancement cannot be achieved by technical prowess or academic knowledge alone. A doctor must think critically, adapt to new medical advancements, and develop an empathetic bedside manner. A marketing specialist must relate to their target audience, collaborate with others, and take initiative on implementing creative projects. Software developers must investigate issues and think creatively to solve problems. The list goes on, giving teachers ample reason to emphasize the importance of 21st-century skills, social-emotional learning, and character education.

Global citizenship

Today’s digital world is an interconnected one, and 21st-century skills allow students to look beyond their own neighborhoods to gain perspective on the wider world. Education is not just about job prep: by learning about leadership, embracing change, continuously reflecting on their own abilities and choices, and leveraging their existing knowledge to solve new and difficult problems, students will begin to understand the real-world value of their ideas and contributions.

Investing in SEL

Those distressing numbers about the “skills gap” in new graduates can be remedied — in a cost-effective manner — by investing in SEL programs. CASEL’s study also reported that “Investments in SEL programs have more than a tenfold return in cost savings to taxpayers. A recent analysis of the projected economic return from six effective SEL programs found that all of them showed a return on investment. On average, there was an $11 return on investment for every dollar spent on the intervention, and for some of the interventions, the return on investment was much greater than the initial cost of the program.”

That kind of ROI means organizations across the country are pouring in money to support these initiatives. For example, in July 2017, the New York-based Wallace Foundation granted six communities several million dollars each “to expand programs that will help students develop ways to regulate their emotions and work in teams.”

The initiative and money are there, as well as buy-in from many teachers. Unfortunately, the practical resources schools need to help teachers include yet another objective into their already-packed schedules are only nominally available.

That’s where TeacherVision comes in. We have developed the three-tiered approach to incorporating life-, college- and career-readiness skills into core curriculum, taking the burden off of teachers and allowing them to seamlessly integrate skills like entrepreneurialism, global awareness, social-emotional skills, and creativity into the content they are already teaching every day.

TeacherVision members can begin investing in their students today with FutureFit Projects, our dedicated SEL and 21st-century learning resources.

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