Students and teacher working in the classroom

What makes a 21st-century classroom?

The resources available to educators today are something that teachers of the past could only dream of. We can assign differentiated lessons online, students can learn from any location in the world if they have internet access, and classes can collaborate in ways that were not possible decades ago. With all the technology and information available to students, the 21st-century classroom is fundamentally different from the classrooms of old. Overall, this is a good thing — students have more control over their education and learning, while teachers can provide targeted and meaningful lessons.

However, with the abundance of information and technology, we also have some unique challenges that we must overcome. Students in the 21st-century classroom not only need the skills to use technology but also must understand the ethics and safety standards related to having so much information in their hands. In short, students need to have a certain level of digital literacy. So, what exactly can we expect the 21st-century classroom to look like?

6 things to look for in a 21st-century classroom

students with teacher learning outside
Photo: Google Edu

1. Flexible lessons

With classroom apps like Google Classroom or Classcraft, teachers can assign content and classwork to each student individually. They can do so without the students actually knowing that they are receiving slightly modified versions of information or assignments than their peers. In addition, teachers can differentiate each and every lesson based on the students’ needs. Teachers can assign small group, whole group, or even individual lessons with the click of a mouse. All this flexibility means that students can get exactly what they need, when they need it. As a result, students are more engaged and learning more in the 21st-century classroom.

2. Inquiry-based lessons

With the accessibility of information, it has become increasingly easy to use inquiry-based learning in the classroom. Teachers act more as facilitators — they can provide a prompt or a topic and really allow students to explore it wherever it may lead. In the past, it was more challenging to do inquiry-based learning because students had to reference encyclopedias, books, or other resources from the library. In the 21st-century, this information is available at our students’ fingertips. Students are able to use that valuable information to solve high-level problems.

The ability to think creatively and out of the box is a hallmark of 21st-century learning and the modern classroom. Rather than asking students to memorize facts, processes, or other basic ideas, we can instead challenge students to explore solutions to problems or develop complex new ideas. These higher-level skills are more useful in today’s world and desired by employers.

Students programming robot with tablet
Photo: Google Edu

3. Seamless use of technology

When the internet was just growing, and the Internet of Things wasn’t even a thing, just learning how to use technology was the name of the game. I still remember sitting in a computer class where we practiced turning the computer on and shutting it down. After that, we learned how to save a document to a floppy disk.

Oh, how times have changed … Many students are able to do all of that and much more without guidance. But that doesn’t mean they should be free to use technology without any sort of supervision, especially in the classroom.

In the 21st-century, there is an expectation that teachers will be able to seamlessly implement technology in their class. For example, on any given day in my class, students might be working on a Chromebook, a 3D printer, or even just completing an assignment on their phone in Google Classroom. These tasks enhance learning experiences and to provide students with opportunities to practice using new technology. But the key is that the technology itself is not the lesson — it’s just a vehicle. 

The cloud has provided immense flexibility to teachers. Instead of students needing to be on the school’s network to access their previous or current work if they’re at home, for example, they can log in from anywhere and access their documents in Google Drive, Dropbox, or your class website. Students know how to do this without much difficulty.

4. Collaboration

One of the greatest advantages of 21st-century education is the ease of collaboration it facilitates. Employers are placing an increasing emphasis on the ability to work together to solve complex problems. Fortunately, the 21st-century classroom provides exactly that opportunity. Students can collaborate via email, text, or any number of apps to complete projects, assignments, or just to engage in a dialogue. In thinking about a topic from other people’s perspectives, students are able to strengthen their own thoughts and identify their own misconceptions about any given topic.

Collaboration can also happen outside of the school community. As part of my school’s STEM program, students partner with community members to solve complex, local issues. This collaboration is very helpful in establishing good, modern, professional habits. More traditional classrooms valued the individual, and teachers worked with students in isolation. But that’s not the case today. In the 21st-century classroom, students should be discussing complex issues on a daily basis with each other.

Student using tablet
Photo: Google Edu

5. An extended classroom

With many schools having a one-to-one student-to-device ratio, the 21st-century classroom is bigger and more cohesive than ever before. Students can contact their teacher any time of the day, whether to ask a simple question, notify them of an absence, or clarify a misconception. Teachers are also able to assign work for completion outside of class with the security and knowledge that the student cannot possibly lose the assignment. Having an extended classroom means that students can have more opportunities to practice work for a class or simply finish an assignment when they have some free time. The idea is that learning does not only occur within the walls of a classroom but also at home, on the bus, or at any other time or place.

6. Digitally literate students

With all the information available today and with the ease with which a person can get their message out to the world, it is important that students be digitally literate. When it comes to research, for example, especially in light of sources known for spreading misinformation, students should be able to determine which sources are reliable and which are not. Students must also be able to articulate the differences between information as fact versus information as opinion. Staying safe online is also a key piece of being part of the 21st-century classroom.

In terms of creating work, students must also understand the severity of plagiarism and that they cannot simply copy and paste another’s work without citation. Although citation is certainly nothing new, it is much easier now to Google something and copy-paste it straight into your own document. Along with plagiarism, it is also imperative that students understand basic copyright and trademark rules, especially when they are creating something seen by the public (eg., a website).

Looking ahead

Our classrooms today certainly are different from those of previous generations. Teachers are no longer keepers of information but rather facilitators of learning. Obviously, the biggest change that has allowed for this is the advent of the internet. The widespread availability of information and technology has made this an exciting time to be in education. Today, students learn more about how to apply information rather than simply where to find it.

What will the future hold? Nobody can know for certain, of course. But it’s clear that changes today happen quickly! The classroom in 10 years will likely not even resemble those of today. That means we must always keep up with new trends in education so we can better equip our students for a successful future beyond school.

Photo: Google Edu

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