August 2017
Volume XIV Issue VIII


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The 21st Century Classroom

Bruce Oliver

Bruce Oliver, the author of Just for the ASKing!, lives in Burke, Virginia. He uses the knowledge, skills, and experience he acquired as a teacher, professional developer, mentor, and middle school principal as he works with school districts across the nation. He has written more than 150 issues of Just for the ASKing!  He is also a co-author of Creating a Culture for Learning published by Just ASK.


Author and educational consultant Lee Watanabe Crockett has written, “Kids are 20% of our population and 100% of our future.” Therefore, it is imperative that today’s educators provide the best and most appropriate educational experiences for our young people so that they are prepared to assume their leadership roles. In order to accomplish this feat, we must be constantly evolving with our instructional skill set, rejecting antiquated practices from the past, and adding relevant methodology to our present-day instructional planning. Making the best choices for the types of learning experiences we should provide for our charges is our primary professional responsibility. The important question then becomes:  What should be going on in 21st century classrooms?

Their Learning vs. Our Teaching
Some teachers determine the success of their lessons by how attentive students were to their presentations, how excited the students became with the lesson content, and how well the overall lesson flowed. These are certainly indicators of a successful lesson, but there is an essential consideration missing with this kind of thinking.  Much more important than “how we feel the lesson went” is what did the students learn from their experience? Today’s best teachers are constantly looking for indicators of student understanding as a lesson unfolds. They ask themselves questions such as:

What did the students say?
What did the students do?
How deep was their thinking as they responded to questions?
Do I know how well each student progressed in mastering the skill and
knowledge of the lesson?

These are not easy questions to answer. But when teachers become more accustomed to looking for these real signs of learning, they become increasingly tuned in to whether a lesson was truly a success.

Creative Necessity
It has been said that creativity is the most coveted asset in the private sector.  Expressions of creativity do not simply emerge after students complete their formal education. They should be nurtured from an early age among all our students. Yet there are those who feel that we should focus our classroom time on traditional literacy (the 3 R’s) before we promote creativity. In his article entitled “Creativity for All,” Michael Nobleza makes a compelling argument that creativity is not an either/or proposition. He writes, “There is only one kind of literacy now, and that is one in which our kids must be able to be creative as much as they must be able to read and write and know about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).  In his writing, he makes the following assertions:

  • Research into cognitive development indicates that creativity can be taught
  • Creativity should not be thought of as a secondary or optional part of children’s learning
  • We must avoid, at all costs, the “creativity gap” by limiting access to creative thinking to affluent students
  • Children of color, and low-income youth should have access to learning experiences that nurture the “basic life skill of creativity.”

Countless articles support Nobleza’s beliefs. As much as we build in practice and/or seat work into our planning, we must make opportunities for students to think creatively just as commonplace.

Global Awareness
Some of today’s educators may remember a time when they were students when they had to be able to recite the names of countries on a continental map, remember the natural resources of those countries, and perhaps learn a smattering of cultural beliefs/traditions that were indigenous to different populations. At one point these learning experiences constituted what we should know about the world. Hopefully those days are long past.

Bloomburg University of Pennsylvania provides a comprehensive and thorough definition of global awareness:  It is a conceptual understanding of global and cultural perspectives with social, political, economic, cultural and environmental components. In essence it is the key to the understanding of commonalities and differences among people. In an age where information is instantaneous, where changes occur quickly throughout the world, and where beliefs/actions can impact our lives at a moment’s notice, it is more important than ever that the 21st century students have a firm grounding in what it means to co-exist in an ever shrinking world.

An exceptional example of how one district is addressing the importance of broadening global knowledge and ensuring that youngsters are learning to think beyond themselves is occurring in Fairfax County’s (Virginia) Global Awareness Technology Project. As one of the program’s goals states:  “Our students need to have a rich and dynamic understanding of the large and interconnected world if they are going to be successful.” The project, which is completed by all fifth grade students over the course of the school year, combines knowledge of ancient cultures along with how beliefs, traditions and attitudes impact those cultures today. As the students work, they complete research, use software-based organizational tools to capture, organize, and analyze information, and finally use appropriate technology tools to present their findings in the spring of the year.  As social studies specialist Jennifer Brown has noted, “21st century students should be critical thinkers rather than empty barrels waiting to accept deposits from their teacher.”

Progressive Thinking
Let’s take a trip down a school hallway and visit some forward-thinking classes.  When we enter the first room, there is a sense of excitement and appropriate noise.  Working in small groups, the students have been given a problem to solve which has more than one solution. As they work together, they are debating the pros and cons of different options. It is clear that their teacher has trained them to speak one at a time, listen carefully and respectfully to each student’s ideas, make sure that everyone is involved in the process, and is able to defend their final conclusions.  The teacher is careful not to intrude while the students work but at the same time, she is monitoring each group to make sure each group is focused on the assignment.

In the second classroom, a very inventive and curious teacher is trying out a new idea she had read about from enrichment specialist Jeanne Muzi. The teacher is a proponent of immersing her students in hands-on activities that challenge them to think and ask good questions.  The strategy, called “Pass-Arounds,” begins when the teacher collects a group of unique and interesting objects including photographs, tools, items from nature, and objects that are foreign to the students.  After the teacher places the objects on desks around the room, the students work in groups of three with a goal to develop (and record) questions that will provide more information about the objects such as how the object was used, what its original purpose was, and if the object had a special value. At a signal, objects are passed from one group to another giving each group the opportunity to practice discussing, evaluating, and validating their questions. The activity is concluded when groups share the justification for their questions as they attempt to identify the purpose and use of the “pass-around” objects.

In a third room, the atmosphere is much quieter. After a math lesson, the students are writing in their journals summarizing the lesson along with what they learned.  From the teacher’s comments, it is apparent that reflective writing is an on-going practice in the class, especially in content that does not primarily include reflective writing. Directions on the board also require the students to not only summarize their learning but also to think about how the math they learned could be used in real-world applications.

What these three descriptions have in common is an emphasis on establishing a learner-centered environment. In addition, the teachers consciously included 21st century skills in their plans so that the students could practice communication, cooperation, critical thinking and creativity.

Technology Integration
There are educators and researchers who spend considerable time thinking about how, why, and when teachers should integrate technology use into their lessons.  Collectively, they agree that we should not be getting overly excited about every new tool that comes on the market. Instead, we should be moving cautiously making the right decisions. Below are some of their insights, advice and direction:

Our students come to class with a great deal of knowledge about the world of technology.  “The first thing the teacher needs to do is to understand what kids do and the range of it,” concludes James Agee.

With so many technological options to choose from, Mary Beth Hertz sees it this way: “Technology integration may not look the way we want it until our students move beyond familiarity with tools and into being able to choose the right tool for the job.”

Donald Knezek takes technology beyond the classroom when he writes, “Technology is truly integrated when students are able to connect with both formal and informal learning communities to communicate the results of their work – be it new proposals, new knowledge or solutions, persuasive advocacy or creative ideas and expressions.”

An important way to think about technological applications in the classroom is to think about how technology is used in the adult world of work. Angela Maiers makes the comparison when she writes, “Imagine trying to manage your own information stream today without RSS (Really Simple Syndication), without Twitter. Imagine doing your research in isolation. What if you were unable to run an idea by your online community and ask, what do you think about this? How could you curate, manage, connect without integrating technology?  In the same way, how can we expect our students to reach standards at even a basic level without integrating technology into learning?”

Marc Prensky looks at technology more broadly. He believes, “If we really offered our children some great future-oriented content (such as, for example, that they could learn about nanotechnology, bioethics, genetic medicine, and neuroscience in neat interactive ways from real experts) and they could develop their skills in programming, knowledge filtering, using their connectivity, and maximizing their hardware, and that they could do so with cutting-edge, powerful, miniaturized, customizable, and one-to-one technology, I bet they would complete the ‘standard ‘ curriculum in half the time it now takes, with high test scores all around.  To get everyone to the good stuff, the faster kids would work with and pull up the ones who were behind.” 

Each of these technology advocates understand that the integration of technology into student learning is a step-by-step process, and one that teachers should embrace.  As one expert has noted, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Big Picture
James Honan, senior lecturer at the Harvard School of Education, urges 21st century educators to do some “crystal balling.” He believes it is important for us to move beyond content and to think more “big picture” about the students we see everyday.  He states ”…you should be asking yourself whether your students are going to be productive citizens at age 25, 45 or 65. What kind of adults will they be? Will they be good spouses, good friends, and good parents? Will they be respectful and honest, and will they want to make the world a better place? Those are the qualities that we should be valuing and pursuing in schools. And those are the measures of your school’s effectiveness.” We have a great deal of power as we work with our young people. How we use our power can have a huge impact on our learners. Beyond the skills and knowledge we espouse are important character qualities which transcend the content.  We must use our power and influence carefully and properly.

Some educators are hesitant to restructure their learning environments because their students may not do as well on required standardized tests. Perhaps the motivation should move from how to get the highest test scores to how best to prepare our kids for their futures. Choosing the latter may just satisfy the former.




Resources and References


“Getting Students Ready for the World.” Educational Leadership,

Hoerr, Thomas. “The Formative Five: Fostering Grit, Empathy, and Other Success Skills Students Need.”

Muzi, Jeanne. Education Update. “Road-Tested/Five Ways to Strengthen Student Questioning.”

Nobleza, Michael. “Creativity for All.”

Saxena, Saomya. “Top10 Characteristics of a 21st Century Classroom.”

“Technology Integration: What Experts Say.” Edutopia.

“Ten Signs of a 21st Century Classroom.” Edutopia,





Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Oliver, Bruce. “The 21st Century Classroom” Just for the ASKing! August 2017. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development. © 2017. All rights reserved. Available at