New Literacies for 21st Century Learners

21st century learning is significant in that it’s not 20th century learning. 20th century learning is how I learned — rote memorization, tedious homework, lectures in nearly every class, reading from textbooks, and little connection to the outside world. My elementary and secondary teachers were doing the best they could, but it’s only with 21st century hindsight that I realize this way of teaching just won’t suffice anymore. I can’t and shouldn’t teach my students in the way I was taught growing up.

At first I assumed 21st century learning was just incorporating more technology into instruction. That’s only part of it. 21st century learning is about teaching students a set of skills and technological literacies alongside a mastery of various subjects. According to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, students should ultimately be learning critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity skills. Knowing this, I find myself at a turning point in my teaching career: I could go on teaching as I always have, or actively seek out lesson plans and activities that teach the skills my students need to thrive in the 21st century. I’m lucky to have a great platform to try out these new types of lessons — my Current Events class. For example, if there’s a natural disaster — say, a tornado that wipes out a nearby community — I could have students brainstorm ways to help (creativity), organize a fundraiser to raise money (entrepreneurial skills), sign students up to volunteer to help clean up (civic literacy), analyze the effects of the storm (environmental), develop ways to make structures safer (problem solving), and produce a news broadcast that describes the effects of the tornado and how communities come together (information, communication, and media literacy). That sounds way more engaging than doing a fill-in-the-blank worksheet about tornadoes.

I’ve created a short cartoon that features a generic 21st century learner and summarizes the characteristics of 21st century learning. Check it out:

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