Essential characteristics of 21st century classrooms

A lot has changed in America’s classrooms over the past two decades. Young adults who attended school in the 1980s and 1990s would hardly recognize the technology-infused environments that K-12 students learn in today. Gone are the floppy discs and lined paper for cursive writing – today’s students are using adaptive learning software, playing on their smartphones and reading on tablets. While the change may be difficult to embrace parents, if students are to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to be successful in the 21st century, they’ll need 21st century classrooms in which to learn. Here are four essential characteristics of a today’s classroom:

1. Teachers are facilitators, not lecturers
In the traditional American classroom – depicted in black-and-white 1950s instructional films – the teacher stands at the front of the classroom while the students sit quietly in rows of desks, and instructs them all at once about the new academic concepts that they need to master. This is not the case in 21st century classrooms. Today, teachers are more facilitators of learning than lecturers. Teachers help students to think critically and learn by doing, acting as a resource as their pupils discover and master new concepts.

2. Computing devices
You will be hard pressed to find a school today that doesn’t have any computers. Computing devices have become essential tools for 21st century students, just as paper and pencils were 50 years ago. Computers not only give students the means to conduct online research and master the technology skills they will need in their future careers, but they also give teachers the opportunity to enhance their lessons. For schools districts that have chosen to take a blended learning approach to education, electronic devices are essential. Moreover, the ability to deftly operate a computer is a critical 21st century life skill.

3. Active pursuit of knowledge
In today’s classrooms, students should be actively engaged in what they are learning. There’s no need for them to sit quietly in their desks while teachers bestow knowledge upon them. Instead, students participate in more active learning as they work in groups or on the computer, and complete projects and other interesting activities that will help them discover new skills. When students are encouraged to take an active interest in their education, they are more likely to retain the knowledge they’ve gained.

4. Use of software
When students of all different types of learning abilities are in one class, it can be difficult for teachers to ensure that they are truly understanding new concepts. That’s why many teachers have chosen to use adaptive learning software in some capacity to allow students the freedom to learn at their own pace and in a way that makes most sense to them. There’s all kinds of software that 21st century teachers can use to enhance the education of their students, including video conferencing systems that allow them to communicate with their peers halfway around the world.


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Jessie Woolley-Wilson

Jessie Woolley-Wilson

Jessie Woolley-Wilson is President and CEO of DreamBox Learning®, Inc. Before joining DreamBox, Woolley-Wilson was President of Blackboard’s K–12 Group and President of LeapFrog SchoolHouse. She also held leadership positions at, the interactive division of the College Board, and at Kaplan, the leading test preparation company in the U.S. She serves on the boards of several educational organizations including the International Association for K–12 Online Learning (iNACOL), Camelot Education, and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. Locally, she serves on the boards of Island Wood, an environmental learning center that connects children to the outdoors, and Seattle Venture Partners International. She has also served as a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Technology and Education, and has presented at TEDx Rainier, SXSWedu, and DENT. Wooley-Wilson was awarded the 2015 Executive Excellence Award in the CEO of the Year category by Seattle Business magazine; she was on the Forbes “Impact 15″ list for being a disruptor of education; and she was honored as a “Woman of Influence” by Puget Sound Business Journal.
Jessie Woolley-Wilson

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