What’s different for the 21st century learner?


Thirteen years into the 21st century, it’s becoming abundantly clear that this new generation of students are decidedly different learners than their parents, grandparents and even older siblings. They’ve grown up in a world surrounded by digital technology and are being asked to meet higher academic standards. The “why” is being given as much emphasis as the “how,” and students are expected to understand concepts at a much deeper level. People who have been teaching for several decades notice that today’s students are quite different from those who sat in their classrooms in the 20th century, but how is that affecting education?

Greater collaboration
Perhaps the fact that students like to socialize isn’t something that has changed all that much, but collaboration is becoming an increasingly important component of classroom instruction. With curricula previously structured for learning that was mainly an individual activity with a touch of collaboration, the approach has now been flipped. These students want and expect to work together, and many teachers are incorporating more class projects and group work into their instruction as a result. Schools can also use technology like Skype to allow students to collaborate with their counterparts in other states or countries, giving them a greater cultural perspective in an increasingly globalized world.

Critical thinking
“Critical thinking” has become a buzzword, especially with the new Common Core State Standards coming to the fore, and students are now expected to use that skill to evaluate situations and problem solve. The idea is that the ability to think critically can be applied to all subjects and areas of students’ lives, even beyond their K-12 education. Teachers are expected to help students develop the ability to look at problems from many different angles, rather than simply repeating and memorizing the “right answer.” Teachers can help students learn to think critically by presenting them with open-ended problems and encouraging them to come up with creative solutions.

A digital environment
The 21st century learner is extremely tech savvy. They’ve grown up in a world of instant Internet access and can use computer programs with ease. Many schools are making an effort to engage these digital natives by supplying tablets so they can learn on the go, or allowing them to use the Internet to research educational topics and connect with other students across the globe. Adaptive learning, and particularly Intelligent Adaptive Learning™ for math, is being used by educators as a means of helping students learn in a fun, intuitive and highly personalized way.

Taking control of their own experience
One noticeable characteristic of 21st century learners is that these students want and expect to have a say in their education. In fact, many teachers are finding that 21st century students respond much better when they feel that their voices are being heard. To allow students to take the reins in their education and be active learners, teachers can ask students to help them develop a list of classroom rules and consequences, or set aside a period of time each day where the class can discuss topics that interest them.

How are 21st century students changing your approach to teaching? Share your thoughts with us!