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

Throughout her life and career, Jessie Woolley-Wilson has been driven by a singular belief that all children need and deserve high-quality learning opportunities, regardless of who they are or where they live. She believes that by supporting great teaching and learning, everyone wins: kids, families, communities and the world. Jessie has worked in the education technology space for nearly 20 years to support school and district leaders to improve learning and life outcomes for K-12 students.

Jessie joined DreamBox Learning® in 2010 as Chair, President, and CEO. The startup software company had pioneered Intelligent Adaptive Learning™ in 2006 and began partnering with schools soon after Jessie joined. Today, DreamBox serves nearly 3 million K-8 students and approximately 120,000 teachers. The company provided more than 350 million math lessons across the U.S. and Canada in 2017.

Jessie recently secured a $130 million investment in DreamBox from The Rise Fund, a global impact investing fund managed by TPG Growth. Prior to joining DreamBox, Jessie served as president of Blackboard’s K-12 Group and LeapFrog SchoolHouse, the K-12 division of LeapFrog Enterprises. Jessie also served in leadership positions at, the interactive division of The College Board, and at Kaplan, the leading test preparation company in the U.S.

Jessie supports the broader K12 industry by serving on the boards of several educational organizations including Rosetta Stone, Newsela, the Western Governors University Board of Trustees, and Ursuline Academy. She is also a board member for Boeing Employees Credit Union, Pacific Science Center, and The Bullitt Foundation. She has been a featured speaker at international events including TEDx Rainier, SXSWedu, DENT and GeekWire Summit 2018.

Jessie is a two-time recipient of EdTech Digest’s EdTech Leadership Award for her work in transformative innovation in education and honored her as one of 2018’s Top 100 Influencers in EdTech. Seattle Business Magazine awarded Jessie the 2015 Executive Excellence Award in the CEO of the Year category and Forbes placed her on its “Impact 15” list for being a disruptor in education. The Puget Sound Business Journal honored Jessie as a “Woman of Influence” and 425 Magazine named her as one of eight “Unstoppable Eastside Women” for having a clear focus on the greater good. Additionally, The New York Times has profiled Jessie and her leadership style in their Corner Office column.

Jessie holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BA from the University of Virginia. She is also a 2007 Henry Crown Fellow and moderator for the Aspen Institute.
Jessie Woolley-Wilson