21st Century Skills and the Elementary Classroom

elementary-classroomAn Elementary 21st Century Classroom Fictional or Real?

Imagine the elementary classroom of the 21st century where a group of elementary aged children are interested in the ocean. The teacher asks them what they want to learn and finds that the class is interested in the creatures of the sea. Instead of telling students information about ocean animals, the teacher asks how students might find out about sea creatures. Several students mention books they have read, others suggest looking on the internet, another child suggests looking for videos.

The teacher forms small groups with similar interests. She asks students to pick an animal and to find out about the animal and report that learning back to the rest of the class. Students begin finding pictures on the internet and pasting them into a slideshow. Other students write down facts and with guidance from the teacher, begin creating a book of their own. Still other students suggest that they could make a movie about the ocean animals, and they begin creating a story board.

The teacher helps to orchestrate the work in the classroom. She may help the writers to use an outline. She helps the movie makers put a beginning, middle and end to their movie. She may help the book makers edit their work to provide a finished copy. Finally the teacher may find several experiments on salt water and its influence on animals to carry out with the class.

This is a classroom that incorporates 21st century skills into the elementary student's day. The students in this classroom have worked with core knowledge. They have worked collaboratively. The students have developed communication skills as they found ways to present their learning. Their awareness of environmental issues has increased as they found out about endangered ocean species or the effects of pollution on different sea creatures. Students have also used technology in researching and in creating a final presentation. This imaginary classroom has moved from teaching traditional reading and writing using prescribed texts, to involving students in directing their own learning. This classroom is not only possible in today's elementary schools, it is crucial to the base of 21st century learning.

But What is 21st Century Learning?

This is a question being asked around the country by teachers and administrators. 21st Century learning encompasses a group of skills that educators and business people feel will be necessary for success and survival in the 21st century. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills states that every child in America needs to be ready for today's and tomorrow's world, but that "a profound gap exists between the knowledge and skills most students learn in school and the knowledge and skills they need for success in their communities and workplaces."

In traditional elementary classrooms, students are taught the core subjects of reading, writing and math. They may experience opportunities to learn technology, or to work in small groups, but the focus is on the core subjects. In the 21st Century elementary classroom, the focus is on problem solving, communication, creativity, information and media literacy, global awareness, environmental literacy, adaptability, collaboration and self direction. The core subjects are the the substance of the elementary classroom, but they are no longer the only curriculum, instead they are the information through which the core learning, thinking, communicating and global awareness skills are presented.

A Shift in Thinking

In order to accomplish the shift from teaching core subjects of reading, writing and math to teaching the skills of communication, collaboration and global awareness, teachers need to shift their thinking. Teachers today often teach in the ways that are very similar to the ways they learned in school 10 or 20 years ago. Teachers still give tests and expect students to memorize a body of knowledge. In an age of information technology, students no longer can be expected to memorize lists of events, instead students need to know how to efficiently find that information.

Students need to be taught to evaluate the sources of information they are using. Students need to be taught how to think about what information they might need to answer a question. Teachers need to become orchestra directors, rather than reciters of knowledge to be absorbed.

Teachers of the 21st century elementary classroom do not need to be limited to teaching the core subjects of reading, writing and math to students. Instead the core subjects should become a jumping off point for teaching young children to communicate, collaborate and to learn about the world they live in. It is crucial that 21st century skills be incorporated into the elementary classroom so that children are prepared to think, communicate and collaborate from their earliest school experiences.