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Encouraging the 21st Century Learner

By Shari Edwards on January 23, 2013
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5

Like it or not, learners (and therefore, teachers) have changed!

Gone are the days when students sat passively waiting to be fed their next predetermined dose of knowledge.

Gone are the days when students spoke only to answer a teacher’s questions.

Gone are the days when teachers controlled who, what, why, when, where, and how learning took place.

Most teachers celebrate the changes that our 21st century students have “forced” us to make, but many are still adjusting and fine-tuning their skills to match their students’ ever-evolving needs.

More and more research is being conducted on how people learn, especially our 21st century students. 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times by Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel lists some key findings from this research. Authentic learning, mental model building, and social learning top the list of strategies for their effectiveness in helping students learn. Under each strategy below you will find an idea or two that I use with my own 21st century students to help them navigate the world of learning.


Learning as a Social Activitygroup work to process math thinking with others

My 2nd graders are very social! They enjoy processing information verbally every chance they get. (Anyone else ever notice that in their classroom?) When I don't allow time for that processing to happen, it happens anyway, but not on my terms! I, therefore, build in time for talking about learning by providing small group time and partner projects.


We tried our first book talks last week. Below are two partner book talk videos. My students really enjoy doing this!

The Hat





The Mitten






Building Mental Models

Mental models are important for understanding complex concepts. In science we teacplace value bead gameh about life cycles and our students develop a circle shape to associate with the concept of a repeating sequence of events. We use base ten blocks in math to help students form a model in their minds as they process place value concepts. Helping students build a model in their mind that they can refer to later is worth the time it takes.

(More on this at a later date!)


Learning Authentically

Everything we do in a classroom can't actually be authentic, but the way we present a topic, using real world examples and mimicking the world with the assignments we choose, can make it feel very authentic.

Capture their authentic enthusiasm. Ratchet up their interest for a book they are reading, for example, by filming them doing a book talk.


Write for a real audience. We are participating in a letter writing project with our pen pals from Houston, Texas. My students are so engaged in their writing when working on their letters!

Use real books to teach reading skills and concepts. Here are some wintery books to try!

An Orange in January

An Orange in January by Dianna Hutts Aston — The journey of an orange as it grows and makes its way to someone’s hands in time to share with friends in winter. This book is great for exploring sequence.


My Friend the Snowman

My Friend the Snowman by Geraldine Elschner — A squirrel and a marmot are best friends. The friendship is put on hold when the marmot starts winter hibernation. The squirrel finds a winter friend while waiting for her friend to wake up. This story is perfect for talking about the plot of a story. The plot can be described as a circle!


Poppleton in Winter

Poppleton in Winter by Cynthia Rylant — Poppleton finds various things to do during the winter in three short stories. The stories contain clearly defined problems and resolutions for your students' use.


Geraldine's Big Snow

Geraldine’s Big Snow by Holly Keller — Geraldine waits impatiently for the snowstorm that’s on its way. Geraldine’s neighbors provide ample opportunities, throughout the book, for inferring what they plan to do when the snow comes.


Huggly's Snow Day

Huggly’s Snow Day by Tedd Arnold — The monsters in this book have never seen snow and must figure out what to do with it on their own. A discussion about schema and prior knowledge would be a great follow-up to this story!



What do you think?

What methods do you use to encourage your 21st century learners?

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