Education in the 21st Century – What should it look like?

13 Nov

If we were to plan the ideal classroom for the 21st Century, what would it look like? Many believe that the future will be a technological age, where students have instant access to information. When we think of the purpose of education we want education to give our students skills to gain employment, but we want education to give our students a better education and a better future than we had. Our students have instant access to information via the internet but this has done little to improve outcomes in education. As we look to the future maybe we need to look to the past for the problems and to ourselves for solutions.

There are many who believe that our education system needs reform. Ken Robinson believes that it is time for a new paradigm of education as the current model is set in the economics demands of the 19th Century Industrial Revolution and the academic ideals of the 18th Century Enlightenment. Kieran Egan believes that the three purposes of education to socialise our students, promote academic achievement and develop our students into adults, are flawed and incompatible. .In 2001 Marc Prensky, the author of ‘Digital Natives, Digital immigrants’ warned us that our technologically savvy students are not the same people our educational system was designed to teach . The list of criticism goes on.

But if education needs to change, then what skills should we be teaching our students in the future? Anne Shaw believes our students will require skills as collaboration or the ability to work in teams. Critical thinking and the ability to take on complex problems will be essential. There will be renewed focus on oral communication skills as presentation and written communication skills. The ability of students to use technology and apply it in different situations will be important in the new technological age. Our students will need to be more aware of their roles in Citizenship and more active in civic and global issues. Anne Shaw also believes that research skills will also be essential in the future .

These are not new ideas in education. For example, Lev Vygotsky suggested that we learn in the Zone Proximal Development and that we need to scaffold learning. It was also Vygotsky’s social constructivist theory that recognised the importance of collaborative group work. Promoting critical thinking skills is as old as the Ancient Greek philosophers. John Dewey believed that education had to be defined as the fostering of thinking rather than just as the transmission of knowledge . Integrated Curriculum designs that can foster 21st Century learning can be attributed to the ideals of Dewey & Kilpatrick .

Many of the ideals and the skills that will be required for the 21st Century are currently used in Education. For example, the new Australian national curriculum outlines seven key general capabilities as literacy, numeracy, ICT, critical and creative thinking, personal and social capability, ethical behaviour and intercultural understanding. The current NSW Board of Studies HSIE program is an interdisciplinary model to promote critical thinking and deeper knowledge across subjects. The Quality teaching in NSW provides a model of good pedagogy that promotes intellectual quality, learning environments and significance.

So what needs changing? The future is changing and these changes are occurring in classrooms now. Susan Goldwater-Smith and Paul S George remind us that our classrooms are heterogeneous or mixed with students from a variety of backgrounds. These include Non-English Speaking students as refugees and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. We will also see students with learning difficulties and disabilities. Teachers will also need to differentiate for gifted and talented students. In the past, students that needed assistance were excluded from mainstream classrooms. This culture is changing in education. So when we think about education needing reform, maybe it is our own pedagogy or teaching that needs to change.

Ken Robinson believes that education does not need to be reformed, but it does need require a transformation from a standardised education to personalised education .

This is the challenge for teachers in the 21st Century: to create classrooms where all students can succeed. But if we are to change education, we need to create positive classroom environments where students feel safe and can express themselves as individuals. The ideal classroom would be based on mutual respect where diversity is celebrated. It is also a classroom where students are encouraged and teachers help students to develop their strengths. It is also a classroom that promotes collaboration between students and invites the local community as parents to be a part of the learning process.

Classrooms need to be fun places where students enjoy coming to school to learn and can see how what they are learning is relevant. Education should be to help students make sense of their world and we need to provide learning experiences that are not only meaningful and relevant but are also engaging and motivating. Teachers need to move away from textbooks and direct teaching to practical activities where students are involved in the learning. By providing choices to students in what topics or assessments they choose, we can help students to develop their strengths as they can chose topics that suits their interests.

Every educational theory suggests using collaboration or group work in every class. Social constructivist theory of Lev Vygotsky suggests that we do not learn in isolation, but that we learn is socially constructed. Flexible group work not only encourages interaction between students and developing social skills, but encourages teamwork and should be used for practical activities and problem solving tasks.

Our teaching needs to focus on the teaching of critical thinking skills which encourages our students to challenge, ask questions, explore possible alternatives and understand other perspectives.
Bonnie Potts suggests that strategies for critical thinking can include finding analogies and relationships between pieces of information, determining its relevance, and finding and evaluating solutions . But we can also promote critical thinking skills by using reflection which Dewey believed to be a special form of problem solving, to think about how to resolve an issue . Reflection through the use of diaries or journals can help students to develop deep thinking skills and help develop literacy.

As our students are individuals that learn in a variety of ways, we need to adapt our teaching methods or differentiate to allow our students to access the concepts of the lesson. For example, teachers can use visuals as presentations, movies and graphics to illustrate concepts. We can also use oral materials as music and stories. In the classroom we can provide equipment as computers, maps or books as dictionaries. But learning can occur outside the classroom using real life experiences as field trips or talks by local community leaders.
Differentiation should not only help students to understand concepts, but should also seek to develop essential skills as literacy and numeracy. Teachers can help students understand concepts and develop skills by providing contexts of the materials and building on prior knowledge.

Curriculum design needs to facilitate meaningful learning experiences. Where curriculum design was traditionally subject centred, we need to look at integrated or interdisciplinary curriculum models where concepts and skills are the focus rather than the subject content. Franzie Loepp provides two integrated curriculum models as the Problem based model where students learn through examining a real life problem and the theme based model based around a theme. Both of these models have the advantage to using real life problems and bringing learning outside of the classroom away from textbooks. Authentic learning can promote collaboration with the local community as Aboriginal elders.

The most crucial part of the curriculum process is the assessment where students demonstrate that they have mastered the essential concepts and ideas of the topic. Ideally, summative and formative assessments would not be exam based, but would be authentic assessment tasks where students chose how they demonstrated mastery of the concepts. As Wiggins and Mctighe recognise that assessment plays a central part in the learning process and teachers should curriculums as assessors, than teachers .

Assessment should allow students to demonstrate learning that focuses on their strengths, than their weaknesses. Ideally we would use authentic assessments where students could use performance based assessments as essays, interviews, presentations, role plays, and portfolios. When assessment allows students to demonstrate what they have learnt and succeed, it provides students with a sense of success and confidence. When this moment arrives there is no proudest moment for a teacher.

There has been a lot of speculation about the future of education and the problems with education. But the one thing that will never change is the need for good teachers who are passionate about teaching and who do everything that they can to help their students succeed.

Technology can never take the place of a good teacher and it should not. But as our society changes, our classrooms change. In a multicultural society, there will be challenges.

What we know and have always known is that good teachers make a difference in preparing our students to leave school as confident young adults ready to take their place in society.


Cam, Phillip ‘Dewey, Lipman and the tradition of Reflective Education’, in Taylor, Michael, Schreier, Helmut and Ghiraldelli, Jr., Paulo, (eds.). Pragmatism, Education, and Children: International Philosophical Perspectives. Amsterdam and New York: Editions Rodopi, 2006.

Egan, Kieran ‘Future of Education: Reimagining Our Schools from the Ground Up’, Published by Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, USA, 2008

George, Paul ‘A Rationale for Differentiating Instruction in the Regular Classrooms’ Theory into Practice, Vol. 44, No. 3, Differentiated Instruction (Summer, 2005), pp. 185-193

Groundwater-Smith, Susan, Ewing, R & Le Cornu, R ‘Teaching: Challenges and Dilemmas’, Published by Cengage Learning, South Melbourne, 2011.

Hatton, Neville & Smith, David, ‘Reflection in Teacher Education: Towards Definition and Implementation’, in ‘Teaching and Teacher Education’, Volume 11, Issue 1, January 1995, Pages 33-49

Loepp, Franzie, ‘Models of Curriculum Integration’, The Journal of Technology Studies, Virginia Tech, Volume XXV, Number 2, Summer/Fall 1999, pp21-25

Potts, Bonnie ‘Strategies for teaching critical thinking. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation’, ERIC Digests, 4(3).1994. Retrieved on November 20th 2012 from

Prensky, Marc ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants’, from ‘On the Horizon’, University Press, Volume 9, 5th October 2001.

Robinson, Ken & Aronica, Lou ‘The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything’, Published by Penguin and Viking, 2009

Shaw, Anne ‘Education in the 21st Century’ Ethos: Volume 17, Issue 1, Term 1, March 2009, pp

Wiggins, G & McTighe, J ‘Understanding by Design’ Expanded 2nd Edition, Association for Supervising and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, 2005


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