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Education Trends, Uncategorized   |   May 25, 2012

What does 21st century learning look like in an elementary school?

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

What does 21st century learning look like in an elementary school?

By Angela Watson

Image from Technically Invisible
Image from Technically Invisible

That’s the question that was posed to me this week by the faculty at a wonderful school on Manhattan’s upper east side in preparation for some upcoming PD work. I think it’s an outstanding question that’s worth reflecting on in-depth as we all start to think about what our goals and direction are for the next school year. What does 21st century learning look like? is an essential question and overarching topic that I hope to come back to again and again as I think about what works in real classrooms.

It’s an especially important consideration at the elementary level, because so many of the tech trends in education are tested out and geared toward middle and high schools. One-to-one computer initiatives, for example, usually start at sixth grade or higher. Google Apps for Education is fabulous, but to what extent can seven- and eight-year-olds use it?  It takes a bit more reflection to figure out what the trickle-down effect of tech trends really means for the the youngest learners.

To me, 21st century learning in an elementary school has the same overall goals as a secondary school: it’s only the implementation that differs. We want students to be practicing the 4 C’s: communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking. They should be producing content, not just consuming it passively. Though technology isn’t synonymous with 21st century learning, it IS an integral part of it, and it’s often the set of tools that makes this new approach to teaching and learning possible. The purpose of technology used in a 21st century classroom should be (in my opinion) to connect students with their world and enable them learn from others and to share their own ideas. It should also be used to differentiate the curriculum so that students are learning on their own developmental levels and are able to pursue their unique interests and passions.

I think that’s one of the greatest things about technology and one of the most exciting aspects of the vision for 21st century schools: that children are no longer all forced to learn the same thing the same way just because the teacher doesn’t have a simple way to differentiate. I don’t think we’re quite at the point where technology makes it “simple” to differentiate instruction, but certainly simpler. And with the thousands of new apps and websites being launched each day, I believe the quality and a variety of tools available for teachers is going to continue increasing. Even the most tech-averse teacher will be saying in 10 years, Wow, [insert name of tool/program/app] really makes it easier to help my students. How did I ever live without this? Many of us have already reached that point with tech tools in our personal lives (smart phones, laptops, tablets, eReaders): our teaching lives are going to be transformed soon, too. For some teachers, that’s already a reality, and it’s amazing to see.

So, the goals of 21st century learning in the elementary classroom are helping each child communicate, collaborate, and exercise creativity and critical thinking while both consuming and producing content that connects them with their world in ways that are personally meaningful and relevant. Wow, that’s a mouthful! And a tall order. What does it actually look like in the classroom?

Here are just a few resources which show photo and video examples of elementary teachers who have truly created 21st century classrooms in which students are not just consuming information but creating it:

The way 21st century learning works in your classroom will depend on a lot of factors, such as the types of tech tools you have available, your students’ needs, your curriculum, your administration’s requirements and vision, and your own familiarity and comfort with technology. There’s no one “right” way to teach 21st century skills or integrate technology in the classroom. You can pick and choose the things that make the most sense for you and your students.

Since technology use is one of the hardest aspects of 21st century learning for many teachers to incorporate (in large part due to school budget cuts and lack of tech resources/support), I’ll elaborate a bit more on what’s possible. If you’re wanting to shift your classroom more toward the 21st century vision, you can start with just one or two tools in one or two subject areas.Some elementary teachers like to take a single unit of study each quarter to extend their use of technology. For example, let’s say there’s a particular social studies unit that’s rather dry, or a math concept that the kids never quite seem to master. Check with your best friend, Google, and see what’s available. You can use information consumption tools at first: have kids watch videos online, read eBooks or websites, or use Google Earth to tour faraway places. You can try to choose one or two resources that are a bit more interactive, such as webquests or online quizzes.

Once you have that planned, try adding at least one information production tool in which students use technology to create something or share information themselves. They could use apps like Voicethread or i Tell a Story or Toontastic to collaboratively share what they’ve learned and give feedback to one another. They could create podcasts, upload videos to a class blog, Skype with other classes or communities, or create a glog. Pick one app or website that appeals to you and try it out.

You don’t have to use every program that’s out there, or introduce a new one with every unit. Young kids thrive off of familiarity, and it takes awhile to get them used to a tool. Pick something open-ended and revisit it throughout the year. Your students could use Voicethread, for example, to share a drawing they made about something they learned and explain it using video, audio, or text. You could create just one class Voicethread a month or even a quarter, or even a semester! (Here’s a Voicethread wiki with samples of project ideas to get you thinking.) It’s okay to start small!

So that’s my thinking on this topic right now. Over to you: What does 21st century learning look like in YOUR classroom? What are your favorite blogs and sites that show elementary students’ technology use? 

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela is a National Board Certified educator with 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach. She started this website in 2003, and now serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Truth for Teachers...
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  1. Angela,
    I went to the NETA conference (tech conference for NE educators) and was blown away by all of the wonderful technology available to teachers. I am just finishing up grad school and when I have my own classroom, I’ll be implementing lots of your ideas!

    Here’s another fun app for kids: Sock Puppets. They can read their story or team read and the different puppets on the screen become a movie. It’s downloadable to youtube as well to your classroom channel!

    Your question could be a doctoral thesis. You’ve got me thinking!!

    1. Hi, Amy! I have heard great things about the Sock Puppets app. Thanks for mentioning it here.

      I agree that this question is something I could think and write about for ages! Looking forward to seeing how my perspective (and others’) evolve in the coming school year.

  2. “The way 21st century learning works in your classroom will depend on a lot of factors, such as the types of tech tools you have available, your students’ needs, your curriculum, your administration’s requirements and vision, and your own familiarity and comfort with technology. There’s no one “right” way to teach 21st century skills or integrate technology in the classroom. You can pick and choose the things that make the most sense for you and your students.”

    As someone who teaches at a school that has limited resources that are often fought over and who finds himself sometimes really struggling to feel “up to date,” I would like to say “thank you” because that paragraph didn’t make me feel inadequate or terrible.

    1. Hi, Tom! I’m really glad to hear that. The issues you’ve brought up are so incredibly common! I’ve written about them before (https://truthforteachers.com/2012/02/technology-fail-embracing-tech-when-it-doesnt-work.html) because I think they’re the main reason why teachers struggle with technology use: they have very little, and what they have doesn’t work. Unfortunately, old computers, spotty wifi, and the filtering/blocking of web 2.0 tools means that even the simplest online activities are really difficult to implement in many classrooms.

      But, you can pick one or two things that WOULD work with your resources and try them out. I know a teacher whose students only have computer access for a half an hour a WEEK in a computer lab with no internet access. But she takes them in there, anyway, and they create documents and Power Point presentations…very sloowwwwly. It actually takes them a whole quarter of the school year to do each project. I commend that teacher because it must be very tempting to just say forget it, what’s the point in even trying to expose these kids to technology? But she’s working with what she’s got, and I think that’s pretty cool.

  3. Great post, Angela! I think it’s notable that none of the four C’s specifically require the use of technology. I tell the teachers I work with as a coach that that technology is only one component of a 21st century classroom. If you don’t have everyday access to technology, you can still have your students collaborate on a project, maybe with another classroom or grade level at your school, that requires them to use creativity, critical thinking and communication. Ideally you will be able to integrate some aspect of technology into the project, but if technology is unavailable, at least your students will be practicing 21st century skills.

    1. Thank you, Shauna! You make a great point. Teachers who don’t have a lot of technology (and for that matter, even teachers who do!) can teach learning and innovation skills without the use of tech. (Here’s what the framework of 21st century skills looks like, for anyone who is wondering: http://p21.org/overview.)

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