Cultivating 21st-Century Learners
Cultivating 21st-Century Learners
PUBLISHED: Monday, June 08, 2020 by Todd Stanley

Many schools aim to teach students 21st-century skills. Given that we are 2 decades into the 21st century, many would say it is about time. Why this focus on 21st-century skills? Because, according to Thomas Friedman and his similarly titled book (The World Is Flat), the world is becoming flat. The world is not the gigantic place it once was. I had a friend who went to China right after college nearly 30 years ago. He told me he spent 3 days getting to China and the next 7 days trying to get out. He felt isolated because he had no contact with people beyond where he was. He couldn’t even make a phone call to talk to his friends and family back in the States. I went to China last year and was not only able to talk to my wife and kids who were thousands of miles away, but also able to FaceTime them so that when they opened their Christmas presents it was like I was there. I could practically smell the bacon my wife was cooking for Christmas breakfast. 

A lot has changed in the last 30 years in regard to technology and the global community, but how much has changed in the way we teach our students? If someone invented a time machine and traveled back 30 years, how much different would a school look? Sure, you might be surprised at a blackboard instead of the SMART boards that adorn classrooms of today, but the teacher would still be standing at the front giving the students information they would be tested on later. Don’t believe me? Go into any high school and look into the rooms. You will find most of them in this configuration.

Why haven’t we updated our methods of teaching along with everything else that has advanced in the past 30 years? Because it is comfortable to teach in this manner. It is the way we were taught and is the way we have been taught for hundreds of years. As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The problem, of course, is that it is broken. By teaching in this manner we are not preparing our children to go out into the world, because the world is very different from this. Rarely in the real world are you required to take a pencil-and-paper test to prove your worth, nor is it common to have to memorize content at great length. 

So how do we better prepare our students for this flat world? Couldn’t we better train them for specific jobs in the global economy? Unfortunately, that is not the answer. In Linda Darling-Hammond’s book, The Flat World and Education, she pointed out that “the top 10 in-demand jobs projected for 2010 did not exist in 2004” (p. 2). This means that schools have the difficult task of preparing students for jobs that do not even exist yet. How does one do that? By teaching skills that would be useful in any job. That is why we should manage our classrooms rather than simply teach. If you manage your classroom and coach students to think for themselves, be creative, problem solve, and take responsibility, you are teaching them a skill set that would be valued in the business world and translate to almost any career. Darling-Hammond (2010) described the ideal 21st-century skills classroom as one that would “enable students to learn how to learn, create, and invent the new world they are entering” (p. 3). That is why you manage your classroom—to enable students to invent their new world.

The business world is calling for these thinkers, these 21st-century students. Employers are looking for a particular skill set from them, one that the traditional classroom might not be preparing them for. Clay Parker, CEO of BOC Edwards Chemical Management Division, stated,

Our business is changing, and so the skills our engineers need change rapidly, as well. We can teach them the technical stuff. But for employees to solve problems or to learn new things, they have to know what questions to ask. And we can’t teach them how to ask good questions—how to think. (as cited in Wagner, 2008, p. 2)

That is why there needs to be a shift in the educational philosophy that dominates many of our schools. The traditional classroom is designed to create memorizers. These are students who can remember content long enough to be tested on it. That is all very well and good for the report card, but do those students know this content a month . . . a year . . . several years after that test? Some would argue that there is a different philosophy in the teaching of content versus the teaching of skills. Although content is important, as some of it acts as the building block to bigger and better things, not all content is necessary. How often do you find yourself using what you learned in geography class in the real world? How often do you use the periodic table in your day-to-day life? Ted Dintersmith, who has a Ph.D. in math modeling, summed it up quite nicely when he stated:

The tragedy of high school math is that less than 20% of adults ever use algebra. No adult in America still does integrals and derivatives by hand - the calculus that blocks so many from career paths. It remains in the curriculum because it’s easy to test, not important to learn.

Should we not be focusing more intently on skills so that we can create the students Darling-Hammond (2010) envisioned?

Some people do not see a big difference between content and skills, but there is. Content can often focus on lower level thinking such as remembering, understanding, and applying. Skills look at higher level thinking such as evaluating, creating, and analyzing. This is what the difference looks like. There are those conventional social studies teachers who think it is important for their students to memorize the capitals of the 50 states. Someone who manages a classroom might think it more important that a student learns the skill of how to read a map, and how they can look up those capitals whenever they might need to. A language arts teacher might think it important that every student reads Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and knows the lesson Mark Twain was trying to convey with that book. Someone who manages a classroom does not care what book the student is reading, but rather teaches students the skill of how to properly analyze any book and glean lessons from it. A traditional math teacher would want students to memorize the geometric formulas, while one who manages thinks it more critical to organize a reference sheet that allows the student to do the same work. We need to have 21st-century classrooms where students are encouraged not to memorize content, but to learn skills around that content. 

It is an exciting time to be a teacher right now, with the opportunity to advance our students into the 21st century and beyond. The question you have to ask yourself is, are you going to join them or remain in the past?


Darling-Hammond, L. (2010). The flat world and education: How America’s commitment to equity will determine our future. Teachers College Press.

Dintersmith, T. [@dintersmith]. (2018, January 20). The tragedy of high school math. Less than 20% of adults ever use algebra. No adult in America still does [Tweet]. Twitter.

Wagner, T. (2008). The global achievement gap: Why even our best schools don’t teach the new survival skills our children need—and what we can do about it. Basic Books.

Todd Stanley is the author of more than 12 teacher education books, including Project-Based Learning for Gifted Students: A Handbook for the 21st-Century Classroom and Authentic Learning: Real-World Experiences That Build 21st-Century Skills. He helped create a gifted academy for grades 5–8, which employs inquiry-based learning, project-based learning, and performance-based assessment. He is currently gifted services coordinator for Pickerington Local School District, OH, where he lives with his wife, Nicki, and two daughters, Anna and Abby.