What Does 21st Century Learning Look Like in an Elementary School?

Posted by The Committed Sardine on

“One of the points stressed by former teacher Angela Watson in this Cornerstone article is that the majority of ed tech trends in education today are oriented towards the higher grades. Thus was born her journalistic quest to illustrate what learning in the 21st century looks like for the elementary school classroom. Read on for some great insights and resources to help you envision this. ”


via Cornerstone for Teachers

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 was a classroom teacher for 11 years and currently works as an instructional coach and educational consultant based in New York City. She’s created a webinar series on pro-active behavior management and has written 3 books for educators. Check out the blog and free teacher resource pages for photos, tips & tricks, activities, printables, and more.


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  4. Solvia'sInstructionalDesignBlog

    With the new wave of technology in this 21st Century, I have often wondered how schools are integrating the BYOD (Bring your own device) into schools. I have heard this is a huge trend with middle and s=high schools. Many school districts are moving towards paperless school. There are many grants out there like Race to the Top designed to put personal one on one devices in the hands of all students. Many of these programs begin with the older students first and then within a number f year the younger children receive their own devices. I have a few wonderings about how this works. If the goal is to move to paperless then what is the expectation for students are home? Even if students are given their own personal one on one device to use at home and at home as need, how do we account fro those students who don’t have internet access at home? What is our expectations fro them? Also wondering how exactly the BYOD works? Do we just expect that all students will have their own devices? If so, it will save school district money but is it a realistic expectation? How does the BYOD work for elementary students? Or does it work at all? If not, is there something else in place for them? I work in a title one school were 80% of our population is in poverty. Many don’t have internet access at home let alone their own device. Wondering what 21st c=Century learning looks like in a school like mine?

  5. Linda

    I think that 21st century learning is very important in the elementary grades. Students do not need to wait until they are in the upper grades before they learn the skills that will take them into adulthood. Although technology is not the only way to learn, it is a big part in helping these young students learn the 4 C’s of communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking.
    Students in the 21st century are exposed to technology from a very early age, and these skills need to be used in the classroom. One creative way to do this is to make a flipped lesson on a live binder. These flipped lessons can help teachers differentiate instruction if materials of all abilities are put into the binder. Students can also learn at individual paces. Projects that carry the learned information into an independent practice could be collaborative that spur communication, creativity, and critical thinking.

    • Ross Crockett

      Great comments, Linda! I like Live Binders a lot, and am thinking of doing a Small Byte tutorial on it. I also agree with your opening statement about the elementary grades—the sooner they begin this journey of 21st-century learning, the better for building skills for life. Thanks for your insights!

  6. John BImmerle

    I put together a tech news newsletter each week for our district. I like to include one blog article each week and am trying to have our teachers write about what they do in classes, but I also want to feature good articles from others. I am wondering if it would be OK to use this blog post as our featured one for the next newsletter. Of course giving proper credit and links back to your site for the full info.

What do you think?