Are 21st Century Learners Too Focused on the Workforce?

How can we adapt teaching strategies to meet the changing needs and interests of students?

If you’re working in the realm of education, the phrase “21st century learners” is nothing new to you. It’s the term we use to discuss the current generation of students who some experts refer to as “digital natives.” How can we adapt today’s teaching strategies to meet with the changing needs and interests of these students? That’s a question tackled daily by organizations like the MacArthur Foundation. One of the videos produced by the foundation raises several of the main concerns and concepts involved in teaching 21st century learners. Check it out for yourself:



Like everything the MacArthur Foundation produces, the video is full of insight and ideas, but perhaps one of the most engaging quotes comes from Henry Jenkins, Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts at USC. Jenkins says,

“We find that when we talk about 21st century skills, that people often reduce them to skills for the workplace and skills involving technology. We really are thinking of skills for creativity, for civic engagement, for social life — the full range of experiences that young people will be involved in in the future.”

The thought seems revolutionary, but if you stop to think about it, it isn’t new. You probably hit on the exact same idea when, as a student yourself, you sighed woefully at the lesson plan laid out in front of you and cried, “When am I ever going to need to use this?” It’s not a new question for students to ask, but more and more educators are starting to listen and to adopt teaching strategies that focus on the skills 21st century learners will need later in life — not just in the workforce. What kind of skills are we talking about? Here are just two:

Teaching 21st Century Learners to Work Without a Blueprint

Life doesn’t always come with a set of instructions, and even when it does, sometimes those instructions don’t make much sense (Ikea, we’re looking at you). Creative problem solving isn’t only useful in the corporate world — it’s necessary for navigating life. It’s how you’re able to grow a garden on your fire escape, to find a venue for your band, and how you figure out the logistics of your first cross-country road trip. Life isn’t a page of loose-leaf paper with a set of instructions at the top, which is why more and more educators are teaching innovation to their students instead of blind obedience.

How? Through immersive projects with more than one “right” answer. Lesson plans that involve hands-on making and design present students with a problem or goal, hand them the tools and resources they need, and allow them to tinker and experiment until they discover a solution. It’s a process that far more closely mimics the way we most often solve problems as adults.

Teaching 21st Century Learners to Be Reflective

We all know people who make the same mistakes over and over. They slip into the same financial ruts, they date the same undateables and they constantly throw their hands in the air wondering what they’re doing wrong. At the heart of many of these issues is an inability to be introspective and reflexive. As educators, we’re doing students a true disservice by not working this core life skill into our teaching strategies.

Luckily, many projects in the Spark Network help to build reflective skills, like Message From Me — a project from from Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE Lab which lets children use technology to communicate with their parents and caregivers as they reflect on what they did and learned that day. Learning to reflect is a skill that can receive a tech boost through videography or online blogging, or it can be taught with traditional tools by setting aside the last ten minutes of school time for journaling.

Are these the only two skills that prepare 21st century learners for their futures outside of work? Certainly not, and we’ll be delving into this subject even deeper in upcoming posts. Until then, we’d like to hear from you — Which life skills are you addressing through your teaching strategies? Does your school or program put too much emphasis on preparing students for the workforce and not enough on preparing them for life? Tell us about it on our Facebook page or tweet your response to @SparkPgh.

Published April 26, 2012