Connecting 21st Century Learning and Effective Learning Practices

As I sit here on this cold and overcast day, my mind keeps wandering to this idea of 21st-Century learning. In class the topic these last two weeks has been on 21st-Century learning and what that means. This got me thinking that this term gets used a lot but often means different things to different people. As I continued to think about this I started looking more at the ISTE coaching standards to see how these ideas connect. I was specifically looking at coaching standards 1, 3, and 4. These standards seem to connect so well as they are all about being a change agent, collaborator, and learning designer. I also started thinking about my own classroom experience as a teacher and whether or not I was modeling 21st-Century learning. So now I’m sitting here at my computer thinking about all of these things and asking myself these questions.

What are the connections between 21st century learning and effective learning practices? How can coaches support teachers in establishing effective learning that also emphasizes 21st century skills?

What is 21st century learning? 

The first step in helping me develop some answers to my questions is to really define what 21st Century learning is. Often I hear this as 21st century skills or the 4Cs, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication. I hear this and I think great, but these are just words, what does this mean for me? As I think about this it keeps coming back to the idea that 21st century skills are all the things that students, adults, everyone needs to be successful in life. We need to know how to talk to one another effectively. It’s one thing to have a conversation but to be successful we need to make sure we know how to communicate clearly and in a way that lets our point be heard. We also need to know how to work with others. So much of what happens in the world does not happen in silos. It takes people working together, brainstorming ideas and collaborating in order to complete a project. So how do we learn how to effectively collaborate with others instead of push others away? Creativity and critical thinking are always harder for me to wrap my head around why they are important, but they are. If we are not developing humans to be creative and critical thinkers then we can forget about the next version of the iPhone ever coming out. It takes creativity for someone to develop new technology and think outside the box in order to create something that doesn’t yet exist. We also need critical thinkers in order to make a lot of this new technology work. We need individuals who are able to see a problem and gather enough information in order to develop solutions to the problem. So if these are the skills that individuals need to be successful why do we call it 21st century learning sometimes? Well I believe that really these are one in the same, yes they are skills but they exist in the learning. We need to be developing ways to bring these skills into the classroom and the learning experience so that individuals don’t have to wait until after they get out of school to learn the necessary skills for success. 

Supporting 21st century learning in the classroom

All of this brings me back to the classroom and how educators and coaches can support 21st century learning. One word keeps coming to mind when I think about what this might look like in the classroom and it is intentional. As educators we need to be intentional in how we build these experiences into a lesson or unit. How are we explicitly creating opportunities for students to practice 21st century skills? With the adoption of the common core some of this has been made easier since 21st century skills were built into the standards and mathematical practices, but it still needs to be done with intention. So how can coaches help educators build effective learning experiences for students that intentionally teach 21st century skills? Well Foltos (2013) suggests that norms are a place to start. If a coach wants to work effectively with their collaborating teacher then there needs to be an explicit agreement on what improvement means (p.104). So it is important for the coach and teacher to be on the same page when it comes to effective learning and 21st century learning. A good place to start talking about norms is through conversation, asking the teacher what the goals of the lesson are, what skills they want students to walk away with. This helps jump start the conversation around effective learning and can lead to deeper discussions around the skills needed for that. Often in these discussions I hear the word engagement come out and from there I am able to have a conversation with the teacher around what engagement means and what they would look like in the classroom. Most often it is described exactly as Foltos (2013) describes it, “students are actively involved in their learning” (p. 105). For here we can begin to get specific about what this should look and sound like in the classroom. “When coaching other teachers to make similar moves, Wolpert-Gawron encourages them to “tease apart what it means to collaborate, communicate, think critically. This is a language that teachers at all grade levels, in all subjects, are able to embrace.” The more concrete, the better.” (Boss, 2019). Something else that I have been thinking about while writing this post is the strategies that can be used in the classroom to support this work. One strategy is to make 21st century learning explicit to students, let them know when they are learning it and what the expectations are. A resource to help support this is from The Buck Institute for Education. On their website they have rubrics that are specifically connected to 21st century skills that educators can download and use in their classroom. One rubric that I find really useful is the collaboration rubric for grades 6-12 that is aligned to the CCSS for ELA.

I like this rubric because it has both expectations for what students should be doing individually and also as a team. As a teacher I could see myself turning this rubric into an anchor chart that could just be posted in the classroom for students to reference at all times. Then to be more explicit I would reference it anytime students are doing collaborative work. This also makes me think about something I used to do in the classroom with my students called a participation quiz. This was really just a way for me as the teacher to explicitly call out and highlight the behaviors that groups were doing that I wanted to see. So as groups were working I would circulate helping groups but I would also be looking and listening for 2 or 3 specific behaviors that I wanted to see from groups. These behaviors were always connected to the activity, things that would support the group in being successful and they were always shared with the class ahead of time so they knew what I was looking for. As I heard or saw the behavior I would write it on the whiteboard in order to make it public and remind students of what I wanted to see and hear. Now I could imagine using this rubric to help guide what I was looking for. 


So I’m back to my initial questions, What are the connections between 21st century learning and effective learning practices? How can coaches support teachers in establishing effective learning that also emphasizes 21st century skills? While I don’t think I have fully fleshed out answers to these questions for myself I do think I am on the right track. 21st century learning and effective learning practices go hand in hand. As educators we should be designing experiences that allow students to collaborate, communicate, be creative and think critically. We need to be intentional in how we design these experiences in order for them to be effective. There are many resources out there that can help with this work. However I think one of the best resources is that of a coach. A coach can be there to support in so many different ways. However it is important to remember to start by setting norms for the work so that all involved are on the same page. Once on the same page we can begin to develop learning experiences that allow for 21st century learning to happen. So as we continue to develop experiences for students that allow for creativity, challenge their thinking, and provide opportunities for communicating ideas and collaborating with others I’m left thinking about this quote from Boss “The challenge that remains is making sure all students have similar opportunities to dream and do.” (2019).


All Resources | MyPBLWorks. (n.d.). Retrieved October 25, 2020, from

Boss, S. (2019, January 22). It’s 2019. So Why Do 21st-Century Skills Still Matter? – EdSurge News. EdSurge.

Foltos, L. (2013). Peer Coaching: Unlocking the Power of Collaboration. Corwin; eBook Collection (EBSCOhost).

ISTE Standards for Coaches | ISTE. (n.d.). Retrieved October 2, 2020, from

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