George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Deeper Learning: Defining Twenty-First Century Literacy

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Editor
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

Only a decade and a few years in, how can we fully describe the twenty-first century learner? So far, this we do know: She is a problem solver, critical thinker, and an effective collaborator and communicator. We also know that a deeper learning environment is required in order to nurture and grow such a learner.

Watch a high school student talk about developing 21st-century skills through deeper learning.


How about that last characteristic of a 21st-century learner, effective communicator? Being literate means one who is advanced at reading, writing, speaking, and listening. And, in all schools -- deeper learning driven or not -- literacy is a curriculum fundamental. Its importance President Obama explained in a speech a few years back:

"[L]iteracy is the most basic currency of the knowledge economy we're living in today. Only a few generations ago, it was okay to enter the workforce as a high school dropout who could only read at a third-grade level. Whether it was on a farm or in a factory, you could still hope to find a job that would allow you to pay the bills and raise your family."

In today's world, being literate requires much, much more than the traditional literacy of yesterday. According to the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English), twenty-first century readers and writers need to:

  • Gain proficiency with tools of technology
  • Develop relationships with others and confront and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally
  • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes
  • Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information
  • Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts
  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments

In the Classroom

When it comes to effective communicator, we can no longer consider college and career ready as simply sending students out as good readers and writers. As the definition of literacy evolves in our world, so does the charge of schools in helping students work towards and gain mastery of the skills and abilities NCTE has outlined above. Let's take a look at some of those:

Gain proficiency with tools of technology. The greatest tech tool of all? The Internet. It undoubtedly gives access to an unending wealth of information and has revolutionized our lives. I remember years ago trying to fix my lawnmower. I went to three public libraries trying to find a lawnmower manual that was close enough to my machine to be useful. Now? Go to YouTube and someone will take you step-by-step through repairing or making just about anything and everything.

But for all the amazing, valuable stuff on the Web, there's loads of misinformation, half-truths, and misquoted, useless stuff. In preparing children to be literate in today's world, it's urgent that we teach the skill of scoping websites with a critical eye. Kids need to be explicitly trained in spotting everything from blatant pseudo-facts to slightly questionable content. This ability to "filter" will be required of them in both university and work.

Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts and manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information. The term multimedia, which means using more than one medium of expression or creation to communicate, encompasses a great deal more than it did 10, or even five years ago. To convey their deeper learning of a new concept, I remember having students include with their written analysis a printed graph, chart or image, and later, I required they add some audio or video element or links from websites. Now, students are creating websites as the task itself. A flat, inanimate thing like a written report or essay -- or a book or newspaper, for that matter -- is no longer the paradigm of communication.

Communication today is like a living thing, morphing continuously -- a hybrid of script, interactive, audio, and moving images. What does this mean for teachers and students? Schools need to be preparing students to masterfully navigate, judge, and create this type of sophisticated communication -- and do so quickly and efficiently.

What's Next?

It's true that, through deeper learning, many teachers and schools are already guiding students into this new century well-equipped to think critically on their feet, problem solve, and communicate effectively. But as we enter our thirteenth year, we need to stay mindful that the definition for 21st century learner -- and literacy -- will continue to change.

Was this useful?
Deeper Learning Blog Series

Comments (8) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Halina Ostańkowicz-Bazan's picture
Halina Ostańkowicz-Bazan
Senior Lecturer at the Wroclaw University of Technology,retired.

What's Next?
This is my basic question and problem to solve.
Thank you for your thoughts.

Halina Ostańkowicz-Bazan's picture
Halina Ostańkowicz-Bazan
Senior Lecturer at the Wroclaw University of Technology,retired.

What's Next?
This is my basic question and problem to solve.
Thank you for your thoughts.

Erik Palmer's picture

What you say is true and I appreciate that you are drawing attention to an often overlooked phrase. Indeed, being an effective communicator is enormously important and the number one way we communicate is orally. As tools increasingly showcase verbal skills, and as students "create this type of sophisticated communication", it is apparent that we have ignored teaching students to be well spoken. Examples are here: and here: Students are capable of much more than this. And importantly, success in life will demand much more this. There were almost no resources for teachers wanting to improve oral communication, so I created some: 1) 2) and 3)
If we really want students to be effective communicators, we are going to have to teach them how.

TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

Whenever I read about the need for technology or more technology or how a teacher these days must embrace technology in the classroom ... I gag.

Teaching and learning all comes down to the ability of a teacher to engage a group of students. Teacher. Students. Maybe even a textbook. It's all you really need. And maybe a few field trips.

I ask students all the time what kind of teacher helps them learn the best. They never, ever, say a teacher who uses technology or a teacher who uses a whole bunch if nifty, new-age techniques. Never.

Here are the real-world, non technological, results ...

1. Teachers who know what they're talking about
2. Teachers that look physically healthy
3. Teachers that aren't gross looking
4. Fun teachers
5. Fair teachers
6. Firm teachers
7. Teachers who seem sane
8. Teachers who tell you the truth about how you really learn
9. Teachers who aren't afraid of administrators or parents
10. Teachers with an authentic sense of humor

MissJessABC's picture
Primary Educator and Current MEd Student, Ontario Canada

Thanks for your thoughts in regards to the importance of communication skills in education. As a primary teacher, oral communication becomes the basis of inquiry, collaboration, and the consolidation of understanding. Being an effective communicator begins with the ability to listen to and engage in meaningful conversations. These are skills that are explicitly taught within the classroom community.
What is becoming increasingly important, is teaching students how to communicate in ever-changing ways. We use class blogs and twitter to communicate in our classroom. Students find this very engaging and we are able to revist, reflect upon, and revise our collective thinking. 21st century tools such as these allow students' thinking to become visible.
Check out Mark Milliron's recent blog if you need a little more convincing ...

Amy's picture
Special Education Teacher, Germany

I think your point about developing thinkers to actual process information and not just consuming is so powerful. I think too many kids and adults today just consume the internet but don't really look for reliable information. I remember when I was in college in the early 90"s and still researching in an actual library. Now you can access information anywhere. I really think kids today will need the skills to understand and process a lot of information and be able to have a critical eye for what they read. Thanks for sharing.

Claudine's picture
4/5th grade inclusion teacher from South Florida

I agree that we need to engage students in deeper learning. One of the things that you mentioned about the internet not only containing valuable information but it also includes half truths, untruths, etc., most students are under the assumption that everything on the internet is of absolute value. By teaching students to become twenty first century thinkers, we are also teaching them how to dissect information and find relevancy. We are also teaching them to be inquisitive, how cross check and interpret evidence to find truths. By giving them these tools, they will be able to be evaluative in decision making. Communication, written and orally, is a highly needed skill and students need to be taught the how tos. I like the idea of using blogs in the classroom as one of the commenter mentioned. I believe that students will enjoy this forum.

With the common core standards being adopted in schools, students will need to demonstrate critical analysis of statements and thoughts by supporting them with evidence from multiple sources. In order for the students to do, they will need to be immerged into reading a variety of text and multimedia (not just fiction), then deeply analyze these sources through group discussions and other activities. Educators will need to step out of their comfort zone and into the world of research and find and develop activities that are relevant to students learning and will prepare them as twenty first century thinkers.
One of the challenges I foresee is struggling readers who may be apprehensive in their abilities? How might this issue be addressed?

Devene Sutherland's picture

I most certainly agree that we should help to lure our children's mind into "deeper learning". Deeper learning" is the "process of learning for transfer," meaning it allows a student to take what's learned in one situation and apply it to another. Professional development is a key part of bringing deeper learning to students. In this modern day era children are deeply engulfed in the internet and they a solely reliable on accessing information. Gone were the days in order to access information I would have to sit quietly in a library in a secluded corner being deeply embedded in reading and gaining vital and useful knowledge, now information is a click away.
I'm mortified by the idea of including technology in the mist of the classroom. Children learn through repetition and experience. Reading or going through a book with the students will encourage curiosity and enhance learning. Also, the idea of going on field trip will give them experience and they may even relate and can retrieve the information they have learned. Encouraging the use of technology to learn suffocate the students mind, as they become lazy and solely dependent on technology to learn and to get quick and not so reliable and credible information at times. In order to engage in deeper learning with students, researchers say they must begin with clear goals and let students know what's expected of them. They must provide multiple and different kinds of ideas and tasks. They must encourage questioning and discussion, challenge them and offer support and guidance.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.