George Lucas Educational Foundation

10 Signs of a 21st Century Classroom

10 Signs of a 21st Century Classroom

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One of my early challenges in coordinating my school’s STEM efforts has been determining exactly what is meant by a STEM school.  There are probably as many answers to this question as there are educators, but I have decided to focus on what goes on inside the classroom.  Not just in a science or math class, but in all classrooms.  There are some activities that have traditionally been done well by the STEM disciplines that can be cross applied to all subjects. 

I have narrowed these down to a list of 10 signs of a 21st Century classroom.  I have been slowly introducing these concepts to the faculty at my school through informal discussions and incremental training during in-service days.

A few notes:

  •  I am sure that there are many similar lists in existence.  This one is originally based on a reference I found in the article “Considerations for Teaching Integrated STEM Education”.
  • I have opted to drop the word “STEM” from this list because these ideas, while often associated with science and math fields, are applicable to and indeed seen in all disciplines.
  • Each of the following could fill an article or a book by itself, but I have provided just a few explanatory lines for clarification.

And, in no particular order:

Technology Integration

Rather self-explanatory and covered very well in other sections of this site.  It involves more than just use of technology, but students using technology to achieve goals in a different way than was possible before.

Collaborative Environment

Many students prefer to work alone.  However, this is an option not often granted in careers.  In addition, collaboration fosters the development of new ideas and exposes students to opposing viewpoints.

Opportunities for Creative Expression

This is where many schools will add an ‘A’ to form STEAM.  Creative expression not only yields surprising outbursts of understanding, but also builds student confidence.

Inquiry Based Approach

Much could be shared here about the difference between guided inquiry vs. open inquiry.  The core idea of students approaching a new topic in the context of answering a question is a cornerstone of the current teaching models.

Justification for Answers

The largest problem that I encounter in my students reasoning is an almost complete lack of it.  Fostering an expectation of well-developed thoughts encourages students to approach a problem from a number of angles and discover what they truly believe.

Writing for Reflection

Journal writing is often considered a dying art.  This is a shame because as self-reflection goes, so does strong metacognitive reinforcement of learning.  If students use a blog for reflection, they may even be surprised to learn that others are interested in their thoughts.

Use of a Problem Solving Methodology

Problem solving goes well beyond engineering classrooms.  Having a go-to method of approaching new difficulties can aid students through writing a short story or solving an economics challenge.

Hands-on Learning

Long a staple of science courses, labs provide a wonderful opportunity to provide students with another anchor for learning.  But it doesn’t stop there.  Any opportunity to connect to the outside world is a chance to enhance student achievement.

Teacher as Facilitator

Modern realization of best practice in education no longer supports the idea of the teacher as an authoritarian figure standing in the front of the room scrawling on a chalkboard.  As educators, our role can be reshaped so that we work beside students providing support and encouragement for their personal journey.

Transparent Assessment

Students perform better and form stronger connections with material if they are able to understand what demonstration of knowledge will be expected of them.  Portfolios, rubrics, and formative assessments can help meet this goal.

I'd be interested in hearing the ideas of others who have introduced an integrated STEM approach at their schools.

This post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

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Patrick Goertz's picture
Patrick Goertz
Science Teacher, STEM Coordinator

I see your point, Patrick. However, keeping the ideas undefined was part of my intent in writing this post. I wanted it to be mostly a conversation starter. If specific examples were given to everything, it would be so long that no one would read it.

Edutopia has a number of great articles already which demonstrate each of these ideas in a variety of educational settings. I also plan on following up with individual posts highlighting the strategies that my school is using in an attempt to reach each of these goals.

Ken Holovachuk's picture

I agree that this criteria for a 21st century learning environment needs to be put into context. The answer is, you can only realize it if you implement it and figure it out. There is no right or wrong way of doing it. Only a more effective way. 21st century teaching can look like a number of things and how we implement these criteria on the list is at the discretion of the teacher. Generally, teachers aren't use to teaching this way and students aren't use to learning this way. It is about changing our thinking of how to deliver instruction and do it in an effective way that works for us. Training, workshops, etc. can only offer suggestions.

Patrick Goertz's picture
Patrick Goertz
Science Teacher, STEM Coordinator

Absolutely, Ken.

If every modern classroom looked the same, would the outcome be any better what came before? There was a lot of pushback from teachers in the Austin area a few years ago when districts attempted to require all teachers to use a common set of new lessons. Personalization and individuality are huge when it comes to rational, measured change in education.

urbanguy911's picture

One of the more comprehensive and implementable articles I have read on Edutopia. Though it is embedded in many of these, I would emphasize the importance of allowing peer to peer learning. I have witnessed many moments when a student has taught another student a concept using their own age level language.

Patrick Goertz's picture
Patrick Goertz
Science Teacher, STEM Coordinator

Urbanguy911, there's a great example of what you are talking about in the Edutopia article "Collaboration on Wheels: 21st Century Classroom Furniture at Work", if you haven't taken a look at that yet.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Thanks for sharing my post, Patrick! (
I was going to add my 2 cents as well -- I'm amazed at how eagerly my students help one another when they have the opportunity to do so. When I noticed that my students sitting in chairs without wheels weren't moving around the classroom, I told them it would be OK for them to move to work with other people or work alone. Their little triangle desks have wheels, so they just "drove" them around the room, looking for the ideal work space. And then they collaborated much more naturally than they did when they were sitting in a supposedly "collaborative friendly" table group of four.

Rodrigo Andrade's picture

As we get informed and try new methodologies we become aware that there's is still a long way for us to teach our students how to become really autonomous and aware of their potential.

Patrick Goertz's picture
Patrick Goertz
Science Teacher, STEM Coordinator

That's certainly true, Rodrigo. The question is: how do we teach such abilities?

For our part, my school is piloting a new required freshman class next year designed to introduce freshman to the skills the need to be successful in high school. One of the "core skills" that we have identified is self advocacy and awareness. Now we just have to find/develop good curriculum for this area.

tanyaleeteaches's picture
Tanya Lee B.Ed, M.Ed. Currently teaching at St. Michaels University School with an interest in teaching 21st century skills with intention.

I would also like to add that a focus on collaboration is essential. The 21st Century Classroom requires group work, a lot of it! We assume our students have the skills to do this naturally. As teachers, we're often reactive teachers of collaboration (when it all goes wrong), rather than proactive. I have been experimenting with the use of establishing "group norms" this year and have been amazed by the positive impact it has made on my students.

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