George Lucas Educational Foundation

15 Characteristics of a 21st-Century Teacher

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Teacher Giving Student a High Five

Recent technological advances have affected many areas of our lives: the way we communicate, collaborate, learn, and, of course, teach. Along with that, those advances necessitated an expansion of our vocabulary, producing definitions such as digital natives, digital immigrants, and, the topic of this post -- "21st-century teacher."

As I am writing this post, I am trying to recall if I ever had heard phrases such as "20th-century teacher" or "19th-century teacher." Quick Google search reassures me that there is no such word combination. Changing the "20th" to "21st" brings different results: a 21st-century school, 21st-century education, 21st-century teacher, 21st-century skills -- all there! I then searched for Twitter hashtags and Amazon books, and the results were just the same; nothing for the "20th-century teacher" while a lot for the "21st": #teacher21, #21stcenturyskills, #21stCTeaching and no books with titles #containing "20th century" while quite a few on the 21st-century teaching and learning.

Obviously, teaching in the 21-century is an altogether different phenomenon; never before could learning be happening the way it is now -- everywhere, all the time, on any possible topic, supporting any possible learning style or preference. But what does being a 21st-century teacher really mean?

Below are 15 characteristics of a 21st-century teacher:

1. Learner-Centered Classroom and Personalized Instructions

As students have access to any information possible, there certainly is no need to "spoon-feed" the knowledge or teach "one-size fits all" content. As students have different personalities, goals, and needs, offering personalized instructions is not just possible but also desirable. When students are allowed to make their own choices, they own their learning, increase intrinsic motivation, and put in more effort -- an ideal recipe for better learning outcomes!

2. Students as Producers

Today's students have the latest and greatest tools, yet, the usage in many cases barely goes beyond communicating with family and friends via chat, text, or calls. Even though students are now viewed as digital natives, many are far from producing any digital content. While they do own expensive devices with capabilities to produce blogs, infographics, books, how-to videos, and tutorials, just to name a few, in many classes, they are still asked to turn those devices off and work with handouts and worksheets. Sadly, often times these papers are simply thrown away once graded. Many students don't even want to do them, let alone keep or return them later. When given a chance, students can produce beautiful and creative blogs, movies, or digital stories that they feel proud of and share with others.

3. Learn New Technologies

In order to be able to offer students choices, having one's own hands-on experience and expertise will be useful. Since technology keeps developing, learning a tool once and for all is not a option. The good news is that new technologies are new for the novice and and experienced teachers alike, so everyone can jump in at any time! I used a short-term subscription to www.lynda.com, which has many resources for learning new technologies.

4. Go Global

Today's tools make it possible to learn about other countries and people first hand. Of course, textbooks are still sufficient, yet, there is nothing like learning languages, cultures, and communication skills from actually talking to people from other parts of the world.

It's a shame that with all the tools available, we still learn about other cultures, people, and events from the media. Teaching students how to use the tools in their hands to "visit" any corner of this planet will hopefully make us more knowledgable and sympathetic.

5. Be Smart and Use Smart Phones

Once again -- when students are encouraged to view their devices as valuable tools that support knowledge (rather than distractions), they start using them as such. I remember my first years of teaching when I would not allow cell phones in class and I'd try to explain every new vocabulary word or answer any question myself -- something I would not even think of doing today!

I have learned that different students have different needs when it comes to help with new vocabulary or questions; therefore, there is no need to waste time and explain something that perhaps only one or two students would benefit from. Instead, teaching students to be independent and know how to find answers they need makes the class a different environment!

I have seen positive changes ever since I started viewing students' devices as useful aid. In fact, sometimes I even respond by saying "I don't know -- use Google and tell us all!" What a difference in their reactions and outcomes!

6. Blog

I have written on the importance of both student and teacher blogging. Even my beginners of English could see the value of writing for real audience and establishing their digital presence. To blog or not to blog should not be a question any more!

7. Go Digital

Another important attribute is to go paperless -- organizing teaching resources and activities on one's own website and integrating technology bring students learning experience to a different level. Sharing links and offering digital discussions as opposed to a constant paper flow allows students to access and share class resources in a more organized fashion.

8. Collaborate

Technology allows collaboration between teachers & students. Creating digital resources, presentations, and projects together with other educators and students will make classroom activities resemble the real world. Collaboration should go beyond sharing documents via e-mail or creating PowerPoint presentations. Many great ideas never go beyond a conversation or paper copy, which is a great loss! Collaboration globally can change our entire experience!

9. Use Twitter Chat

Participating in Twitter chat is the cheapest and most efficient way to organize one's own PD, share research and ideas, and stay current with issues and updates in the field. We can grow professionally and expand our knowledge as there is a great conversation happening every day, and going to conferences is no longer the only way to meet others and build professional learning networks.

10. Connect

Connect with like-minded individuals. Again, today's tools allow us to connect anyone, anywhere, anytime. Have a question for an expert or colleague? Simply connect via social media: follow, join, ask, or tell!

11. Project-Based Learning

As today's students have an access to authentic resources on the web, experts anywhere in the world, and peers learning the same subject somewhere else, teaching with textbooks is very "20th-century" (when the previously listed option were not available). Today's students should develop their own driving questions, conduct their research, contact experts, and create final projects to share all using devices already in their hands. All they need from their teacher is guidance!

12. Build Your Positive Digital Footprint

It might sound obvious, but it is for today's teachers to model how to appropriately use social media, how to produce and publish valuable content, and how to create sharable resources. Even though it's true that teachers are people, and they want to use social media and post their pictures and thoughts, we cannot ask our students not to do inappropriate things online if we ourselves do it. Maintaining professional behavior both in class and online will help build positive digital footprint and model appropriate actions for students.

13. Code

While this one might sound complicated, coding is nothing but today's literacy. As a pencil or pen were "the tools" of the 20th-century, making it impossible to picture a teacher not capable to operate with it, today's teacher must be able to operate with today's pen and pencil, i.e., computers. Coding is very interesting to learn -- the feeling of writing a page with HTML is amazing! Even though I have ways to go, just like in every other field, a step at a time can take go a long way. Again, lynda.com is a great resource to start with!

14. Innovate

I invite you to expand your teaching toolbox and try new ways you have not tried before, such as teaching with social media or replacing textbooks with web resources. Not for the sake of tools but for the sake of students!

Ever since I started using TED talks and my own activities based on those videos, my students have been giving a very different feedback. They love it! They love using Facebook for class discussions and announcements. They appreciate novelty -- not the new tools, but the new, more productive and interesting ways of using them.

15. Keep Learning

As new ways and new technology keep emerging, learning and adapting is essential. The good news is: it's fun, and even 20 min a day will take you a long way!

As always, please share your vision in the comment area! Happy 21st-century teaching!


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jinwux94's picture

A wonderful piece. Quite enlightening. lynda.com is indeed a great source. Thank you very much.

Susan Labuschagne McKay's picture

Loves this article!
Can anyone help me understand how we can apply this to grade 5 - 7 (11 -13 year old) who is not allowed on the internet, but furthermore, cannot afford computers and smart phones and our school cannot afford computers either.
Your input will be appreciated.

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

Susan...For what it's worth. I think 21st Century thinking doesn't have to require technology. I use the Four Cs- Communication (talk, letters, speeches, presentations), Collaboration (projects, peer editing, math centers), Creativity, and critical thinking (book critiques, problem solving, debate, writing) The tech will eventually come in some way and the kids will have the opportunity to apply the Four Cs. I guess that's what I hope, anyway. Gaetan

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klaurila's picture

This was a very interesting article to read. I think many teachers have realized that 21st century skills have become the norm in most of our school systems, but do all teachers know what that entails? What it means? As a newer teacher, I thought that I was fairly technology literate, but once I got into the schools, I realized how much I have never even heard of before! In my current school, we use iPads for learning. One app is called "See-Saw" in which students can create an online portfolio throughout the year such as reading stories, taking pictures of projects, reading their fluency into the microphone etc. and it goes straight to the teacher's computer! It can also be shared with parents with just the click of a button.

When I read the above article, I wondered, how can teachers of younger students (such as 2nd graders), incorporate technology that allows for whole group discussions? Such as blogs, twitter, collaborative chats, etc?

nblough's picture

I love how many options are available to teachers in the 21st century. Teachers have a whole world of technology available to them as well as using traditional ways of teaching that are still so beneficial to our students. When students learn how to use technology responsibly it is setting them up for a future filled with more and more technology.

jg123's picture

Very informative article, I like that you mention that students are producers, and should be proud of what they create. I wish that all teachers could allow their students to freely produce whatever their imagination creates, rather than project based productions.

Joanna's picture

Great article! Technology is a very important part of adapting learning to individual needs. It's our responsibility as educators to be innovative and to keep up to date with technology in order to provide the best education for each one of our students.

candelaj's picture

I think this is a great article and very informative. It provides a plethora of ideas to use within the classroom. I'm not sure the 15 characteristics reflects the top 15 teacher characteristics that I think all teachers should have. This article was definitely on the inquiry-based learning side. However, I believe teachers must utilize both directed instruction and inquiry based learning. Students cannot be expected to understand the world by exploring all of it because technology is available. That can be extremely overwhelming. I agree 100% that teachers must embrace technology and utilize it to keep students interested. I believe a top characteristic that teachers must have is open-mindedness. This allows teachers to be able to learn from their students. Students will be motivated and encouraged with teachers who are willing to listen to them. It will also show them how to be open to learning new things. I also think a key characteristic of 21st century teachers is flexibility. Technology is great but it isn't as consistent as a piece of paper that is ready to be passed out. By having teachers who are flexible, students will learn to adapt and become flexible when things don't work out as expected. That is key to a successful academic career and life.

Kaci Smith's picture

I love this article! I agree with letting children use their technology in classrooms, at the appropriate time. I see no problem with the students using smart phones or computers to answer questions that I can't answer or letting them use their devices for research.

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