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Rethinking the 21st Century Learner

October 26, 2021

By Iris

Rethinking the 21st Century Learner

We have all heard that schools need to promote “21st century skills” and “21st century learning” among their students. They need to prepare their students to become dynamic leaders to tackle the unique challenges of a globalized, diverse society. But what does this actually look like?

While there is not a single definition for a twenty-first century learner, a report by Hanover Research examined six different 21st century skills lists and identified four shared themes: collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving. Additionally, Applied Educational Systems sorts 21st century skills into the three categories of literacy skills, life skills, and learning skills:

However, the profile of a 21st century learner is mostly from the perspectives of educators. As a current second-year college student, I am still learning to grasp what it means to succeed in a constantly changing world characterized by both long-term trends like growing multiculturalism, and unpredictable shocks such as the COVID-19 pandemic. With insights from my real experience, I hope to help transform 21st century learning from an abstract concept to an active verb.

Academics

College professors are generally busier than K-12 teachers. They are often balancing their own research projects with teaching hundreds of students. They do not know all of their students by name and are less responsible for their students’ academic success. Thus, it is important for students to take initiative. This means knowing when and how to reach out for help. At the same time, students should be independent in their time management and self-aware of the conditions and strategies that best support their learning style.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Should I tackle this challenge on my own, or should I reach out for help?

  • Who should I go to for academic support?

  • What environment do I learn the best in?

Social Life

The paradox of college life in the age of social media is that while there seems to be endless opportunities for social engagement, many college students report feeling lonely. In a large student body, they must be able to communicate with others from diverse cultural, socioeconomic, and geographic backgrounds. They should have the flexibility to deal with spontaneous social events and critical thinking to balance socializing with school and not to give into peer pressure.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • How can I learn from people who have different backgrounds from me?

  • Will going to this social event increase or decrease my energy?

  • Am I being forced to do something I am uncomfortable with?

Career

Since employers have such a large pool of qualified candidates to choose from, students stand out with their interpersonal skills. Technical skills can be acquired on the job, but collaboration and problem solving are qualities that take years to develop. After all, if someone is an excellent computer programmer but has a disagreeable personality, chances are their programming abilities will not be put to optimal use. Therefore, students must not focus on only exams and grades, but also how to apply their knowledge to real-world situations, and how their strengths play out in a team environment.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • How do my personal qualities contribute to the role I usually play in a team?

  • How can I balance leadership with collaboration?

  • What interests and experiences do I have that make me stand out from other candidates?

Being a 21st century student is much more than being good at school. Educators and students alike must embrace the fact that there is no formula for learning in the 21st century. Rather, we should focus on creating an environment for students to develop the autonomy and confidence to take on opportunities and challenges in all areas of life.

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