7 Key Features of 21st Century Learning

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Video: Summary of 21st Century Learning by Helpful Professor(R)
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21st Century Learning definition and examples, explained below
➡️ Introduction

21st Century education focuses on personalization, equality, collaboration, communication and community relationships.

These skills are required in a rapidly changing global economy. Students will be training for jobs that do not even exist yet. These jobs will require the types of problem solving and communication skills that can only be learned through 21st Century approaches to learning.

7 Key Features of 21st Century Education are:

  1. Personalized learning.
  2. Equity, diversity and inclusivity.
  3. Learning through doing.
  4. Changed role of the teacher.
  5. Community relationships.
  6. Technology.
  7. Teacher professionalization

Explanations of each are provided below.

21st Century Learning: Key Characteristics

These 7 features of 21st Century learning and teaching are adapted from (and build upon) Bolstad et al. (2012).

1. Personalized Learning

student doing stem task

A personalized approach recognizes that not all students learn in the same manner.

Personalized learning involves differentiating instruction so that students can learn in ways that suit their personal needs. 

Educators can adjust their teaching methods in several ways. They could:

  • Differentiate content difficulty;
  • Differentiate modes of delivery; and 
  • Differentiate assessment strategies. 

By contrast, the 20th Century approach was characterized by a one size fits all approach.

In the old model, all students in the class were taught the same content in the same way at the same time. Instruction was usually transmission-style under a paradigm of teaching often referred to as the banking model of education.

The significant shift from the one size fits all to personalized approach can be attributed to evolving understandings of how people learn.

Theories such as the sociocultural theory gained prominence in the latter decades of the 20th Century, which are now dominant in the 21st Century. These theories recognize that learners are influenced significantly by social, cultural and environmental factors which lead to differentiated outcomes.

Many theorists now believe that students need to learn through various different learning modalities depending on the student’s needs.

Examples of personalized learning include:

  • Differentiated instruction;
  • Individualized education plans;
  • Student-led projects in the classroom;
  • Enhanced freedom of choice in the classroom.

2. Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity

busy classroom

In the 20th Century students were expected to conform to the mainstream or be excluded. But in the 21st Century, social inclusion and difference are celebrated.

We embrace equity, diversity and inclusivity in classrooms by:

  • Equity: A goal of 21st Century educators is to achieve equality of outcomes. Educators are attempting to close achievement gaps between rich and poor. Hopefully one day your family’s wealth will not determine how successful you are at school.
  • Diversity: Diversity is now considered a strength in classrooms. When students are different, they learn that difference is okay. They befriend people of different cultures and learn not to be afraid of other cultures around them.
  • Inclusivity: We now believe that people of all ability levels, physical disabilities, or learning disabilities deserve to be included in mainstream classrooms. This can help them contribute to mainstream life and show them they are welcome and equal participants in the world.

Driving factors behind the turn toward increased equity, diversity and inclusivity include:

  • A shift to the social model of disability, which argues that society needs to adapt to include people with learning and physical disabilities into mainstream classrooms;
  • Increased cultural diversity leading to greater awareness of differences between cultures;
  • Feminist and critical theories gaining currency in society, leading to awareness of the need for greater gender equality

3. Learning through Doing

play based classroom

Old behaviorist methods of education that were typical in the 20th Century saw learning as:

  • Memorization of information.
  • Transmission of information from teacher to student.
  • Filling your mind up with facts.

These methods are thrown out in a 21st Century learning approach. 

Now, we encourage students to learn through doing.

The central idea in the ‘learning through doing’ approach is that we are much better at knowing, remembering and using knowledge if we learn actively, rather than through passive learning.

When we are learning through doing, we:

  • Have first-hand experience with applying information to the real world.
  • Get the opportunity to learn through trial-and-error (so we know why something is true or not).
  • Aren’t told something, but rather we discover things through our engagement with the world around us.
  • Learn information that isn’t just theoretical but can be applied to things in our lives somehow.

There are many approaches to education that fit within this 21st Century ‘learning through doing’ paradigm. Here are just a few:

  • Cognitive Constructivism: This is a theory of learning that believe we learn by constructing ideas in our heads (rather than having them inserted into our minds). We construct information when we place ideas in our working memory, compare it to our existing prior knowledge, and make decisions about how useful, truthful or valuable this new knowledge is to us before saving it, using it to change our minds, or discarding it. We don’t just take bits of information for granted: we ‘mull them over’ and ‘consider them’ before deciding how to use them.
  • Problem Based Learning: PBL is a classroom-based constructivist teaching strategy. It involves learning through solving problems. This is clearly very different to learning by being told facts. That’s because students aren’t given answers to problems: they have to solve the problems themselves to discover the truth. That’s why sometimes we also call PBL discovery learning.
  • Problem Posing Education (PPE): PPE is very similar to problem based learning. In a problem posing environment, the teacher or student will come up with a problem and present the problem to the class. The class and the teacher need to learn the answer to this problem together. So, not even the teacher enters the classroom with the answers in this approach. It therefore creates a very democratic co-learning atmosphere in the classroom.
  • Project Based Learning: In a project-based classroom, students will work on one big problem for many lessons (maybe even weeks or months) at a time. Students will often work together and use resources around them like community members or the internet to create something new (their project!).
  • Phenomenon Based Learning (PhBL): PhBL is an approach that is popular in Finland. Rather than learning through subjects (mathematics, languages, science, history), students focus on a ‘phenomenon’ (or ‘topic’) that requires them to use multiple different forms of knowledge from different subject areas to learn about the phenomenon in a holistic way.

4. Rethinking Learner and Teacher Roles

teacher and student

In the 21st Century, classrooms have changed from being teacher-centered to student-centered.

In the past the students all focused on the teacher and listened to the teacher’s words. Now, the teacher focuses on the students who are the center of attention. The teacher’s job is to help coach the students as they learn.

In the 20th Century, teacher and learner roles were very rigid:

  • Teacher as Authority: The teacher was the active participant. They did all the talking and were the ultimate authority on all topics. They were the ‘sage on the stage’. This is why we often call a 20th Century approach “teacher-centered”.
  • Passive Students: The student was the passive participant. They sat, listened and memorized. They had very few opportunities to contribute their prior knowledge, exercise choice or challenge the teacher’s points.

In the 21st Century, the roles of both the teacher and the student have changed:

  • Teacher as Facilitator: The teacher is now a co-learner with the students. The teacher may still need to control the environment by making it safe and focused on learning. The atmosphere of the classroom is still very much up to the teacher. However, teachers are no longer just the authorities on topics. Instead, their job is to help guide students as the students learn through active processes. The teacher is no longer the center of attention – that’s the student!
  • Active Students: Students learn through doing rather than listening. The teacher is no longer the authority on knowledge, so students need to come to conclusions themselves using their critical thinking and creative skills.

5. Community Relationships


We are increasingly realizing how important community engagement is for learning.

In our communities there are amazingly useful people who can teach and inspire our students far better than we can.

Teachers know they can’t be experts on everything. But there is an expert for every topic out there in the world.

So teachers need to seek out experts and bring them into the classroom. By leveraging the skills and knowledge of the community, we can create a better learning experience for our students.

In multicultural societies, community members can also teach us about how to best teach children within their cultures. For example, children from Indigenous cultures may have grown up with very different learning styles from other children in the class. By engaging with local Indigenous people, teachers can learn how best to teach those children in their class.

Bringing people from different walks of life into the classroom also helps our students to create connections with people who aren’t like themselves. This can help inclusion, education for social justice, and create links between people of different cultures.

6. Technology

child with VR set

Modern technologies can be incredibly helpful in classrooms today. Walk into a classroom now and you’ll be shocked at how much things have changed in just a decade. Technology is everywhere!

It is important to use new learning technologies in appropriate ways. Students shouldn’t use technology to prevent them from thinking or help them cheat. Instead, technology should be used to help students access information or think in ways they couldn’t have done so otherwise. We call technologies that help students think harder ‘cognitive tools’ for learning.

Read Also: 13 Examples of Education Technology in the 21st Century

7. Teacher Professionalization

teacher at front of class

Teaching children in this century is clearly much more complicated than it was in the last one! We need to create personalized lessons, be inclusive, aim for eqaulity, encourage creativity, engage with the community, use technology to enhance learning, and more!

To ensure students get the best learning possible, teachers in the 21st Century need ongoing training and support. They need to know all the latest research on best teaching practices. They need opportunities to ask questions themselves, try out new strategies and learn from experts throughout their career.

One of the biggest challenges for teachers is the rapidly changing educational environment. New technologies are quickly coming into classrooms to help us personalize and support learning for all our students.

Teachers need time and space to learn how to use technology and new pedagogies in ways that will best help their students. 


21st Century education is influenced by globalization, rapid social change and new research into how people learn. The role of the teacher in the 21st Century classroom is to ensure learning is student-centered rather than teacher-centered. This sort of student-focused learning has seven key characteristics:

  1. Personalized learning.
  2. Equity, diversity and inclusivity.
  3. Learning through doing.
  4. Changed role of the teacher.
  5. Community relationships.
  6. Technology.
  7. Teacher professionalization.


The 7 elements outlined in this article are adapted from:

 | Website

Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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