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21st-Century Learner

Create! Communicate! Collaborate!

The 21st-century learner is here–is your classroom ready?

By Mark Stevens


NEA members attending this year's RA got a
look at technology that could transform
teaching and learning in their classrooms.
Photo by Calvin Knight

No one sees more clearly than educators how the technologies we use in our daily lives influence how students learn. Students have changed, educators have changed, learning itself has changed. And learning tools have evolved accordingly.

Yet the typical physical building where all that learning takes place has remained largely the same over the last 100 years. We live with the reality that the same structures of brick, mortar, and steel will continue to greet us each morning. The great news is that 21st-century learning can take place in every school.

Learning environments aren’t revolutionized by installing a few cool gadgets here and there. Far more important is the educator’s role in employing today’s technologies to make material accessible and engaging—in other words, encouraging students to create, communicate, and collaborate in ways never before possible. “Knowing how to use technology is a key requirement today,” says seventh-grade social studies teacher Joseph Cicero, who posts the class daily agenda online each day and use blogs, wikis, and other interactives regularly. “Technology is ever-changing, and we should not leave our children behind.”

 NEA Executive Director John I. Wilson, who represents NEA on the strategic council of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21), says, “Learning in the 21st century takes new thinking. . .  . The 21st century skills are imperative to implement in our classrooms in order to prepare our students for our globalized workforce.” P21 brings together education leaders, the business community, and policymakers to define a powerful vision for 21st-century education.

It’s up to educators to find the best ways to integrate technology in fulfilling curriculum requirements, but many useful technologies are available off the shelf, some even for free. Even in classrooms built before the dawn of the Internet, educators can make use of the mobile and online efficiencies that we have all come to expect—none  more so than students—in our daily lives.

What does this 21st-century classroom look like? 

Look around and you’re likely to see:

Interactive demonstration boards that allow the class to work through the material together.

Access via the Internet to engaging and transformative content from around the globe via tested and reliable learning portals.

Pens that record audio and data while writing like a regular pen help keep students organized and allow educators to share their notes easily (add audio and you’ve created a “pencast”).

Mobile devices with long-lasting batteries that allow students to learn on the go.

Desktop and mobile devices that are not bound by old-fashioned school wiring.

Web-based applications that connect students, parents, and educators.

Of course the best way to understand the 21st century classroom is to witness how these tools enable new kinds of teaching and learning.

Joseph Cicero

Take Joseph Cicero’s lesson about the gold rush of the 19th century and the concept of manifest destiny. “I am lucky to work at a school where every child has both a netbook and an iPad,” says the Rochester, New York, teacher. “Every classroom has an interactive whiteboard, a document imaging camera, clickers, and an HD webcam. Since the school is infused with technology, so are my lessons.” To engage students in learning how the U.S. expanded “from sea to shining sea,” Cicero had them map the Oregon Trail on Google Maps. They watched a short film from Discovery Education online, then went to the whiteboard to create a graphic organizer documenting westward expansion. As a reward, they even got to play Oregon Trail on their iPads—and all of this was accomplished in 60 minutes.

Attendees at this year’s NEA Representative Assembly (RA) got a first-hand look at technology that can help them give students new ways to interact with the material, and with each other. One of the many enthusiastic visitors was Linda Kelly Gamble, a sixth-grade teacher with Newark Public Schools, who says she wants to integrate more tools like those she saw demonstrated at the RA. Technology makes her students more motivated to learn, because it engages them with tools they find inherently interesting. “This is especially important for my students,” says Gamble. “I teach in a high poverty area, and a solid education is my students’ ticket out of this neighborhood.”

Toni C. Smith, a gifted English and social studies teacher from Dekalb County, Georgia, already uses an interactive whiteboard every day in class. She was delighted to discover at the 21st-Century Classroom exhibit resources to help her use that whiteboard to its fullest potential. “I was blown away by SAS Curriculum Pathways,” she says. “They have all kinds of online resources for English, science, and social studies, and it’s all free!” Better still, the content is aligned with state standards.

In fact, all of the providers of goods and services included in the 21st-Century Classroom have worked in conjunction with NEA and the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) to align their goods and services with state technology policies and educators’ requirements.

So where do we start?

Whether or not an educator has access to technology every day or on an occasional basis, whether educators are experienced or new to teaching, all must think through the complete learning experience they are creating for their students.

“I hear too often that educators want to harness the technology,” said Timothy Magner, executive director of P21, during a session at NEA’s recent Day of Learning. “But I think that’s a little backward. The conversation should be about what it is we want to accomplish—what do we want students to learn? When we have that, then we can talk about what technology is best to help us meet those goals.”

Twenty-five year teaching veteran Kay Boynton of Cherry Creek School District in Aurora, Colorado, says no technology can replace carefully thought out lessons and teaching techniques. She keeps key hands-on experiences like using dice to work with her second-graders on math. But when they move to the whiteboard, “it helps me get instant feedback on the kids’ performance and lets the class work through the lessons together,” she says.

Boynton values the fact that her colleagues work together to find online resources that help them use their technology to its greatest effect. “Our team shares everything we find, which is critical,” she adds, because adding technology has made the teacher’s role even more important. “The technology is only as good as the person using it,” she says. (Check out for more teacher-tested tips and to search our bank of lesson plans.)


Brock Dubbels
Photo by Greg Jansen

“Good tools can help students become experts faster,” says Brock Dubbels, a Minnesota educator and technology blogger. “But these tools can lead to the learning illusion,” he cautions. “Navigating a ship is difficult, but now anyone can do it because of navigation systems. A good teacher breaks down how the tool does what it does. Then students can dig deeper to understand subtlety and nuance—in navigation, this would include vectors, calculation rates, and so on.”

NEA and SETDA offer this list of key questions to inspire your thinking about how you will integrate technology this year:

  • What tools and technologies will help my students (and perhaps colleagues) create, collaborate, and communicate better?
  • How can I let students learn with technology the way that they already live with their technology?
  • What is the appropriate role of the web, social media, mobile technologies, interactive white- boards, etc., in today’s classroom?
  • What are the digital literacies that have to be incorporated and taught? (For more on this topic, see

Examples of 21st-century classrooms are everywhere.

You don’t have to look too far to see great examples of how educators are inspiring a new kind of learning.  Because it’s not about the amount of technology you have or the size and dimension of your classroom, it’s about finding the right tools that you can adapt to your needs and fully integrate into your lessons to make learning relevant and timely.

Wherever you’re at with integrating technology, don’t be intimidated.

“You bring the wisdom, the expertise,” says P21’s, Timothy Magner. “Your students often bring the technical know-how. You and the student will meet in the middle, and that’s where the education happens.”

—Mark Stevens is Chief Business Development Officer, NEA Member Benefits.

Find out more about “Educational Tech Providers:”

3M’s Mobile Interactive Solutions improve the learning environment with quality projection in the classroom, including the latest interactive systems and collaborative pocket projectors.

Post-it® Teacher Activity Center provides fun, free, and quick activities for your classroom.

ELMO USA Corp.’s document cameras and wireless tablets help teachers create an interactive whiteboard environment affordably. Control and interact with the ELMO document camera and computer from anywhere in the classroom.

Walden University—The Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership prepares scholar-practitioners and leaders who can inspire, influence, and impact their diverse communities meet the challenges and opportunities of education worldwide.

Atlantis Remixed, an international learning program, uses a 3-D multi-user game environment to immerse children in a narrative in which they must use disciplinary content to make sense of a situation and makes decisions that transform both player and play space.

Atomic Learning provides more than 16 million individuals in more than 45 countries with resources that allow educators and learners of all ages to embrace technology. An integral part of your professional development program, Atomic Learning helps educators prepare 21st century-ready students.

AT&T is a global leader in communications and voice and data services, including global IP services, hosting, applications, and managed services. Businesses all over the world deploy AT&T to improve productivity, manage costs, and position themselves to take advantage of future technology enhancements.

Britannica Mathematics provides innovative products such as SmartMath, an engaging and adaptive web-based math practice program for elementary students that allows teachers to assign, evaluate, and assess with ease. Move students toward computational fluency as they enjoy doing math at home or in the classroom.

CourseSites by Blackboard™ is a free, fully-hosted and supported online course creation and facilitation service that empowers individual teachers to add a web-based component or even host an entire course on the Internet.

Follett Software Company helps sustain a rich, collaborative, 21st-century learning environment that supports student success. Follett’s integrated educational technologies help maximize resources—from library materials, digital content, textbooks, and other assets, to school and student data.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is the world’s largest provider of pre-K–12 learning materials. Through curricula excellence coupled with technology innovations and professional services, HMH collaborates with school districts, administrators, teachers, parents and students, providing interactive, results-driven solutions.

Lesson Planet provides Pre-K–12 educators a powerful search solution and more than 350,000+ peer-reviewed lessons and worksheets. In mere seconds teachers can find quality resources to personalize learning and differentiate instruction.

Livescribe Smartpens allow educators to easily capture daily written and verbal instruction and make it accessible to students anytime, anywhere. Audio-interactive pencasts allow students to revisit instruction as many times as needed to build comprehension.

Reasoning Mind: Math Education offers an adaptive and effective online math program. Student take their own path through the system as the program adjusts to their needs and teachers use real-time data to target students’ strengths and weaknesses.

SAS was founded 35 years ago at North Carolina State University. Today, SAS provides software at NO COST that expands educational opportunities with more than 1,200 online, interactive resources in all core disciplines for middle and high school grades.

School Improvement Network is home to PD 360, the world’s largest K-12 professional development platform. PD 360 has been repeatedly proven to make dramatic improvements in even the most difficult classrooms.

Teaching Channel is a nonprofit video service that provides resources, inspiration, and tools to improve student learning. Online, on TV, available 24/7.

The above companies participated in the 21st-Century Classroom Exhibit at NEA’s Representative Assembly.

Other participants included:


SMART Technologies,

Pilot Pen,


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