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Developing 21st-Century Skills: Best Practices for Today’s Classroom

Project-based learning combined with true technology integration sets students up for future success

Developing 21st-century skills are essential for today’s students to meet state standards, perform on assessments, and be college and career ready. When a project-based approach is used, educators can incorporate 21st-century skills into everyday teaching and learning. These digital skills also help to improve the critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity of students. In this web seminar, originally broadcast on March 5, 2014, experts from discussed best practices for developing these skills in the classroom.

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What are 21st-century skills and why are they important? In today’s world, students are using more and more digital tools, and are being bombarded with information. Sometimes, students do not have the skills necessary to digest that information and apply it in useful ways in the classroom. These skills are important to integrate into all core areas, instead of treating them as a separate set of competencies. The first tenet of 21st-century skills is fostering creativity and innovation. This is about allowing students to think for themselves and giving them the skills and strategies necessary to analyze information and come up with new ideas and innovative ways to solve problems. This is moving away from the traditional format of lecturing students, having students take notes, having students take a quiz, and then moving on to the next topic. The communication and collaboration components are skills students need to know in school, and will need to know in college, for their careers and beyond. Being able to communicate both visually and through text, and being able to articulate thoughts in a collaborative environment are also essential skills.

Every day, students are exposed to a lot of different types of information. They need to be able to research information accurately and filter that information to determine whether the source is valid. This ties into the “critical thinking about problem solving” component of 21st-century skills. Students need to think for themselves and solve problems in terms of project-based learning. They need to come up with alternative ideas. We hear so much about students and problems regarding online safety. We need to protect students while they are online and using digital tools, but we also need to make sure they understand what it means to be a good digital citizen. They need to understand what it means to interact responsibly and properly online when communicating and collaborating with others. They need to know how to protect themselves in terms of privacy settings on social media websites. Students need to understand how to react to cyberbullying if it happens to them. Another strong component of 21st-century skills that is often taken for granted is being able to use technology in general. This goes beyond using smartphones. Just because students know how to use a smartphone does not mean they are competent at using information technology in general, or using it safely and properly. We need to instruct students which tools are the best for the job, and how to use them efficiently.

Project-based learning and 21st-century skills can be blended together in the classroom. Some of the major tenets of 21st-century skills are covered in the project-based learning model. Students should be allowed to have digital tools to research information and communicate it in reports and presentations. Technology should be integrated into core areas, like math and ELA. Students should be given the ability to be creative in the classroom with project-based experiences. Research has shown that students who have the ability to create media and have a choice in what they make, produce and how to work together have higher levels of engagement and retention of information. Students who learn 21st-century skills are better able to solve problems than students who experience more traditional forms of education, according to research from the Buck Institute for Education. These students are also able to better apply and connect their learning to real-life situations. How do we connect these skills to project-based learning? Project-based learning is a new model and a way for 21st-century skills and instruction to be addressed. There is a significant amount of research that shows project-based learning is more effective than traditional instruction. Students are able to retain content longer and have a deeper understanding of what they are learning. On high-stakes tests, students who have experienced project-based learning typically perform better than other students. Project-based learning is centered around students answering an essential question. Questions can be related to core area subject matter or other topics, but the educator is not acting as a lecturer anymore. Instead, they present a problem they need to solve to students, based upon the essential question. For example, one essential question related to online safety could be “why is it important to stay safe online?”

In a project-based learning experience, you give students the tools they need to be able to answer that question, but don’t give them the answer directly. Another important aspect of project-based learning is making sure students understand what the learning objectives and goals are of their learning. This is an important distinction. When I was a teacher, I told my students that I did not “give” grades, they earned their grades, based on clear and defined goals. Students need to collaborate and partner with other students of varying levels of proficiency in project-based learning. It is a great way to mix in low-performing and high-performing students so they can build on each other’s strengths and skills. A classroom strategy that helps with student motivation and accountability is asking students to present their learning to a peer or public audience. Students who are given the tools to answer the essential question, create media to reflect their learning, apply digital learning, and then present have increased motivation because they know they will be accountable to their peers. Content in project-based learning should be aligned to standards while still being connected to daily life and real -world experiences.

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District leaders need to understand what resources are available to them, and to their students as well. We want to give our students the freedom to inquire, to learn, to explore, and to enhance their own learning experiences. True technology integration is about using digital tools transparently on a daily basis. The tools should not be an afterthought, but used to seamlessly support what a teacher is trying to accomplish with her students. Engaging activities that utilize technology help students become more involved in the learning and content creation processes. It can be difficult for teachers to find the time to create project-based learning environments that truly integrate technology in their classrooms. Time and experience can both be issues. There are some great resources out there that teachers can use and modify for their own classes’ needs, including those available at One component of is Inquiry, a product that is designed on the project-based learning model. It takes this approach a step further and provides a way for teachers to truly integrate technology into core curriculum areas so instruction is tied in seamlessly with digital learning skills.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please go to: