Learning in the 21st Century

Cheri Sterman – Crayola Director of Education, and Vice Chair of the Partnership for 21st Century Learning.

Education today has shifted away from giving children answers that adults already figured out. Instead, teachers pose real-world problems for students to solve. Art-integration, project-based learning, and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) help students articulate higher-level questions and apply new information to cross-curricular projects they create.

Societal and career changes are occurring at an unprecedented fast pace. Educators must challenge traditional practices and shift their focus towards the skills and mindsets that prepare students to succeed tomorrow. The Partnership for 21st Century Learning has framed those skills and mindsets as the 4Cs: Creativity, Critical Thinking, Communication, and Collaboration.

Learning today must move beyond textbooks, memorization, and multiple-choice tests. Students now have access to exponential increases in subject matter content and ways they can access it. New technologies are opening robust content gateways when students ask the right questions, learn how to curate what they find, and collaboratively create projects—using information and iterative processes their curious minds pursued. We are witnessing a paradigm shift in how students and teachers spend their precious time together.

There are instructional strategies that align with that paradigm shift and help teachers’ role shift from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side.” These instructional strategies are art-integration, project-based learning, and STEAM. They provide students more agency over their education as self-motivated learners dive deeply into content. The projects meet rigorous standards, are highly engaging, and require students to generate original ideas. Key commonalities between these instructional approaches include:

  • Hands-on experiences—students create (exploring original ideas), present (sharing insights about the process and content), respond (using authentic assessment to provide feedback to peers), and connect (reflecting on societal, historical, and personal context).
  • Collaboration—real-world problem solving is rarely done in isolation. Weaving together the multiple perspectives of peers is necessary to complete these school projects and to prepare students for the collaborative process required in most careers.
  • Creativity—fresh thinking on how to identify problems, define solutions, explore prototypes, and evaluate ideas, as an iterative process leads to deeper understanding and continuous improvement. Engineers, artists, scientists, tech, and math experts follow a similar iterative process to generate creative thought.
  • Cross-curricular critical thinking—each of these approaches draws upon the standards and expertise from more than one discipline. Rigorous thought cannot live in subject silos.
  • Communication—these instructional strategies use the holistic approach to communication: verbal, written, mathematical, and visual literacies are all employed. Students learn and apply each of these literacies to convey meaning.
  • Curating— as the world shifts from content scarcity to today’s superabundance of information, the skill of culling it down to the most significant is critical. The curation process teaches students how to assess what is relevant, real, well-crafted, and evidence-based. While teaching curation skills may be new to generalists, it has always been part of art education. What art curators consider noteworthy and memorable is work that is carefully crafted, recognized by others as having value, and that demonstrates a depth of meaning that is effectively conveyed to others. Art-infused cross-curricular projects provide fertile ground to cultivate curation skills.

Educators thirst for instructional strategies that ignite students’ passion for learning and build career and college readiness. Observing art-integration, project-based learning, and STEAM education, teachers see the creative collaboration that draws out students’ original ideas and teaches them self-assessment skills. These approaches drive strong academic achievement and are also joyous, memorable, and according to students, “the best part of coming to school!”

Cheri Sterman Cheri Sterman is Crayola Director of Education and Vice Chair of the Partnership for 21st Century Learning. She is former Early Learning Director for the State of Ohio and board member of the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the National Child Development Center.