What is a 21st century education?


By Sara Hallerman, Colon Lewis, and Brad Dresbach

We’ve all heard the term. Many of us even use it regularly. And we probably all have a gut feeling of what 21st century learning or a 21st century education is. But can we define it? 

It might be easier to define it by first explaining what a 21st century education is not (or what a 20th century education was—and still is in many places). 

A 21st century education is not a bunch of students sitting quietly at desks, in neat rows, writing down every word that the teacher says or writes on the blackboard (or smartboard). It’s not teaching to the test, telling students what they need to memorize to get an A+, assuming every child is or should be on the same path, or measuring schools or teachers solely by average ACT scores and college acceptance rates.  

And it’s not something that ends at 3:00 every day, or on Friday of every week, or even in the spring of each year. It’s a lifelong journey. As Dr. Kimberly Pietsch Miller, superintendent of Bexley City Schools (OH), said, “The finish line isn’t May of 12th grade.”  

Defining and delivering 21st century learning is a little messier than that. It’s a little more complicated. A little more nuanced. A whole lot harder to assess. And when done correctly, it creates environments in which engaged students are actively shaping their learning. 

The role of educators in the 21st century should be helping every student learn how to learn. It’s inspiring creativity, encouraging collaboration, expecting and rewarding critical thinking, and teaching children not only how to communicate, but also the power of effective communication. These are skills students need to develop in order to thrive in today’s and tomorrow’s dynamic workplace. 

To be clear, we’re not suggesting children no longer need the 3Rs, or STEM classes, or technical training for a vocational path. We’re simply saying that those things alone aren’t enough. We’re also saying the 4Cs aren’t enough just on their own. A 21st century education needs to be more than any one or two of these things.  

If we want to provide every student with a 21st century education, we must foster deeper learning through the purposeful integration of rigorous academic content with experiences that intentionally cultivate the skills, mindsets, and literacies needed for students to become lifelong learners and contributors in our ever-changing world. 

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And to do that, we need to look at everything in our school systems. What is necessary and unnecessary? Which aspects are developing skills that students can take with them for the rest of their lives, versus facts they need to know for the test? How are we intentionally developing competencies and skills we want our students to be able to build upon after graduation?  

At Battelle for Kids, we offer a number of resources to help deliver a 21st century education. 

  • A Portrait of a Graduate  

  • Our national EdLeader21 network and statewide SOAR networks for visionary educational leaders 

  • The P21 network for businesses, organizations, and associations collaborating to accelerate 21st century learning 

However, these resources and networks are only truly useful when all the educators, school leaders, district leaders, school board members, teachers, community members, and students have a shared understanding of what a 21st century education is, and more importantly, why providing and getting one is so crucial to the success of your school, your students, your community, our country, and our planet. 

So, what is a 21st century education? To a certain extent, it can’t be fully defined because it is constantly changing. But we do know a few things.  

A 21st century education is one that responds to the economical, technological, and societal shifts that are happening at an ever-increasing pace. 

It’s an education that sets children up to succeed in a world where more than half of the jobs they’ll have over their careers don’t even exist yet. 

In short, it’s an education that provides students with the skills and competencies they need to thrive in the 21st century.

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Sara Hallerman   
Senior Director,
a Network of
Battelle for Kids

Colon Lewis, EdD
Senior Director,
Battelle for Kids

Brad Dresbach
Battelle for Kids