Revised: The Three Pillars of 21st Century Learning

I love how when a question is roaming around my imagination and the answer starts showing up in surprising ways and at unexpected times.


During our in-school PD session this last Friday November 8th, we had Laura Gini-Newman come and speak to our faculty about critical thinking. She framed the importance of critical thinking in the bedrock of 21st century learning, arguing that it was one of the key components of this way of thinking. She also said, which I loved, “The skills of 21st century learning are not new, THE IMPORTANCE of these skills is what is new.” I feel like this confirms for me defending that reading books are a vital ingredient in 21st century learning. Tradition can be part of innovation!

The “21st century competencies” that Laura Gini-Newman cited are as follows:

    • critical thinking
    • creative thinkers
    • collaborative thinking
    • communicating (via multiple mediums)
    • global thinkers
    • self-regulated learners
    • digitally literate

After hearing this list, I realized some of the shortcomings of my own definitions. I didn’t really consider the global piece (a huge consideration of our newly connected world), the need for critical thinking, or the value of collaboration.

This said, when comparing our two lists, I couldn’t help but feel critical of Laura Gini-Newman’s “competencies” and that they were missing some key elements. So I blended them together (three cheers for blended learning) and came up with something I like much more. I like how simple this is (three key pillars rather than seven) and how it acknowledges far more than just the skills needed to be a successful worker in a digital world, but how we become an actualized and healthy human living in this brave new world.

 So, here are my 3 pillars of 21st century learning:

  • Student Centred: personalized, autonomous, accountable, appropriately challenging, vigorous, relevant, current, timely, critical, applicable, and engaging.
  • Innovative: Responsible risk taking, creative, “out of the box”,  expressive, experimental, shifting school norms, problem solving, constructive design, and unexpected.
  • Connected: Globally minded, collaborative, digitally literate, self-aware, other-aware, ethical citizenry, socially responsible, interdependent, and engaged in the world.

My goal this year while teaching Grade 7 English, is to document and reflect on how these three pillars are already showing up in my teaching practice and where I need to develop my skills in order to more effectively balance my pedagogy.

Considering my more expansive (and yet also more compact list), what is missing that shows up in your classroom that you consider 21st century-centric?

9 thoughts on “Revised: The Three Pillars of 21st Century Learning

  1. Hi there Celeste,
    Love the compact/expanded list of 21st Century Learning. I was thinking that in your innovative category you could possibly add Design but I could also see how this could be inherent in your Experimentation subcategory. I like your post – thanks for putting the time into it and sharing.

    1. Brad, I totally agree with you…although it could be part of “problem solving”, I like acknowledging the role that “original” design can play in and of itself. I’ve added it to the list!

  2. Celeste I love your take on those 7 pillars – I think the ones you are suggesting are especially important and love how it’s condensed to 3 yet somehow a lot more comprehensive. Student centred, Connected, Innovative. I can’t think of three adjectives I’d better like to describe my own curriculum!

  3. Hey, Celeste.
    Love the pillars! Well done.
    Any thoughts on descriptors for some of the communication skills you envision? I’m wondering if something clever could be had by playing with sifting and synthesizing in the research area? And some thing for the written elements, as well?

    Hope we can discuss soon.

    1. Alan, reading your comment made me pause and consider why I hadn’t explicitly addressed the need for students to read deeply or write expressively (or creatively, or critically, or responsibly, or…).

      I suppose, although this is not a final answer, my thoughts were that these attributes of 21st learning would enter in to the students reading and writing work. For example, I create opportunities for my students to choose their own topics for their writing, so that would fall under “current, relevant, engaging, or personalized”. I also expect my students to care about expressing themselves clearly (also known as using standard grammar rules) so that would fall under “other aware, accountable, and vigorous”.

      As an English teacher, do you think that specific communication norms be added to these pillars?

  4. Celeste,
    This is a really great framework. I agree with you that, if possible, keep it simple. I’m sure these three pillars will help you stay focused on your goals without feeling overwhelmed, and Laura Gini-Newman’s extended labels can help you create criteria within those goals and give you the language to help you identify strengths and opportunities for growth. After all, it’s your goal and one of the most important steps of learning and striving toward self-efficacy is ensuring you are clear on what your own goals are and having criteria you can understand and use effectively to evaluate your progress. How better to do that than in your own framework?

  5. Love this post, and the discussion that this is generating. I would like to add, from my own perspective as a history teacher, where does critical thinking fall in your pillars? I assume it would be somewhere in the ‘student centred’ pillar; however, I raise this to help delineate what Gini-Newman was outlining. She was outlining the skills that our students must develop – I think that, Celeste, you are raising the most important point, which is: “How do we foster these 21st century characteristics in our students through our teaching?” I believe that you are well on your way to answering this challenge!

    I also like how you’ve mentioned that it is the emphasis that is new. This is not a fundamental relearning of how to teach, or what to teach; rather it is a shift in emphasis away from rote learning, and towards engaging with the material. Books have never been more important…have you seen this: “it’s a book” (it’s worth your 1min!)

    I look forward to reading more about your reflections!
    thanks for this, and to all who have commented,

    1. Garth,

      “It’s a Book” made my heart incredibly happy. I am definitely going to show this to my students at time point; it makes me think that it would be good to have a conversation with them on why people read. What is the point? And also how key it is to engage in some tasks where you are just doing ONE thing (or is just me that has 19 things on the go when I’m on my laptop)…how do we infuse mindfulness with all this technology?

      In regards to “critical thinking”: I added it to “student centred” and just called it “critical”, as it was a behaviour I think allows students to reach their fullest potential (hence student centred), but I also see it closely linked with “problem solving” under the Innovation umbrella. Critical thinking, I think, is a means to solve complex and interesting problems, so they are very closely related.

      Thanks for your ideas. I like your brain.

  6. Hi Celeste,
    I really like how you’ve digested the competencies into your three pillars, into language students could benefit from as well. Would be interesting to align your pillars (including the nice colour codes!) to the six Ontario learning skills, so students could see the links between how we report on them and this forward thinking about 21st century learning

Leave a Reply to bradbohte Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.