Rich McKinney

How Can 20th Century Teachers Lead 21st Century Learners?

For years, school researchers have pointed to the digital divide between students from disparate socioeconomic groups as a major problem in public education. But now a different digital divide is receiving a closer look as research chronicles the widening gulf between the technology skills of teachers and the students who enter classrooms across the United States. While students often tend to be the earliest adopters of new technology, many teachers find that after lesson planning and grading there is little time left to become tech savvy. Unfortunately, many choose not to stay current, and they simply ignore or avoid technology as they continue to teach the same lessons in the same fashion. Therein lies the problem. Nearly 70 years ago, John Dewey claimed, "If we teach today's students as we taught yesterday's, we rob them of tomorrow." Dewey's prescient understanding of our emerging divide begs the question, "How can 20th century teachers effectively teach and lead 21st century learners?" While others have suggested a long-term solution that classroom educators must become 21st century teachers, I propose that the first step is in becoming a 21st century learner.

While there is much debate on what it means to be a 21st century learner, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills developed a framework which groups these skills into three major categories:

  1. Learning and innovation skills include creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration;
  2. Information, media, and technology skills focus on using, managing, and evaluating information from digital sources; and
  3. Life and career skills suggest that 21st century learners must be flexible and adaptable, self-directed, teamwork oriented, and appreciate diversity, and leaders must be accountable.

While our goals as educators should be to enhance these characteristics in our students, we must first lead by example and demonstrate our own commitment to becoming lifelong learners by embracing this framework in a personal way.

This summer, as part of a 1:1 initiative, teachers from 11 schools in Knox County, Tenn., began a transformative process of professional development that would challenge traditional views of teaching and learning. Teachers were encouraged to think not only in terms of success for all students but, rather, to consider the personalized learning needs of each student in instructional design. As such, teachers were introduced to connectivist and constructivist learning theories and then tasked with considering how these theories could be implemented to meet the needs of each student. Finally, because 21st century learners must be flexible, adaptable, and digitally literate, teachers were taught how to use a wide array of social media and instructional technology tools. Teachers even had an opportunity to "play" with their newly acquired technology skills and provide in-session feedback through a live Twitter feed. For many participants this was their first exposure to Twitter.

As excitement continues to grow through ongoing training and more teachers buy in to the vast positive outcomes for their students, their school, their community, and even themselves, the true power of 21st century learning will be realized. For more than 500 highly engaged teachers and the many students that they serve, returning to school this August is a time of creative and innovative thinking, collaboration between teachers and students, and 21st century learners moving toward the future together.

Rich McKinney, PhD, is an assistant principal for a middle school in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the 2012 Outstanding Social Studies Teacher for the state of Tennessee. His passion is improving student outcomes by helping teachers reach their fullest potential. In addition to his administrative responsibilities, he also serves as a professional development specialist for Knox County Schools and a Common Core coach for the state of Tennessee. Connect with McKinney by e-mail at or on Twitter @richmckinney1.

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