The 21st Century Teacher – what does this term mean to you?

Submitted by Fiona Beal
One often hears the words 21st century teacher bandied about today. What exactly does this term mean?   Is the 21st century teacher any different from the 20th century teacher or the 19th century teacher? A quick Google search doesn’t throw very much light on 18th, 19th, or 20th century teaching but changing the search criteria to ‘21st century’ reveals PLENTY of resources – 21st-century school, 21st-century education, 21st-century teacher, 21st-century skills, 21st century education… Something happened in the 21st century that changed everything.

Looking back at the 20th century

I’d like to invite you to join me on a journey. Let’s go back on our journeys of starting teaching. Mine started in the 20th century.  This is what I remember of my early years as a teacher. There were no computers, no Internet, no digital cameras, no ready to use movie cameras. It was very expensive to print photos from the old cameras, or to have cine camera videos developed. One certainly didn’t use a camera at school.

CC Angela Lio 20px

School was generally…boring especially when compared to today’s classrooms!


Computers introduced in the 20th century

Then computers were introduced into South Africa in the late 1900s. Their development was possibly slow by today’s standards. Below we see a five megabyte hard drive being shipped by IBM in 1956.


The Internet discovered

In 1989 something big happened. Tim Berners Leepublished a paper called ‘Information Management: A Proposal’ in which he married up hypertext with the Internet, to create a system for sharing and distributing information not just within a company, but globally. He named it the World Wide Web. The discovery of the Internet is one of the greatest inventions of mankind in education but it was a long time before it impacted education.

And so…the 21st century!

The biggest catalyst for educational change has probably been the advent of social media and the introduction of using mobile digital devices in the classroom. Mobile devices are part of the fabric of children’s lives today. They are seen as key to 21st century learning.  The growth of mobile devices has turned us into a connected, sharing community.

What is 21st century learning

The term “21st-century learning” or “21st century skills” is generally used to refer to certain core competencies such as collaboration, digital literacy, critical thinking, and problem-solving that advocates believe schools need to teach to help students thrive in today’s world. It marries content to necessary skills. We are preparing children for jobs that don’t yet exist. Never before could learning be happening the way it is now.


Teaching in the 21st century has untold potential for our learners. 21st century teaching and learning enables us to go further than one ever could before. Information is at our fingertips. Global collaboration is part of life. The paperless classroom is on the horizon.

Some examples

Mystery Skype: Students can use Skype to collaborate with other classes in other countries in Mystery Skype sessions as a way of learning Geography. They can use Skype to bring experts into their classrooms.  They can even talk to others who don’t speak English and hear them talking in English! Students can read to a listener via skype to practise reading!

Global projects: Instead of doing a paper and pen project students can join a collaborative global project.  In the process they learn about teamwork, plagiarism, citing information, commons images, critical thinking, deciding what to place on a plage, technical skills i.e. Google sites. etc

Team work: Students get to work with and communicate with students from other continents and cultures. They can explore real world problems.

Digital storytelling: Students can write beautiful online stories on the many, free online creative writing sites, and they can share these with the world.

Videos: Students can easily create videos to make their thinking visible.

Three key aspects to 21st century learning

This has been beautifully illustrated in the diagram below by Holly Clark. In the classroom, using digital devices, students can make their thinking visible,  they can use all sorts of quick digital sharing to give voice to their opinions and they can easily share their work.


So enjoy the journey! Find out more! Collaborate! Network! This is one of the most exciting times for education.

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