Help Your Teachers Create 21st Century Classrooms

Last month we shared Laura Robb's ideas on how teachers can cultivate the 4 Cs in their classrooms. This week Evan Robb offers his his ideas from a principal's perspective.

To succeed in school, compete in the job market, and become a contributing citizen in our democracy and the global economy, our students need to learn in classrooms that develop the four 21st century skills, called the 4 Cs: Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Creativity.

You can motivate and engage teachers to consider what kinds of instruction develop these skills by having them learn during faculty meetings in ways that you want their students to learn. When teachers experience great 21st-century classrooms, innovative types of learning become a part of teachers’ DNA and open conversations about how the 4 Cs will impact learning in their subjects.

Teachers Experience the 4Cs During Faculty Meetings

I recommend that you set aside three faculty meetings for teachers to experience the 4 Cs and connect what they’ve learned to classroom practices. It makes no sense for principals to expect students to collaborate and problem solve and then lead faculty meetings where teachers passively sit and receive information. Instead, start by dividing teachers into groups of four to six and have them choose articles to read about the 4 Cs and 21st century classrooms. In the box below, I’ve listed the URLS of five sources.

Reading Resources Teachers Can Use

First Faculty Meeting

  • Organize faculty into groups of four to six, introduce the 4Cs of 21st century learning, and invite teachers to discuss why these are important for the challenges our country and the world face today.

  • Have each group choose a spokesperson and share with everyone what their group discussed. Record teachers’ ideas on a whiteboard. Have teachers choose two articles to read.

  • Close the meeting by asking them to discuss ways they can integrate Collaboration and Communication into their classes. Groups share and you record their ideas on a whiteboard.

Second Faculty Meeting

  • Recap what was discussed at the first meeting by posting the teachers’ ideas you recorded on the whiteboard.

  • Have groups read a different article, discuss it focusing on Creativity and Critical Thinking, and how they can integrate these into their lessons. Groups choose a different spokesperson and share their ideas. Record these on a whiteboard.

Third Faculty Meeting

  • Recap what teachers discussed at the second meeting by posting the ideas you recorded on the whiteboard.

  • Ask teachers to reflect on their experiences, discussions, and reading materials and create a list of learning experiences they can integrate into their lessons.

  • Have groups share and record their thinking on a whiteboard.

  • Give each group one of the 4Cs and ask members to offer specific ways to build their 21st century skill into lessons. Groups share and discuss.

Accept Where Teachers Are in the Process

You’ll find that even with reading and discussing articles, teachers will absorb some information but not all of the key points. Like their students, their background knowledge and personal experiences will determine the types of suggestions they offer.

Below you’ll find 10 ways that teachers at your school can foster and build 21st century skills into students’ learning experiences. It’s helpful for teachers to discuss these 10 suggestions always through the lens of how each one fits into their subject. 

  1. Have students sit in groups of four to six. Encourage teachers to abandon rows of desks that only separate and isolate students. For collaboration to take place and for students to have opportunities to choose and discuss materials, they need to sit in groups and work together or separate into partners who report back to the group.

  2. Allow students to choose reading materials. Invite your school librarian to meet with English and reading teachers to explain how he or she can help teachers select books that meet the diverse instructional needs of students in their classes. When teachers organize units of study by a genre, such as biography and historical fiction, they can differentiate instruction by having students read books in those genres in a range of reading levels. The school librarian can select high-quality books in the genre and separate them into stacks by reading level. Then, groups of students can browse stacks at their levels and choose books that appeal to them.

  3. Initiate student-led literary discussions. Have teachers build on the turn-and-talk strategy that asks students to turn to a classmate and discuss questions about a read-aloud text or an aspect of a lesson. The next step might be having students discuss a text for 5 to 20 minutes with a partner, using questions the students themselves composed.  Then, students can make the transition to small-group discussions. 

  4. Use inquiry learning. Put the questioning process into students’ hands by asking them to compose interpretive, open-ended questions. (A question is open-ended if it has two or more answers that text evidence supports.) This is a powerful technique because students need to collaborate and communicate to write open-ended questions; they also need a deep knowledge about, and an understanding of, the reading material. Teachers can also show students how to compose guiding questions, which works well when groups read different books in a particular genre or on a specific theme. A guiding question is broad and can’t be answered in one or two sentences. For example, eighth-grade students reading science fiction wrote this guiding question: What warnings does the story give, and what in our society caused these warnings? 

  5. Invite students to debrief their discussions by asking: What worked and why? What could have been improved and how? This kind of problem solving requires students to use their creativity and communication skills to determine what went well and how to improve what didn’t.

  6. Have students set goals. Groups can set goals after they debrief a student-led discussion along with ideas for reaching those goals. Ask groups to review and discuss their suggestions for improving literary conversations immediately before the next literary conversation occurs.

  7. Integrate technology by asking all faculty members or specific departments to read an article on their computers (I use Google Docs). Then, let the communication begin! Teachers write their responses to an article and pose questions so everyone who received the article can read all the responses and questions. The next step might be to use software such as Google Docs with students. For example, teachers can post a short reading selection on Google Docs for students and have them respond to questions in writing. Students can use the articles and all responses for a whole-class discussion. In addition, students can collaborate and write a blog, informational piece, play, and so on and post their work on Google Docs for peers to read and respond to. Google also offers tools for groups to do digital storytelling and for turning data into visuals such as graphs.

  8. Have students write about reading. Consider the research by Steve Graham, Karen Harris, and Tanya Santangelo, who make it clear that when students write about books they read their comprehension improves by 24 percentile points. Writing is informal—a way to express on-the-spot reactions, connections, evaluations of information, characters’ decisions, conflicts, themes, and short summaries. 

  9. Use the jigsaw strategy. If you have several questions you want students to discuss, divide the work among groups. Give each group a question and have them discuss it. Once groups discuss, they choose a spokesperson who explains the ideas discussed to the class. Not only does jigsaw advance all the 4Cs, but it also moves lessons forward.

  10. Try chat centers, a spin-off of jigsaw that gets students out of their seats and moving around the room. You can put questions about literary elements, vocabulary, or a text all students have read or listened to on five to seven sheets and post them around the room. Assign each group a chat center, have members discuss the questions, and then present their findings to the class. To communicate clearly and effectively, students have to adjust and clarify their ideas so that their classmates understand their thinking. 

Closing Thoughts

Whenever a strategy is new to teachers, step back and provide them with the background knowledge and hands-on experiences that develop the depth of understanding they need to implement that strategy to full advantage for students.

The 10 ways to integrate the 4Cs into daily learning ask students to practice and refine their use of collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity. Encourage teachers to work closely with a colleague, choose a strategy they’d like to implement, share ideas, observe one another’s classes, debrief, and when they’re both comfortable, try another one. I always invite teachers to start small and add new strategies slowly to ensure success and maintain the desire to develop the 4Cs in all students.