Are We Preparing Students for the 21st Century?

This week’s EDCI 335 blogging assignment is:  “Are our current schools/teachers/curriculum preparing students for the 21st century? Why? Why not?”

I’ve had to let this question steep in my brain for a few days. The optimist in me wants to say “YES!” because I feel that what I do in my classroom is helping to shape those students.  Am I preparing my students in Kindergarten and Grade 1 for the real world?  I’d like to think that what I teach them are the building blocks of being prepared. I’d like to think that what I am doing is making a difference in their lives.  I’d like to think that my students are learning something of value when they are spending their days with me.  But am I preparing my students for the 21st century?  The best I can say is , “I hope so,” and I am relying on the rest of the system to finish the task I start in their early education.

I do focus on the seven skills that students will need in the 21st century as Dr. Tony Wagner identifies in his TEDxNYED Talk (Those skills are: critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration across networks and leading by influence, agility and adaptability, initiative and entrepreneurialism, effective oral and written communication, accessing and analyzing information, curiosity and imagination) and attempt to teach those skills at a level appropriate for my students.  But certainly my students at age 4, 5, and 6 are not ready for heading off into the real world. I know the colleagues in my school also focus on those skills, but as they leave us in Grade 5, are they ready for Middle School?  I think the answer is as varied as each child we teach.

The more I think about the question, the more disillusioned I become.  Often when I have an assignment, I talk it over with my family.  My husband and two sons often give opinion on what I write, or what my thoughts are even before I start typing.  This blog is no different, and I found that I could answer the blogging question more fully by drawing on the school experience of my own children, both of whom will graduate to “the real world” in the next two years.  Have my boys been prepared for the 21st century by their schools, teachers or the curriculum they have been taught?

My boys have allowed me to quote them to share their opinion about how to answer the blogging question:

“No. It seems like teachers teach us what curriculum is set. We don’t get any actual experience to relate our schoolwork to the real world.”
– Matthew, Grade 10

“No. I think we are learning in an outdated system. We are not learning about 21st century technology, events, or anything related to the future. We are learning about the past and nothing relevant or current. I have not been given the chance to be creative or innovative in any of my classes. I am not given any real choice about how or what to learn. Exploratory learning of any kind is discouraged. We are given a generic education and are expected to get through it without tapping into our passions. All of the learning I have done in my favourite subject area (astronomy) has been done outside of school.”
– David, Grade 12

As a frame of reference:

Matthew is 15 and loves creating.  His passion is designing and creating costume armour and is interested in possibly pursuing a career in costume and prop design in the entertainment industry. Not one of his school assignments has involved creating, other than his metalwork or woodwork classes and those have had very specific materials used, obviously.  Matthew’s medium of choice is foam floor tiles.  He creates a pattern, fits it to his model (usually himself or his brother) and cuts, shapes, glues, paints and finishes an incredibly complex puzzle together to make his projects. I am amazed at the complex thinking that goes into the designing of Matthew’s projects.  He is really a design thinker at heart.  You should see his workshop aka my basement.  It is a literal explosion of prototypes and iterations.


David is 17 and wants to be an astronaut. I have blogged previously about how he spent his last summer taking Physics 11 online so that he could finish all his prerequisite courses by graduation time. He hadn’t found his path until Chris Hadfield ignited a passion David had had as a little boy in Grade 2 studying space (prescribed curriculum). His high school does not offer courses in astronomy, but he is getting a solid education in scientific background and processes. However, David is also very creative and would love the opportunity to show his learning through a medium other than an essay or a prescribed lab report. When Chris Hadfield recorded music in space, David realized he didn’t have to choose between science and the arts, but that he could combine all of his passions and make a path that would take him in a direction that only a few have walked before. There is power in a message coming from someone you respect and admire…someone other than your parents.


Please note:  In NO WAY are my boys or I criticizing their teachers.  I am very grateful that David and Matthew have had a literal army of amazing educators shaping how and what they learn. I believe that they have had the best quality education possible within a system that needs big changes. They are on the tail end of their provincially mandated education and I think they have had the best possible experience in that system. Nothing in curriculum replaces passionate teachers, and I believe that my boys have had some of the best teachers to guide them along the way.

Where I do think that David and Matthew have found something akin to what we hope for our learners in the 21st century is in their time as Musical Theatre students. Both of my boys are dancers and singers and have had wonderful opportunities to be involved in their school’s Musical Theatre program. The greatest thing they have learned from Musical Theatre (in my opinion) is confidence and adaptability.  The rehearsal and performance process demonstrates the closest thing to 21st century learning in their school experience. As actors they must create, adapt, and work collaboratively to produce a finished piece of work aka “The Show”.  Shrek the Musical is this year’s project and David will be performing the part of Shrek and Matthew will be performing as Pinocchio. They have also taken on the role of Dance Captains, so their leadership skills are honed as they help choreograph, teach and help the other performers with their dance moves. I am very glad that my boys have grasped the opportunity to learn through the arts and hope that the skills taught them by their theatre teachers will help them as they head off to post-secondary learning wherever that may be.

So, back to the original question…do we, as a school system, prepare our students for the 21st century? My answer at this time is no. There needs to be a massive change in the way that our current education system is more like a factory producing “graduates” rather than an environment that fosters the seven skills Dr. Wagner identifies as necessary for the 21st century.  I think (and hope) we are starting to see a shift in how schools are addressing this. It is small adaptations taking place with project based learning, inquiry and a complete overhaul to our curriculum in the BC Education Plan that will hopefully address the needs of our students as we prepare them for the future.

Dr. Sherrell Walker writes:

“Once we begin to consider the possibilities of the 21st Century classroom, our schools become more than just places for preparing students for the next level of education. They become places where we truly prepare students for lifelong success and personal fulfillment.

And as educators, isn’t that our real goal?” (Walker, 2012)

Are we there yet?  Certainly not, but at least there is the acknowledgement of the need for change. And isn’t the world changed in a series of small steps? I hope that we are beginning to take those first small steps towards big evolution in our school system.


Sherrelle Walker, M.A. (2012)  21st Century Learning: Preparing Students Today
     Retreived from

18 thoughts on “Are We Preparing Students for the 21st Century?

    • Thank you for reading and commenting, Faige! This was a really tough question to answer and the even tougher part is to ask how we can better prepare students for the 21st century. I’m glad my boys were willing to be featured here. Sometimes as a K/1 teacher it’s hard to see the Big Picture of what happens as the students go through the education system.

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  2. Michelle,
    A terrific post! I believe a Kindergarten classroom is the closest thing to what a true 21st century environment should look like. We have our centers where students are engaged according to their interests (artists, architects, mathematicians, scientists, writers, all communicating and problem solving together). Toss in all you are doing with technology and there you have it.
    Your sons’ comments are similar to my own daughter’s. In high school she wrote to get the A paper and went strictly by the rubric. It wasn’t until she went to college that she really learned how to write well and was able to challenge and think deeply with her own voice.
    I enjoy following your blog. I don’t know how you are juggling it all, but you are. Good luck with your studies.

    • Thank you so much for your response, Patty! It is a challenge to keep all the “balls in the air” right now, but hopefully it will be worth all the extra work. I am thankful to have such a supportive family.

      My question to my boys and one you could ask your daughter: How can we change the school system to help better prepare students for their future? I think we need their perspective and voice added to the conversation in which direction education should be headed.

  3. Hi Michelle, i think i can relate to the sentiments of how students today feel about current teaching methods because although everything is learned by the book and we’re learning everything we need to move on..but i feel like we haven’t engaged in anything realistic on how we use what we’ve learned into the workplace. Experience is one of the things missing and i think that’s what teachers today are missing and i think if students are exposed to more real world methods, they will learn more through active participation then they do with just reading and writing through what are being taught.

    • Good point, Jason. Do you think there is some way we can do this within the current formality of education? Or will we have to have a complete overhaul? I am very interested to see what happens when the BC Education Plan curriculum is put into practice next year. I don’t think there is going to be a great amount of change in Kindergarten, but I imagine that there will be huge changes in the middle and secondary schools and I look forward to see what happens and how teachers and students respond to the new framework for learning.

  4. Without a doubt the primary years are the most important to any child and primary teachers should be valued in kind.

    I look at those years as the thin end of the wedge and you don’t have much wiggle room. The basics you are teaching them are just that basics, ground level, the beginning.

    The problem you have is that the kids you are receiving are not the same as they once were. Kids are no longer free to play outside, discover, create and be kids. It is these old school ways of life that provided kids with those 21st century skills U are now expected to teach.

    As I have been saying repeatedly over the past 5 or more years that I have been blogging. The problem with schools is a societal problem not a school problem. We have just been left to fix everything society has screwed up!

    • Keith, this makes me think of the Facebook meme that has been making the rounds the past couple of years that describes all the fun things that we did as kids…and how we turned out ok. Society in general has become to protective of their children and has made everyone afraid to live in a messy world. Perhaps fear is what makes some cling to the “old” ways of learning? Parents bring their children to our schools and want things “the way I learned them” because it is known and not scary even though it may not be what those children need?

      I hope that as this all gets sorted out we can come back to the essentials in learning. Like you said, “play outside, discover, create and be kids.”

    • I do feel that way. Children have an amazing innate ability to be curious and tinker with things to create something awesome.

      And yet there are times when I think that some kids would be left sitting on the couch watching tv and playing video games if they did not have the structure of school to keep them occupied.

      A dilemma indeed.

  5. Hi Michelle,

    I really enjoyed reading your post.

    I wanted to acknowledge Matthew and David’s response to the question of whether schools are preparing students for the 21st century learning. I can’t help but think of the freedom we have, as elementary school teachers, to revise and redesign our curriculum to meet the needs of our learners that teachers in high-school may not have. I think this way because many high-school teachers are preparing their students to continue their eduction in institutions beyond high school, and it’s those institutions that follow a very rigid and narrow view of success. Maybe our colleges, universities, and trades schools need to change their methods too in order for more students in the k-12 system to experience authentic and relevant educational experiences?

    • Hi Mr. Lister,

      When I gave my thoughts on this question, I was thinking of my recent schooling, and not so much the changes that I know are developing between educators like you and my mom. Over the years I’ve been in school, I’ve had a mixture of teachers that have been teaching for many years, and fairly new teachers, but one fact was always the same: the trend towards curriculum and adherence to the system. Possibly because universities prioritize what they do, I have never had so much as a half an hour in class to research a topic that interests me. To me, 21st century learning should be about exploration. Everyone has the capacity to love a subject, to be passionate about a certain thing, but the school system doesn’t acknowledge that. Part of what I believe makes this time period so great is information. We live in an age where information is at our fingertips, and students aren’t being taught to use that. We have a viable sea of information in the form of our cell phones and computers, and I believe that students should be taught to access or navigate it.

      Though there are certain base skills that need to be taught in school, such as essay writing, research, and observing, I feel like having a prescribed curriculum focuses students’ attention more on the topic rather than the actual act of writing or research. Doing something you enjoy is always easier to care about than trying to push through something you find dull, and if we had the opportunity to focus developing the necessary skills for the future while looking at a topic of interest.

      I’ve seen too many people I know come to detest school because there is no enjoyment for them. I have seen many people lose their child-like curiosity because there’s no need to be curious in a system where exploration is discouraged. And if school discouraged curiosity, but at least taught us useful life skills, I would understand. But I know nothing about what happens after high school, and certainly not what happens after university. Generalization fell very short for students in my opinion, and I know that I’m not the only one of my peers that feels this way. School should be preparing is for the future, not the next test or the next class.

      For a system that says “You’re being prepared for the next step,” I don’t feel ready for university, and certainly not the 21st century. I think the current school system fell short.

      • Thank you for replying, David! I appreciate your willingness to be involved in my writing this post and now in having your voice heard in the comments.

        Can you tell me…how could the school system (or dad and I) prepare you better for university? You say you don’t feel ready, so…how can we make sure you are ready for September? I know it is a scary step to move beyond the known world of high school to the unknown of university. What steps do we need to take as a family to make sure you are successful?

    • I have to concur with you Christopher, that Universities and Colleges need to change along with grade school but so does the way business views employees, parenting raise their children and government supports and fund education.

      Although it is the politicians favourite thing to do at the moment, the expectation for change cannot be focused just on grade school.

      When we say the “system is broken” we need to look at EVERYTHING, because the community school is just a reflection of the society it serves.

      • You are so right, Keith. Education as a whole is changing, and if only one level changes, the others will not align and the system will be seen as not meeting the needs of the students. Times are changing, and the education system as a whole must change with the times.

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