Teaching in the 21st Century: New Ways to Put the Pieces Together

By Donna Whyte

Today’s classroom teachers are dealing with an unprecedented set of challenges. Meeting the rigorous new demands of the Common Core State Standards adds pressure to their already busy days. In addition, 21st century students come to school with very different expectations and experiences. Relating to them, connecting with them, and meeting their different needs requires teachers who are open to new and different instructional and classroom management approaches. Then there are the ongoing, day-to-day challenges of figuring out how to appropriately add to the curriculum the technology digital natives expect.

Given these challenges, many teachers are struggling with how to prioritize these vital components of learning and connect them in their classrooms. They are wondering what effective instruction looks like now—today—and what are the new strategies needed to solve the frustrating problem of so much to teach... so little time.

Let’s take a look at the four critical components of effective instruction.

Classroom Management

In classrooms all over the country, teachers are managing children who talk too much, whine, don’t do their work, and disrupt the work of others. It’s the same problems teachers have always faced. Yet it’s still critically important because, without effective classroom management, nothing else matters.

The truth is, teachers can’t control children. Students musts learn to control themselves if they are to become independent thinkers. The challenge for teachers, then, is to let go of strict adherence to rules and compliance. Instead, they must adopt the attitude of a coach whose job it is to help children learn how to behave. This new role calls for a new understanding of what discipline really is, an empathetic approach, and a recommitment to keeping emotions low and independent problem-solving high.

Common Core State Standards

In general, the Common Core State Standards are a step in the right direction. They focus on developing the basic skills students need to move through the grades and succeed. But, mired in the day-to-day, it’s sometimes hard for teachers to see the big picture.

As an example, the Informational Text Key Ideas and Details standard builds on a child’s ability to ask and answer questions about key details in a text. In kindergarten, children do this with prompting and support. In first grade, they ask and answer questions about key details in a text. In 2nd grade, they ask and answer questions to their understanding of key details in a text. It’s the same standard, and, when teachers realize the importance of this, they can more effectively align their instruction with the Common Core goals.

Differentiated Instruction

Teachers are discovering differentiated instruction is needed more than ever with implementation of the Common Core. Preparing students in a mixed-ability classroom without watering down content material or lowering the new standards directly links to a student’s success. Knowing where differentiated instruction fits in the big picture is a start. Deciding if what they are doing is working and, if it isn’t, what to do instead must become a daily decision.

<>21st Century Skills

Effective instruction in today’s classroom must also address 21st century skills. In the not-too- distant future, schools will no longer be buildings. With the Internet, school can be anywhere. Teachers will no longer supply information. They will teach students how to decipher and use it. And, learners will no longer be young people who go to school, take certain courses, and get grades to pass “the test.” Skype, texting, and other technologies are becoming common in schools and will soon be ubiquitous. They will be formatively assessed and taught to their strengths. To succeed, teachers will be required to embrace technology and become “techies.”


For new strategies you can use immediately to ensure effective instruction in your classroom, check out SDE’s webinar Putting the Pieces Together: Connecting Classroom Management, Differentiated Instruction, Common Core State Standards, and 21st Century Skills by education consultant and author Donna Whyte.

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