Teaching critical 21st century skills through experiential learning
January 26, 2022
For two decades, digital technology has revolutionized classroom learning. According to the 2019 Gallup pre-pandemic study, Education Technology Use in Schools, 65% of teachers in the United States were using digital technology to teach every day and 53% had their students using digital tools to learn before COVID. When asked why educators were using digital technology in the classroom, learning the technology itself was not one of the top 15 reasons.
In the current workforce, there are few ways to earn a living without being able to use some type of digital technology. With this becoming more increasingly evident, educators should focus on teaching digital technology not just to learn in the classroom but to prepare students for 21st century careers.
Realistically, no matter what their career path, students will work in an environment super-saturated with rapidly evolving digital technology. Much of the technology they will work with every day has not even been imagined yet. Teaching digital skills means teaching students the ongoing reskilling processes that a lifetime of digital competence will require.
In the classroom, digital technologies are at the service of learning content or completing work and educators teach digital aptitude as a set of concrete skills. In the real world that people work in, most digital skills are acquired through experience. Most digital skills are acquired on an ad hoc, need-to-know basis rather than planning and following a comprehensive curriculum.
Learning digital skills experientially
That same experiential approach can be used to simultaneously teach students current digital skills and how to learn new skills. To succeed, learning through experience requires three basic methods:
- Exposure to a broad array of technologies across a multitude of contexts,
- Experience with technology involving challenges, problem-solving, trial and error, and experimentation, and
- Reflection and analysis on both what was learned and the processes used that can then be applied to future learning.
As with all experiential learning, developing digital skills requires a broad exposure to digital tools across a wide variety of contexts and uses. The question goes beyond how well a digital resource can help teach content. It should include what digital skills are being learned or reinforced.
There are all kinds of ways of introducing new digital tools to a classroom. Nearly everything a student does in a classroom can be done digitally. For example:
- A language arts class for younger students may have an assignment in which students draw a character or situation. Rather than using conventional drawing tools, this could be done using a drawing program, allowing students to explore drawing or vector art tools. Many of these tools are part of the standard toolset of word processing, spreadsheet, photo editing, and presentation programs, but largely go unused and unappreciated.
- A mathematics class at any level can have students use spreadsheet formulas to solve math problems. Formulas, one of the most commonly used tools in spreadsheets, can do anything from simple addition in first grade to trigonometry in the 12th year.
- An elementary art class can use photo editing software to teach color and color relationships instead of crayons, pencils, or paints. Digital color tools allow students to play with and experiment not only with colors but with the digital tools themselves, comprehending through play the complexities and wonders of light and color. Higher-level courses in math or computer science could use these very same color tools to teach the base 16 number system on which digital color and many other types of digital information are based.
No matter what the course, it always helps to outline what digital skills the assignment or project is meant to develop and what work will contribute to the mastery of the process of learning digital skills.
Concrete skills such as using computers or applications are often taught in a comprehensive, step-by-step manner, leaving little room for problem-solving and experimentation. However, problem-solving and experimentation are fundamental to learning from experience. In this spirit, when assigning digital work, teachers should consider challenging students with the technology itself, just as they challenge the students with the assignment content or effort. Here are some examples:
- Researching online is a standard component of digital assignments. At the beginning of an assignment, divide the class into two groups: Boolean search students and regular keyword search students. At the conclusion, compare search results. Not only do students learn a powerful tool for searching databases, but they also get a chance to experiment using keywords and search operators to improve the quality and accuracy of their search results.
- Design assignments to spotlight underutilized resources in common digital tools, such as pivot tables in spreadsheets, drawing tools in word processors, or animation tools in presentation software. Underutilized digital resources always reward the students willing to play, experiment, and invent.
The point is not to teach new technologies or functionalities as it is for students to learn how to explore and experiment with technologies both familiar and strange.
Reflection and analysis
As with most lessons, students need an opportunity to think about, analyze, share, and write down what they have learned. Many teachers hand out reflection questions and have students write out their answers and submit them digitally or written on paper. Others use social media or collaboration software so that students interact with each other when reflecting on the experience.
No matter what format you use, reflection and analysis should answer three questions:
- What did I learn?
- How did I learn it?
- What would I do differently the next time?
Just as there is no age limit for experiential learning or for reflection on the experience. The youngest and oldest learners alike all benefit.
Digital classroom management
Among the critical elements of experiential learning is the role of a facilitator to guide student experience and intervene. In facilitating digital work, educators can leverage a broad range of robust digital classroom management tools to maximize experiential learning. Look for functionalities that allow teachers to view student screens at both a thumbnail and full-screen view. LanSchool features such as Share Screen or Push Website will allow a facilitator to share their screen or direct students to a Web resource to demonstrate critical steps in using a digital tool. Finally, a chat function allows teachers to help one or more students who are stuck or struggling with a digital tool.
While experience is a great teacher, learning from experience is a skill that needs to be taught. Teaching students how to learn digital skills through experience unlocks their potential to develop digital skills. The elements are simple: expose students to a broad array of digital tools in many contexts, challenge them to master those tools through problem-solving and experimentation, guide them through that experience, and help them transform that experience through reflection. This process will help build a foundation for the challenges of a yet-unknown technological future.
To learn more about how LanSchool Air can help teachers facilitate digital work, request a no-obligation free trial.