A Thought Experiment: From Classroom Learning to 21st Century Working

We must prepare our students for the 21st Century workforce!
We’ve heard it over and over again. We must transform our K-12 and higher education classrooms so that our learners become college and career ready. Yes! This sounds like an awesome vision to rally behind. Who doesn’t want to be all 21st Century-n-stuff?!?!

Seriously, for the past few years, this has been the current rhetoric on school reform. (Check out Achieve’s position on College and Career Readiness.) The nation’s adoption (well most states) of Common Core Standards for English and Math and this spring’s release of the Next Generation Science Standards demonstrates our commitment to realizing this vision. Now that we are in the midst of implementation (i.e., changing teaching practices and revamping high-stakes testing), we are beginning to see many states hesitate and raise issues with these standards for learning (and by extension training for a 21st Century workforce). Don’t get me wrong, I believe that public deliberation on national and state policy is healthy and cost and technology needs are real reasons to give institutions pause. So, in this space of contemplation, I want to explore a bit more about how students’ experiences in the classroom can translate to their performance in the workplace.

As a science educator and researcher, I usually think about how classroom activities can support students to learn deeply about a subject matter (e.g., human body systems), further develop their scientific practices (e.g., evidence-based explanations), and position them as lifelong learners (e.g., make informed decisions about health policies in their community). Now, as a new business owner working on next year’s staffing plan, I find myself thinking more and more about how classroom learning experiences can help to create a 21st Century workforce.

Last week, I had the opportunity to travel to the Midwest (almost Canada!) to provide some instructional coaching on project-based learning (PBL) for elementary teachers. PBL is an instructional method that engages students in an extended educational experience (greater than 2 weeks) where they answer real questions (hopefully ones they asked) through a series of learning activities such as primary and secondary research, design work, and peer feedback (Buck Institute for Education, 2013). A PBL example:


Students work in teams to answer the question: How can schools generate income without vending machines that sell junk food? To create their business proposals, students might research the health effects of junk food, interview staff at different schools who have implemented healthy business strategies, or poll students and parents about their ideas for a healthy school – fiscal and physical. Next, students enter the write-feedback-rewrite cycle until they are ready to present their multi-media proposals to the local school community, including faculty and staff, PTA, and the school board.


So, how can real-world classroom projects like this help students become 21st Century workers?
As expected, many organizations put forth and define 21st Century skills that are necessary for the advancement of the whole wide world (ok, but I just love saying “whole wide world.” It sounds so grand!) The Partnership for 21st Century Skills offers us the 4C’s: Critical Thinking, Creativity, Collaboration, and Communication. The Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills helps frame how we think about these skills in action: Ways of Working and Ways of Thinking.

Going forward, I expand the PBL example above to consider how student-centered learning experiences can prepare students for the 21st Century workforce, i.e., develop their

  • Ways of Thinking: Critical Thinking and Creativity
  • Ways of Working: Collaboration and Communication

Ways of Thinking: Critical Thinking and Creativity


Working in a team, each student takes on a role and must work from that perspective: business owner (“we must make money”), school nutritionist (“kids must eat healthy”), project manager (“we must plan”), social media guru (“people must want to hear about this”), and principal (“students must learn”). Students are responsible for researching and sharing relevant information for their role as well as ensuring that the proposal meets everyone’s needs.

During the brainstorm phase, students participate in the “Yes, and . . .” activity: Round-robin style, students take turns sharing an idea that is consistent with their role. To maximize the number of ideas generated, students cannot “knock down” an idea. Instead, they must say, “Yes, and . . . “ to add to the team’s starting set of ideas. For example:

Business Owner: “We should keep vending machines because they make us money.”
School Nutritionist: “Yes, and we can put healthy snacks in it.”
Principal: “Yes, and classes can research which foods are most nutritious.”


Now, it’s not just about the generation of ideas. Students must figure out which ideas are worth pursuing, that is relevant, doable, and potentially impactful.


Next, team members share their needs for their business proposal (real world translation: what is required so that their job expectations are met.). After much discussion, they agree upon a set of criteria: profitable, improves student health, students and staff can share responsibility, and can be used for class projects. They use this criteria to determine which of their brainstormed ideas are worth pursuing, such as the purchase and marketing of a healthy snacks vending machine.


Through these project activities, students learn and practice (a) an idea creation technique (creativity) and (b) the evaluation of ideas from alternate perspectives (critical thinking).

How does this position them as 21st Century workers?
When presented with a new or existing project, we want our team members to be comfortable and eager to generate ideas (hopefully with their colleagues – that’s the next section). Our 21st Century team members know that creativity isn’t simply an innate talent, but a skill that can be enhanced through the practice of idea generation techniques. Opportunities to learn and practice such techniques through their schooling provide them with invaluable experiences to draw upon and positions them to be value-added assets to the workplace.

With respect to critical thinking, it’s not just about bringing “Boss Lady” a whole bunch of ideas. It’s about critiquing or evaluating ideas for their worth and potential impact. This could mean making the world a better place, increasing a company’s profit margin, or both. In addition, when we ask students to take on roles different than themselves or their experiences, it’s more than just an empathy-building exercise of “walking in someone else’s shoes” (which has it’s place, says the community advocate!). Students have the opportunity to regularly consider alternative perspectives on a topic, which in turn, builds appreciation of and creates value in the expertise and experiences other stakeholders bring to the table. It also increases their ability to develop more robust and well-received solutions or innovations that have the potential to advance, well um the whole wide world.

Ways of Working: Collaboration and Communication


Once the student team agrees upon their project, the purchase and marketing of a healthy snacks vending machine, their teacher has them complete a skills survey. Each student identifies skills they could contribute to their team. For example, Ben the business owner can create graphs using spreadsheets. Pat the project manager is good at internet research and locating helpful resources. Shawn the Social Media Guru can master almost any computer software.

As the group plans their work going forward, they draw upon their experiences to fulfill their roles. Pat helps Ben find business proposal templates online. Ben helps Shawn graph the results of their Facebook poll. Shawn helps Pat create a project plan in a Google Docs spreadsheet.


Collaboration goes far beyond the simple delegation of tasks for the purpose of completing the project faster or “building in more efficiencies.” This project supports true collaboration in that it first offers students the tools and space to reflect upon their skills and desired contributions to the team. In addition, it fosters discussion among team members about how they can support (not compete against) each other to complete this project.

Why do you want to collaborate with these future 21st Century coworkers?
First, everyone wants to work among supportive colleagues who know their stuff. These 21st Century team members are likely to be more self-aware about which of their skills are strong and which need further development (and I am not talking about being a perfectionist or being too determined – haha!). When planning, they are able to identify gaps in expertise and articulate what training, resources, or personnel are necessary to carry out a successful project. As managers, they coordinate diverse sets of expertise and leverage staff members’ experiences and relationships in order to build and lead well-rounded, interdisciplinary teams. Of course, these teams are poised to change the whole wide world!


It’s presentation day. The team has completed their business proposal. They submitted it to their teacher via Dropbox. They have just finalized the graphics in their Executive Summary. They plan to hand this out to the school board, PTA, and parents in attendance. The video is all set to show and Shawn is double-checking the technology to make sure the Twitter back channel is ready to go. (#toomuch?)


Authentic audience is the cornerstone of project-based learning (PBL). Not only does it raise the bar for student learning, but it is also likely to motivate higher quality work than traditional classroom assignments (e.g., 5-paragraph persuasive essay). With an authentic audience, students are encouraged to be relevant and generate communications consistent with today’s work products. Students can experiment with today’s media tools, and hopefully begin to establish a positive digital footprint. Most importantly, students are able to give voice and personality to their work and showcase meaningful connections between what they learn in school and their media-rich lives.

Why connect with these creative 21st Century communicators?
When provided the opportunity to engage in a variety of communication modes, 21st Century team members become better able to adapt their organization’s messages to different audiences. Their day-to-day communications, which can range from texts to video conferences to in-person meetings, remain professional, yet personable. Armed with a portfolio of real work products, such as proposals, web pages, and blogs, these team members are more likely to engage niche audiences with compelling content. More importantly, they are able convert those interactions into transactions, such as the purchase of products and services or donations toward a noble cause. And yes, all 21st Century workers should be able to craft a 140 characters or less message that can potentially change the whole wide world.

This blog post is intended to be a simple thought experiment to remind us that what and how students learn in the classroom can influence how they perform in the workplace – as staff members, managers, or entrepreneurs. As we advance toward higher standards of learning and seek to develop (and resource) more effective teaching practices, let us pause and imagine ourselves and our students as 21st Century colleagues. Then as teachers, professors, parents, students, and workers, let’s ask for or commit to creating opportunities that inspire and nurture the ways of thinking and working that will change our whole wide world.

1 thought on “A Thought Experiment: From Classroom Learning to 21st Century Working

  1. brudolph

    Last year my daughter’s son Reed was in the third grade in Lake Mary, Florida. His classroom was set up as a model city. At the beginning of the year the students “applied” for jobs such as banker, mayor, etc. To apply you had to write a resume stating real life experience as to why you should hold this position. Reed was disappointed that he did not get banker, after all his resume stated he always was the banker during Monopoly and he had his own savings that he managed to buy things he wanted! I won’t go into the details of the classroom project but the jobs had expected duties and skills and you could be “fired or replaced”! There were weekly “town meetings” where upcoming activities were consulted upon and each “employee” had a role to play.
    The class took their project very seriously, so you can see this idea of classroom learning to 21st century workplace can be adapted to all age levels. Thank you again, Erica for giving us food for thought!

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