Today’s 21st century learner excels in a learner-centered environment. Often called digital natives, these 21st century learners are much more comfortable using resources to access and use information to generate questions, solve problems, and communicate ideas. Marc Prensky, Education Specialist, coined this term to describe a generation of students who are “native speakers of technology, fluent in the digital language of computers, video games and the internet” (Prensky, 2005). In order to teach effectively to this generation, teachers must be willing to give up their spotlight and let the students be actively involved in inquiry based learning, communication of ideas, critical thinking and problem solving. Engaging students in active learning requires teachers to work hard behind the scenes to design lesson plans and assessments that facilitate a learner centered environment.
The 21st century learner prefers collaborative and cooperative work as a means to acquire knowledge. They are used to online spaces that invite online communication to share ideas and creative work. Bringing this culture of collaboration into the classroom means teachers have to communicate differently and in the language and style of the digital natives in their classroom (Prensky 2001). Today’s students also need to be adequately prepared for the information age, students must practice accessing information, evaluating sources, synthesizing the material and communicating information in various formats. Authentic research tasks and assignments are essential for gaining information literacy skills, but these require teachers to give up the primary role of information disseminator. Students need ample opportunities to find information on their own and use that information in authentic tasks.
Aside from engaging students, the learner-centered classroom is also important for developing students who are prepared for careers, college and citizenship. Educational researcher Tony Wagner determined seven survival skills needed by students in order to be prepared for life after high school. Through interviews with CEO’s and analysis of the needs of the global economy, Wagner describes many skills that can best be developed through learner-centered classrooms. Critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration across networks, adaptability, initiative and entrepreneurialism, accessing and analyzing information and curiosity and imagination are some of these important skills.
Creating a learner-centered classroom does not mean that direct instruction with the focus on the teacher is never needed. Some parts of a lesson require a lecture in order to deliver content directly to students. However, these moments of direct instruction are limited, concise and embedded in a lesson that is moving toward student application of information.