We’re 20, They’re 21

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 20–21, 2009

Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College
Atlanta, Georgia

Purpose of the Presentation

This interactive presentation focused on the dilemma of 20th century instruction for 21st century students. Through comparisons of both learning styles and teaching methods, we acknowledged that educational methods have changed over time. The professoriate needs to adapt accordingly to help engage and ensure the success of their students.

Characteristics of 20th Century Learners and Educators

Teachers often teach the same way that they themselves were taught. Therefore, 20th century learners were taught by teachers who were also 20th century learners. In the past, it was a common practice in colleges to use large lecture halls to conduct classes. There were typically three requirements used for grading students – a mid-term examination, a final examination, and a term paper. Classes ranged from 30 to 300 students. The usual classroom dynamic was “chalk and talk,” meaning the professor was actively lecturing the class while the students sat passively taking notes. This led to the description of the professor as the “sage on the stage.” The student was completely responsible for his or her own individual learning and work. Students read the textbooks and class notes in order to memorize material for tests. There was no group work or projects, and everyone was graded on an individual basis.

Characteristics of 21st Century Learners and Educators

As time passed, the dynamic of the classroom shifted due to the addition of technology available to both teachers and students. Today’s professor is considered a “guide on the side,” unlike the professors of the past century who were the central focus of the lesson. Presently, students are the focus of the lesson. All teachers are expected to differentiate instruction so that it appeals to the multiple intelligences of their students (Gardiner, 1999). Because 21st century learners belong to the Me Generation, this technique of differentiated instruction appeals to them. These diverse students want differentiation, choice of assignments, and multiple ways to provide examples of their personally acquired knowledge. Therefore, 21st century educators need to utilize a wide array of teaching methods. Educators are proposing more problem-solving assessments in order to prepare their students for real life and work-related scenarios. These learners are expected to think independently while collaborating with others to accomplish solutions in the classroom. Students are influenced to accept diversity among their peers as they take pride in their personal individuality.

Ways to Adapt

One of the authors of this article shares her experiences in making the transition to a 21st century teaching style. Dr. Joan Tropnas had been a professional in the field of Human Services for two decades prior to entering academia. Dr. Tropnas came to the faculty with knowledge of basic Internet skills but no proficiency in utilizing her limited abilities in a classroom. When she became a faculty member at St. John’s University, Queens, NY, and Director of the Human Services Program, she quickly learned of the expectations that she had not foreseen. The university had invested a great deal of money to upgrade classrooms to accommodate Internet-use, as well as other types of technology. Several years prior to her arrival, the campus had been adapted for wireless Internet use. All undergraduate students entering the university were given laptops for their individual use as part of their tuition fees. Professors were also provided with laptops when hired. In addition, the university had developed a program entitled “The Portable Professor” that was specifically designed to educate professors on how to use technology in the classrooms. Having made this type of investment, the university was prepared to offer 21st century teaching and assisted the faculty in developing the necessary skills to provide it.

After Dr. Tropnas completed several courses with “The Portable Professor,” she was able to use the podium in the classroom to deliver technology that enhanced classroom activities. She discovered that having a discussion on a current topic becomes far more dynamic when one can readily call upon information from the web, show a news clip, or watch breaking news. She found that this not only engages students, but becomes a shared activity in which students can bring their own resources as well. Group activities can be better evaluated when each student blogs or chats about his or her contributions. This entire adaption to 21st century teaching and learning requires the professor to be open and allows the students to become more skilled in these activities. Acquiring these skills is less of a challenge for the students than the professors. The students were born in the Internet age and have grown up using this technology. On the other hand, the professors have had to learn the computer skills which are essential.

Dr. Thelma Baxter came to Manhattan College after serving as superintendent of District 5 in Harlem. Her computer skills were minimal at best. Using the resources of the college through Jasper Educational Technology (JET), Dr. Baxter acquired technological knowledge through one-on-one tutoring and attending several college workshops. This training allowed her to create assignments that required students to utilize PowerPoint, Web quests and Webliographies, which they could some day use in their own classrooms.

Nancy Phillip, a Manhattan College graduate, was a student teacher at the elite Bronx High School of Science. Upon graduation, Nancy was hired to teach there for more than two years. However, during that two-year span, she used the “chalk and talk” method of instruction, and never utilized computers. Today, Nancy is a math teacher at IN-Tech Academy, Bronx, NY. Every classroom has a full set of computers for student use and all teachers are utilizing technology and smart boards.

In addition, we have found that in order for the professors to engage millennial students, they must be accessible. This means that professors not only hold office hours, but utilize e-mail, text messaging, and even share their personal cell phone numbers with their students. Constant communication is essential for effective 21st century classes. Students and their professors are blogging, forming discussion groups, and sharing lesson plans and assignments online. Now, even the grading roster is an online document for all to access. In the classroom, there ought to be a full integration of technology. Professors are using smart boards and podcasts. Students are frequently assigned to produce web quests, webliographies, as well as eportfolios of their class material. Teachers must seize all opportunities to enhance their skills with current technology in the classroom.


What we have found is that teaching is no longer a “sage on the stage” or one person show. Not only do students expect more interaction with their professors, but it is imperative that professors adapt to the technologies that benefit the classroom. Overall, we suggest that using the various facets of 21st century teaching enhances learning. We also believe that rather than isolating students from one another, technological tools facilitate communication and can broaden worldviews. The main issue for those of us who were taught and have taught during the 20th century is to readily move with confidence into this new educational millennium.


Armstrong, D. G., Henson, K.T. & Savage, T.V. (2009). Teaching Today: An Introduction to Education. 8th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Fitzpatrick, C. & Lienert, C. (2009). Future Directions for Technology in Schools. Using Technology in 21st Century Schools. Eds. William Merriman & Augustine Nicoletti. 1st ed. Vol 1. Washington D.C.: National Catholic Educational Association. 169-186.

Gardiner, H. (1999). Intelligence reframed: Multiple intelligences for the 21st century. New York: Basic Books.

McCarthy, P. (2009). Why use Technology to Promote Learning. Using Technology in 21st Century Schools. Eds. William Merriman & Augustine Nicoletti. 1st ed. Vol. 1.Washington D.C.: National Catholic Educational Association. 17-27.

Merriman, W. & Nicoletti, A. (2007). Teaching Millennial. Momentum. 28-31.

Parkay, F. W. & Stanford, B. (2004). Teaching with Technology. Becoming a Teacher. 6th ed. New York: Allyn and Bacon. 386-427.

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