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10th edition




he contemporary education system could become irrelevant
if the educational gap between how students live and how
students learn is not filled. This new generation of learners
requires fast access to new knowledge and are capable of
taking integrated information to a new level. Learners in
the 21st century have the opportunity to use the internet
as a base to easily collect information. While in the 21st century
classroom, the focus is no longer on memorising and recalling
facts, but rather on functional learning (where the students learn
by “doing”).
Learners of the 21st century are educated with the intention of
them becoming productive citizens in a democratic society in
terms of what is required in the 21st century workplace. As a result,
these learners possess certain characteristics that are part of
the new millennium. These come with new challenges for the 21st
century teacher.
In this article we first look at these characteristics of the
learners of the 21st century, and then at the challenges these pose
for the teachers. Lastly, we draw attention to the way traditional
education must adapt to the 21st century learners together with
solutions to these challenges.


The characteristics of 21st century learners are discussed in four
l The technological learner l don’t use their imagination, seldom read books and have
l The less technological learner smaller vocabularies. They also use short communication
l The all-knowing learner styles, possess ineffective reading skills and have poor
l The literate learner spelling abilities.

1. THE TECHNOLOGICAL LEARNER However, positive characteristics have also been identified for the
The 21st century learners are referred to as the “screen generation” learners of the 21st century, namely:
because they are so much more visually oriented than any l better coordination and motor skills and more accessible
generation before them. Because of the over use of technology, internet use.
the following negative characteristics of the 21st century learner l use wiki’s, blogs, mind maps on Bubble Us and can make
have been identified. movies on “Microsoft Movie Maker”.
l have a lot more foreknowledge than any other generation
The 21st century learners: before them as a result of access to the internet.
l are attention deficit because they are not accustomed to l are able to apply theoretical knowledge in society because
interruptions. they learn by “doing”.

l have a metacognitive awareness, where learners are taught or have a hard time learning to recognise the words at a younger
to think about how they learn. age, it will be extraordinarily difficult for these learners to transfer
new knowledge.
2. THE LESS-TECHNOLOGICAL LEARNER The all-knowing learner as a challenge for teachers
Although there are learners that become more technologically It is already determined that self-directed learning is a
literate every day, the reality in South Africa is that there are also characteristic of 21st century learning. Learners’ 21st century
those learners who are not so fortunate. Although technological skills should be nurtured and the learners should be helped to
advances for the education system have been made, it is easy to change what they learn into a lifelong pattern of deeper study.
think that all schools enjoys these advantages According to the This characteristic of self-directed learning, however, can be a
National Education Infrastructure Management System (2015) there challenge for the teacher because s/he will not be sure about
are 913 schools in South-Africa that no even have electricity readily the class’ level of knowledge is. It can be a demanding task for
available. The question is this: How will these learners participate teachers to assess the knowledge each student has gained from
in the larger world operations if they do not have access to self-directed learning.
technology? The answer is easy: the characteristics of the 21st The literate learner as a challenge for teachers
century learner are not only based on technological progress, Although the 21st century learners have these different forms of
but also communication skills. These learners’ innovation skills, literacy, it is the duty of the teachers to try inclusively incorporate
however, can be improved because these learners do not repeat all of the learners’ literacies in their teaching. When specifically
other people’s ideas, but instead use their own common sense and looking at communication skills, it is obvious that not all learners
introduce new interesting perspectives to the world. communicate and learn in the same way. Some learners can
interact and communicate well, but when it comes to academic
3. THE ALL-KNOWING LEARNER writing, they use shortened language forms such as is used in
The 21st century learner knows “everything”! It is said that the 21st SMSs and on Facebook for example. This practice can lead to poor
century learner has on the following three types of knowledge: word and general knowledge. It then becomes the teacher’s job
l Declarative knowledge (knowledge about themselves and to ensure that the learners understand that there is something
other learners)) generally accepted as the standard language and that this should
l Procedural knowledge (knowledge of strategies) rather be used as the academic language.
l Conditional knowledge (knowledge about which strategy to
These are important characteristics of 21st century learners When speaking for the 21st century learner, the traditional
because the learners can use this knowledge outside of the education system should be adjusted to provide order to the
classroom context. Self-discipline in study is another important demanding needs of modern learners.
trait that these learners possess. These learners expect The following recommendations are made to reduce the excessive
interaction and are highly sociable. use of technology, namely:
l Be strict and limit the times the learners spend on computers,
4. THE LITERATE LEARNER and do not let the learners hold the screens too close to their
Learners of the 21st century possess communication skills, are faces.
adaptable and innovative and can easily solve complex problems. l Along with the advancement of technology, physical exercise
They are comfortable working with technology in order to broaden should also enjoy some attention. Let the learners play
their knowledge. The 21st century learner also has civic literacy outdoors because it illuminates the near-point stress and
(are informed about government organisations), global awareness, supports the visual system.
financial literacy, healthy literacy, environmental literacy, visual l Because the modern learners are technologically literate,
literacy, cooperative association, critical thinking and problem it would be seen as a strong point for the teachers to
solving skills and show creativity and innovation. These learners incorporate it into the lessons.
possess more qualities of leadership and accountability, have l It is important for the learners to be actively involved in
media skills and have technological literacy. learning activities, and to therefore ensure that the learners
flourish in a learner-centred classroom.
l The ideal classroom of the 21st century includes having these
CHALLENGES FACED BY TEACHERS learners’ needs provided for in regards to the learning of
Technological challenges for teachers concepts, so that these learners become productive citizens
Technology has many advantages for education, but it can also and contribute to the democratic system and that learners
be used for negative activities. Prof Jannie Ferreira, former head will be able to form their own opinions.
of the Optometry department at the University of Johannesburg,
warns that learners who spend too much time on tablets and Finally, it is clear that the 21st century learner is woven out of these
cellphones can fall behind in learning physical - by developing different characteristics that together connect to a larger order–
problems with their eyesight. It is a problem for the teacher the world.
because the learner will first struggle to concentrate. Secondly,
it is a challenge for teachers because the learners experiencing
impaired vision will struggle to read and write. Reading and writing Article prepared by Dr Annelie Oosthuizen, ATKV-project organiser:
forms the basis of the entire education system and when learners Education, with acknowledgement of: Amoré Blignaut, B.Ed.-
are struggling to read and write because they have trouble seeing, Student, University of Johannesburg, for research support.

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