Published Online: September 10, 2013

First Person

No More Excuses: Teaching 21st-Century Skills in a Low-Tech Setting

After a long day of middle school melodrama, I was running late to a district-led teacher-leadership meeting. I found the last seat in the front of the room. My tattered satchel dropped to the floor with a thud as I took my seat opposite a colleague from another school. She laughed as she reached down to scoop up the 100 or so papers that had escaped my bag and littered the floor beneath our table.

“You’ve really gotta get your kids to email you their papers. It’s so much easier,” she said as she flipped through the first couple of crinkled sheets.

I scoffed in reply as I noticed a Dorito-stained fingerprint on one of the sheets and another so poorly handwritten I could barely make out the name in the top right corner. I shoved them back in my bag, suddenly feeling defensive.

“No, really,” she continued. “How are you going to teach them those 21st-century skills if you’re still letting them turn in wadded-up, hand-written essays? Emailing, texting, social networking—it’s what all the kids are doing these days anyway. You might as well tap into it.”

Sure, I wanted to reply, it’s what your kids are doing these days. But not mine.

The Resource Gap

When you teach at a school where most of the kids are on free and reduced lunch, access to home computers, expensive Internet services, and spendy smart phones is limited, to say the least. And, when you teach at a school where $100 makes for a successful PTA fundraiser, the computers are hand-me-downs, the budget for photocopies barely gets a teacher through the first quarter, and the front of the room still contains a whiteboard instead of a screen, using the technology that has become so prevalent at other schools in other districts just isn’t possible. So, to suggest my students email me their work is like suggesting teachers really do get their summers off.

Ideas for Teaching 21st-Century Skills Without Technology:


Table-Top Blog: Start by having each student write his or her ideas about a topic (like they would on an online blog) on a piece of notebook paper at their desk. Have students leave their piece of paper at their desk and find a new seat. At their new seat, students read the original thought on the piece of paper and then respond by commenting, asking questions, or adding to their peer’s idea. Have students rotate around until each student has multiple points of view to consider. Once students go back to their original seats, they should have many perspectives to use to refine or reinforce their original idea.


Synthesis Summary: Students read the same text and summarize the text in writing in their own words. Students are then put in groups where they read each other’s summaries out loud. Together, they write a summary of the text using the collective ideas of the group.

Critical Thinking

Socratic Questioning: Foster students’ critical thinking by responding to all student answers with further questions. Treat all student thinking as thinking in need of further development. Stimulate student thinking—through thoughtful questioning—to make connections to other thoughts, contexts, and situations. Probe—ask students to explain their thinking, connect to experiences, and provide background for their thoughts. Allow students the time needed to follow through with a thought and develop it deeply. Resist the temptation to give the answer in order to “move on” to the next topic, concept, or activity.

Creative Innovation

Brainstorm Improvements: Have students start by brainstorming improvements to something concrete and tangible, such as their desks. They might brainstorm things like seat cushions, arm rests, foot stools, drink dispensers, etc. Ideas can be fanciful but must also be practical. Next, have students brainstorm improvements to places, such as school. They might brainstorm things like longer lunch periods, looser rules, shorter classes, etc. Finally, once students have the hang of it, have them brainstorm improvements to something intangible, like an idea presented by an author or philosopher. Connect this intangible to a skill or concept you’re teaching. Ask probing questions (see above) about these improvements and have students apply their improvements to their own work when possible.

Instead, I said nothing, and allowed my colleague to go on and explain to me how she was teaching 21st-century skills in her very affluent, very white, very tech-y school. Like me, she taught 8th grade language arts. And, like me, she was trying to get her students to write for authentic audiences and purposes. To do this, she had each student create a Google account and use Google Docs to write a book report. From there, her students invited other students from across the district and, eventually, across the country, to comment and collaborate on their work.

However, as she continued speaking, despite the obvious discrepancies between our schools, I became inspired. I vowed to give her idea a try in my own classroom. Besides, she was right: How would I teach 21st-century skills if I didn’t at least try to get my students on a computer?

Eager, I signed up for my school's computer lab the very next day. While I knew our computers were by no means cutting edge—most were missing keys and the monitors took up approximately the same amount of room as 30 microwaves—they had an Internet connection and that was all we needed. When we arrived to the lab the following day, I instructed my students to “use the address bar to go to Google and scroll down to click to create an account.” Some students started slowly tapping the keys with their index fingers. Some students asked me what an address bar was. Some told me they didn’t see a scroll. And most just blankly stared at me. We spent the remainder of the class period going over the basics of the Internet, as the harsh reality of the cuts my school made to the now non-existent computer science department sunk in. Sixty minutes were gone before we ever got to creating Google accounts.

The next day, the lab was booked for testing. And the entire week after that. Determined, I checked out the laptop cart that the school had recently purchased through a grant. The cart was locked in a secret room with a secret combination that I had to beg the secretary to share with me. It buzzed with the hum of 30 laptops as I awkwardly rolled the cart to my classroom, dodging corners and carpet, eager to show my students what I’d secured.

The laptops were glorious! Their keys were intact. Their screens were clean. And aside from a few inappropriate screen savers—a gift from the previous class that had used them—they worked great…until fourth period. At that point, the batteries were all dead. Frantic, I ran from classroom to classroom, mustering up as many power strips as I could, only to return with a measly handful. By the time I could get back to the lab or check out the cart again, the unit I was teaching was over.

A Shift in Focus

With each day that went by that I didn’t incorporate screens into my instruction, my students, I felt, fell further behind from their peers in richer districts where the resources were plentiful and the use of those resources was as intuitive as smiling or laughing (both of which I imagined those students and teachers were constantly doing as they basked in the light of their powered-on monitors). I found myself becoming more and more resentful of those teachers and those students who appeared to have the edge. How could we ever compete with them? How would my students compare to those drenched in technology? How would working in a school with limited resources reflect on my effectiveness as a teacher?

As I wallowed in the unfairness of it all and finger-pointed my way to believing all was lost, what I really lost was valuable days of instruction where, in fact, I could have been teaching my students the 21st-century skills they needed all along—without a computer in sight. I realized that it wasn’t technology that was coming between my students and those in wealthier schools, it was me. The injustice, the hypocrisy, the outrage I felt towards every person and situation I could blame for my school’s lack of technology couldn’t compare to the guilt I felt when I realized that it was me, all along, holding my students back and contributing to the gap that already existed.

What snapped me out of my computer-less fog was an article from the National Education Association about the four critical elements for student learning in the 21st century: collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creative innovation. As I reflected on this article, I started to brainstorm all the lessons I was currently doing that had those elements. At first, I could think of a lot of lessons that touched on one or more of those elements: a classroom debate that required communication and critical thinking, a group activity that relied on collaboration, a project that utilized creative innovation. As I watched my list grow, I became encouraged by the fact that I was teaching 21st-century skills to my students. Maybe they weren’t going to be as far behind as I previous thought!

While my lessons certainly had traces of “the four C’s,” however, they weren’t intentionally created with those elements in mind. To say these lessons taught 21st-century skills was like saying a lesson is standards-based when it just happens to touch on a part of a standard. Motivated by my new understanding, I took the next day’s lesson plan and redesigned it to focus on communication. My previous lesson consisted of a class discussion; the new lesson used a “table-top blog” (see box). And, after seeing the results from my students (more writing than some had ever done in their life and more participation from students I usually had to bribe with candy to speak), I stopped focusing on the technology and started focusing on the skills.

Paper Tools

The next week, students sat back to back, passing a piece of paper back and forth using a series of written “tweets” to summarize an article we were reading. The following week, we created a class wiki using butcher paper and colored pencils to show how we built background knowledge before reading The Call of the Wild. Once in a while, we got into the computer lab or had the laptops, but these tools were just that: tools. They didn’t drive my instruction. They didn’t hinder me or get in the way of my teaching. When they were available, great! When they weren’t, it wasn’t a big deal. I continued teaching my students the skills they needed for the 21st century; I taught the thinking they’d need to do to compete with their peers. I didn’t focus on teaching the tools. Besides, who’s to say these tools would even be in existence in 10 years? (Remember pagers?) But the skills needed to use them, I’m confident, will remain vital.

When I made the shift in my instruction from tools to skills, my students made a shift, too. They wrote more. They collaborated more. They thought more. And, as one would suspect, they learned more. They went from having a surface-level understanding of a tool, like an online discussion board, to a deep conceptual understanding of the skills that hide behind such a tool. Their understanding about purposes for communication evolved from “because my teacher said to write this” to “because I have something important to say and others should hear me out.” By teaching these skills, my students found value in a voice they didn’t know they had and an audience in each other that they didn’t know existed.

At the end of the day, I still taught at a school with limited resources and students who lacked access to the digital tools often taken for granted in other schools. However, I refused to let this be the excuse for why my students could fall behind those students. And, when the state assessment results came back that year, it was obvious that my students refused to let that be their excuse either.

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