21 Characteristics of 21st Century Learners

Whether you are a teacher, a parent, an aunt or an uncle, it is important to know that today’s students are wildly different in some ways, from past generations.

21st Century learners…

  1. Want to have a say in their education. They’ll respond better when their voices are heard.
  2. Often have higher levels of digital literacy than their parents or teachers. They don’t know a world without computers.
  3. Expect transparency in their parents, teachers and mentors. They’ll see right through you. (Makes it really hard to plan a surprise birthday party for them!)
  4. Want you to tell them when you have messed up, apologize for it, and move on. Everyone messes up. No big deal. Just don’t try to hide it. If you do, they are likely to post it on Facebook.
  5. Don’t care as much about having a job as they do about making a difference. The very concept of a “job” has changed so much in the past decade, the future is about making a difference.
  6. Demand the freedom to show their wild creativity. 21st century learners balk at rote learning and memorizing. They’ll do it if you make them, but be prepared to let them loose to be creative, too.
  7. Want to connect with others in real time on their own terms. They want their social media, their phones and their mobile technology. They want to be connected. All the time. In a way that makes sense to them (not necessarily to you).
  8. Collaborate amazingly well. They love teamwork and figuring things out with their friends.
  9. Really can multi-task. To do other wise is… yawn! Bo-ring!
  10. Appreciate a “trial and error” approach to learning new skills. Thank you, video-game industry.
  11. Learn by doing. Just try making them sit down and learn from you by watching. See what happens.
  12. Have a “can do” attitude. Of course, they can do it, silly! There is nothing to be afraid of.
  13. Thrive in an atmosphere of controlled challenge. They must be challenged or they zone out, but they need structure, too.
  14. Have multicultural awareness and appreciation. This generation is more aware of a variety cultures, countries and ways of life than any generation before them.
  15. Open to change. Really, what’s the big deal?
  16. Are equal parts “consumer” and “creator”. Today’s learners download their own songs and apps from iTunes… and then they create their own stuff and upload it to share with others.
  17. Increasingly aware of the world around them. From the environment to politics, today’s learners are asking questions and demanding answers.
  18. Know where to go to find information. Google was first incorporated in 1998. 21st century learners have never known a world without Google.
  19. Are better educated than any generation before them. (See #17.) 21st century learners really do know more than their parents (but that doesn’t necessarily make them wiser!)
  20. Expect inter-disciplinarity. It is we, the older generation, who organize topics into “subjects”. The 21st century learner understands that subjects are inherently interconnected. Like, duh!
  21. Know that they are the future. They look at their parents and their peers and understand that the world’s future rests in their hands. (Wouldn’t it make you just a little bit cocky, too?)


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

26 Responses to 21 Characteristics of 21st Century Learners

  1. NIKOLI Burgher says:

    I am a student at Short wood Teachers’ College i am from Jamaica in the West indies this is really helpful towards my research.

  2. Ndai Diang Prisca says:

    I am Ndai Diang Prisca a Cameroonian born and a masters students at the university of Buea in Cameroon. I am doing a masters degree in Curriculum studies and Teaching. One of the assignments I had for the Christmas break was to find out the characteristics of learners. In fact I sincerely appreciate the work you have done. May God richly bless your efforts in this new year 2013. I am equally a teacher in a secondary school by name St Paul’s College Bonjongo- Limbe Cameroon. Imagine useful this work is for me. I will not only use it for my assignment but will equally apply them in my class situations. from your work I will always be aware of the learners I have before me.
    How I wish I could serve you an invitation to visit my country Cameroon.

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  4. Tony, your comparative project in Turkey sounds like an interesting undertaking, and comparisons with Sarah’s list of characteristics should be informative.
    Of course, if we are to gain an even fuller impression of contemporary learners, further studies in other countries might be worthwhile.
    Please let me know your plans and, eventually, your findings, as it might be possible for me to carry out a study here in Taiwan as well.

    One small point – we should be cautious with how widely we extrapolate results for one particular population to that of an entire country. For example, while Sarah’s experiences are based in Canadian institutions, not all Canadians will attend these either, particularly some living more remotely from major towns and cities.

    At the same time, I believe her list (and associated research) is very valuable for our own thinking and pedagogical approaches. The urgency of this is equally important in Confucian based education systems – still often found in several Asian countries.

    Best of luck, Greg.

  5. […] is based in Canada and she had done an amazing list of characteristics of the 21st Century LEARNer – and where I had only managed to come up with 10 or so (even when I was on intravenous […]

  6. Hi again Sarah.
    As I’ve mentioned already, there is much substance in these points.
    Possibly part of the confusion, though, might be put down to which populations of learners you are talking about.
    Are you referring to elementary school children, high school, or university level students? Are you referring to students in developed countries or developing ones?
    For example, I can think of many countries where computers and the Internet are still almost non-existent; where an education may not be available at all or only at primary level; where students know nothing of the world or cultures (and have never travelled) outside of their village.
    Perhaps clarifying these points would help other readers and provide a framework within which to examine your statements.
    Just a thought,

    • Thanks, Greg for the food for thought. Over the past 12 months, I’ve done work in K-12 schools, one high school, two universities and some adult education classes. The post was specifically about the millennial generation in developed countries. Thanks for making me think more deeply about this.

    • The daughter of a friend of mine visited a remote village in Africa on a mission. She kept her cell phone and all of her electronic devices at home, thinking she would likely not be in a position to use them. One of the villagers learned she was on Facebook and got excited. See, even if there is no direct computer access to a home, what she learned was that once a month, they get to go to the nearest center that has an Internet cafe and access a computer. So now they are connected on Facebook. Never judge a book by its cover.

    • Tony Gurr says:


      This exactly what I was thinking as I read Sarah’s list (she has saved me a pile of work as I was getting ready to do something similar on my own blog).

      I work in Turkey – one of the most rapidily emerging economies on the block. The country has launched a very aggressive, technologically-driven programme of ed reform recently – and I am very interested in 21C skills for teachers. When I saw the list – one of my first thoughts was to try and get teachers here to see how we might compare to the US or Europe. This is what I will be asking my co-bloggers here 😉

      Take care,


  7. Tony Gurr says:

    Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for this great list. I’m doing a mini-series on the “21C Teacher” right now:

    Pt 01 – http://wp.me/p1mfp4-TK

    Pt 02 – http://wp.me/p1mfp4-Vl

    Pt 03 – http://wp.me/p1mfp4-Wd

    – and would love to use and credit your list (for a little thinking activity with our guys here in Turkey).

    Are you happy for me to do this?

    Take care,


  8. I will never understand why there is such a negative view by some adults about youth. They are awesome, fantastic, and if people took the time to hang out and get to know them, they would learn a LOT. The world has evolved and for the better. I cannot wait for the younger generation to take over and repeal the hate-filled world their parents have created.

    • Thanks, Debbie. I agree with you that the world had evolved for the better.

    • Tony Gurr says:

      Hi Debbie / Sarah,

      I totally agree about the negativity – I think (sadly) a lot of this comes from “fear” and “insecurity” with much of the newer digital landscape. With a lot of teachers (I am one and I work with lots of others) this is also compounded by a lack of “adaptive support” on the part of many MoEs and organisations.

      When school leaders really take the initiative and help teachers learn and grow “digitally” – it really can make a difference to the type of climate you mention. Especially, when we also realise that we can learn a lot from our kids – in and out of the classroom 😉


  9. Alfred Essa says:

    Respectfully, I disagree with a number of items on this list.

    What’s the evidence for these claims?

    Let’s take #19 for starters. This generation is woefully ignorant about the world. Most kids can’t pick out Africa on a map. Many think Europe is a country. Having grown up on video games, television, and texting doesn’t magically make one knowledgeable about the world.

    #9 is a myth. It has no basis in neuroscience. In fact, the opposite is true. Most of us, including the new generation, can’t multi-task. We have to focus our attention, particularly if we are to solve complex problems,

    #2 is misleading. They know how to use technology, but they are clueless when it comes to critical thinking and evaluation of sources. The reality is that kids today know less and less when they need to know more than ever.

    We need to stop coddling them by making they think they have a magical set of attributes.

    • Thanks very much for your comment. You’ve asked for some evidence to support these claims. I’m happy to oblige:

      #17 21st century students are increasingly aware of the world around them.
      #19 21st century students are better educated than any generation before them.

      In a study conducted by Betty Leask, an Associate Professor and Dean of Teaching and Learning in the Division of Business at the University of South Australia, she found that both domestic and international students identified “the importance of understanding other countries, cultures ande people in order to make informed decisions as memeber of a global community… There was a strong sense that the world is getting smaller due to the effects of globalisation and no matter where you live you need to be consioucs of and informed about global issues and perspectives.” (Leask (2010), p.6).

      Similarly, researchers Lamb, Roberts, Kentish and Bennett state that:

      “Awareness of the world has heightened the curiosity of students about their role in a global society. They travel across the world, absorb news from across the world and communicate with peopel from across the world.” (Lamb, Roberts, Kentish and Bennett, 2007).

      Twenty-first century students have more opportunity for global education opportunities, study abroad and student exchange programs than their parents. Technologies such as Skype allow teachers to host international guest speakers in their classroom.

      Organizatons such as the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (http://www.cilc.org) exist to encourage online global interatctions between classrooms. Teachers from different countries pair up their classes for the purposes of virtual cultural exchanges.

      Leask, B. (2010). ‘Beside me is an empty chair: The student experience of internationalisation”. In E. Jones (Ed.), Internationalisation and the student voice: higher education perspectives. New York: Routledge.

      Jones, E. (Ed.). (2010). Internationalisation and the student voice: higher education perspectives.In E. Jones (Ed.), Internationalisation and the student voice: higher education perspectives. New York: Routledge.

      Bourn, D. (2010). Students as Global Citizens. In E. Jones (Ed.), Internationalisation and the student voice: higher education perspectives (pp. 18-30). New York: Routledge.

      Lamb, A, E. Roberts, J. Kentish, and C. Bennett. 2007. Students as active global citizens. Zeitschrift fur internationale Bildungsforschung und Entwicklungspadagogik, 30 Jahrgang 1, 17–19.

      #9 – 21st century students really can multi-task

      In 2009, a group of researchers in Singapore tested 225 11-year-olds on working memory (Counting Recall, Letter Memory, and Keep Track), ability to inhibit inappropriate responses (inhibition: numeric Stroop, Stop Signal), mental flexibility (switching: Number-Letter and Plus-Minus), English literacy, and algebraic problem-solving skills (problem representation, solution generation, and other subcomponents). They found links between the interactions of the children’s working memory, literacy levels and the ability to discern quantitative information. The researchers found that children’s ability to solve problems involves simultaneously relying on active problem-solving skills and drawing on working memory.

      Two years earlier, another group of researchers looked at the behaviours of public library users in Pittsburg, USA. They found:

      “that some 63.5 percent of library users engaged in multitasking information behaviours, with a mean of 2.5 topic changes and 2.8 topics per library visit. A major finding of our study is that many people in libraries are seeking information on multiple topics and are engaged in multitasking behaviours.”

      Their findings were also published in a peer-reviewed scholarly journal.


      Lee, K., Ng, E. L., & Ng, S. F. (2009). The Contributions of Working Memory and Executive Functioning to Problem Representation and Solution Generation in Algebraic Word Problems. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(2), 373-387.

      Spink, A., Alvarado-Albertorio, F., Narayan, B., Brumfield, J., & Park, M. (2007). Multitasking Information Behaviour in Public Libraries: A Survey Study. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 39(3), pp. 177-186.

      #2 Often have higher levels of digital literacy than their parents or teachers.

      You think that kids of the 21st century are really LESS digitally literate than their parents or techers? I am fascinated that you think #2 is misleading.

      In 2010, a report from the Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education found that “technology-rich mathematics environments afford the teachers and the students in their ability to teach and learn through critical thinking”.

      In 2011, the International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology published a study by three researchers who found that students’ ability to think critically, make logical decisions and solve problems was heightened by using repetitive games. There is a growing trend in education to incorporate video game technology into curricula, as a method to sharpen learners’ problem solving abilitites (Chow, A. F., Woodford, K. C., & Maes, J., 2011). Jane McGonigal has a compelling TED talk on this topic that is worth watching.


      Chow, A. F., Woodford, K. C., & Maes, J. (2011). Deal or No Deal: Using Games to Improve Student Learning, Retention and Decision-Making. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, 42(2), 259-264.
      Suh, J. (2010). Leveraging Cognitive Technology Tools to Expand Opportunities for Critical Thinking in Elementary Mathematics. Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education.

      Brown, J.S. (2000). Growing up digital: How the Web changes work, education, and the ways people learn. Retrieved July 27, 2007, from http://www.usdla.org/html/journal/FEB02_Issue/article01.html
      McGonigal, J. (2010). Gaming Can Make a Better World. TED Talk. Retrieved Sept. 1, 2010, from http://www.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal_gaming_can_make_a_better_world.html

      You will note that all of the research noted here is 21st century research and relates directly to studies conducted in the past 12 years. In your comment you ask “What’s the evidence to support these claims”. The references provided here to scientific studies, research papers and peer-reviewed journal articles provide some evidence to back up the claims you had the biggest issues with.

      The original post was written a snapshot of the characteristics of 21st century learners. My reply to your comment represents a brief sampling of qualitiative and quantitative studies that support the claims made in the original post. There are many more studies, books and articles on these topics. As a researcher and an educator, I am excited and energized by learners of the 21st century. I have spent 18 years working in education. I am excited about what the next 18 years might bring and I look forward to working with 21st century learners in my professional journey.

  10. Julie Larson says:

    Dr. Eaton – I love this list and want to share it with other colleagues through a newsletter. May I reprint this – giving credit to you, of course – in this publication?

    Julie Larson, quality learning media consultant
    Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency
    Bettendorf, Iowa

  11. Sarah,
    Thank you so much for these thoughtful reminders of who we are really educating. It is so easy to forget and assume they learn the way we did at their age. In my case that’s almost 40 years ago.
    While I think teachers secretly desire to follow the implications of these characteristics in their classes, it is often other forces (whether administrators, traditions, or parents) that often get in the way.
    Perhaps a future post could look at some practical ideas for working with these characteristics.
    Thanks again, Greg.

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