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Innovative Teaching and Learning (ITL) research: A global look at pedagogies for 21st century skills

Around the world, policymakers and educators have high hopes for ICT in the classroom as a springboard to students’ “21st century skills”—that combination of competencies in solving problems, collaborating, thinking critically, and managing their own learning that we know is needed for success in the global workplace. But again and again, we see a gap between how this type of teaching and learning is described in policy documents and the pedagogy that most students experience. Often, teachers want to teach in these new ways but are missing the supports they most need to make it happen.

To address this gap, the 3-year ITL (Innovative Teaching and Learning) Research project was designed to study teaching practices that support students’ learning of 21st century skills and the system of supports that can help teachers to adopt those practices. The research was carried out in a uniquely diverse set of seven countries:  Australia, Indonesia, Russia, Finland, Senegal, England, and Mexico. The project was sponsored by Microsoft Partners in Learning and in-country sponsors, with rigorous research methods designed by SRI International and carried out by leading research organizations within each country. While the participating countries have very different education systems and histories of innovation, the research was able to look across them: what do the necessary supports for innovative teaching in Indonesia and Finland have in common?

Key findings include:

  • The learning activities make a difference. Across countries and classrooms, the characteristics of assigned classroom activities strongly predicted the 21st century skills that students exhibited in their work. Students are much more likely to learn to solve real-world problems and collaborate productively with their peers, for example, if their learning activities are carefully designed to offer opportunities for them to do these things. This finding suggests that professional development for innovative teaching might begin with lesson design.

  • ICT has great potential for supporting innovative pedagogies, but it is not a magic ingredient. In classrooms visited in this research, when students were using ICT they were most likely to be using it to support traditional instructional activities like looking up information and learning procedures. Activities like these are often the easiest places to start when teachers integrate ICT into instruction, but they are unlikely to help students learn more deeply, in contrast to activities like using ICT to access and analyze multiple data sources, explore visualizations of complex phenomena that are difficult to see with the naked eye, or collaborate in new ways with peers. This finding suggests that when considering ICT it is important to focus not on flash but on the student learning and 21st century skills that ICT can enable.

  • Important school-level supports tend to be present in schools with higher concentrations of innovative teaching. Based on survey data, in schools where teachers reported higher average levels of innovative teaching practices, they also tended to report:

    • a higher frequency of teacher collaboration around teaching;

    • professional development opportunities that were sustained and hands-on (such as practicing teaching methods or conducting research) rather than one-time and passive (such as attending a lecture-based workshop or observing a demonstration);

    • access to technology within the classroom, rather than solely in stand-alone lab settings; and

    • a professional culture aligned to support innovation, reflection, and meaningful discourse about new teaching practices.

  • Coherent systemic support is also essential. Disconnects between policy mandates/supports and desired practice were found in most of the schools and all of the systems in our sample. For example, teachers were often being asked to innovate while being incented and judged solely by measures of the facts that students had acquired through traditional means, or given ICT to use without related curricular materials and models for ways to use it powerfully and effectively in subject matter learning. It was rare that teachers experienced standards, curriculum, professional development, assessments, and incentives that all aligned to support the development of students’ 21st century skills.


Source:  ITL 2010-11 Learning Activities and Student Work, across 6 countries; based on analysis by SRI International

Researchers collected samples of teachers’ learning activities and the work that students completed in response to each activity. Learning activities were assigned a score from 1-4 on the depth of the learning opportunities they offered students to build each of several 21st century skills. The student work was scored from 1-4 on the degree to which those skills were exhibited. On this chart, each bubble represents the mean scores for a learning activity and its student work, and the size of the bubble represents the density of the data points.

This chart shows two things:

  • There is a strong correlation between the learning activity scores (opportunities for students to build these skills that are built into the design of the learning activity) and the skills demonstrated by the corresponding student work. Students are much more likely to learn and exercise these skills if their learning opportunities give them the chance.


  • Among the learning activities collected in this research, by far the highest number scored a (1,1): they did not provide opportunities for students to build these skills, and students did not show the skills in their work. While innovative teaching is an important goal, many students are not yet experiencing it.


The methods and findings from this research have resulted in a new professional development program called 21CLD (21st Century Learning Design). This hands-on program offers an accessible set of research-grounded definitions, rubrics and examples to help teachers recognize and strengthen the 21st century learning opportunities that their lessons offer to students. For each skill, the program expands the depth of these opportunities – not just can students work together, but are they really building the skills they need to collaborate substantively and successfully with other people? 21CLD also helps build a common language among teachers within a school, and provides a framework for the collaboration and other supports that can begin to bridge the gap between the rhetoric of 21st century learning and the real skills students will need for success in this changing world.

By Linda Shear, Director of International Studies and Ann House, Senior Research Social Scientist, Center for Technology in Learning, SRI International.

For more information, please email the authors at