The 21st Century Learning Project

  • Research Lab

What We Do

The aim of the 21st Century Learning Project is to create a framework of a common language, theory, and operational plan for societies to promote citizens’ learning in the 21st century. This framework will organize an expanding global network of engaged partners collaborating in an iterative process of refinement, application, and expansion.

Individually and collectively, the lives of children and teenagers growing up in the 21st century are very different from the lives their parents led in the 20th century. As individuals, and as a generation, they face extraordinary challenges (e.g., climate change, inequality) and astonishing opportunities (e.g., globe-spanning networks). Many possess tools unimaginable in their parents’ day, along with permission to pursue their dreams. Many enjoy time and freedom to play, learn, and explore. Most share two common problems. First, public school is not preparing them for life in the 21st century. Second, this condition not likely to change. We believe a new model for school is needed. This project develops that hypothesis and builds tools to support its deployment.

Well-intended governance and policy experts tend to see the education system through a “top-down” model of action and decision-making. This is reflected, in part, by more than three decades of standard-based reforms, assessments, and accountability. Teachers are required by government agencies to implement a common, proficiency-focused instructional program composed of thousands of discrete standards. Students are required to meet many proficiency benchmarks determined by state agencies. Over time, the number of specific standards has grown very large. In short, teachers are pressed to deliver overwhelming amounts of information to enormous numbers of students to fulfill common standards for proficiency across a vast K-12 curriculum. Educators are consumed by pacing guides, timetables, and testing.

These requirements drive an extraordinary amount of activity, but busyness in schools obscures basic questions about what are students learning; why, how, and where they learn; their interests and goals for learning and for life; and the needs of communities in the 21st century. When these questions are examined with data, the observed mismatch is striking — stagnant test scores; rising inequality; declining student engagement; deepening social and mental health concerns; significant losses due to the pandemic and ineffective distance learning; erosion of teachers’ motivation and energy; and a dearth of substantive, scaleable, transformative plans to make things better.

Students and teachers create learning in the moment, in the interactions they have with one another and questions that invite their interest. In these moments, students and teachers experience the full force of “deep learning” — prioritizing agency, relevance, relationships, autonomy, and plans for the future. Students and teachers are sending signals — in test scores, mental health concerns, and disengagement — that the current model for school is mismatched to present and future needs.


The dire condition of public education worldwide will not improve without a viable, resilient, scalable, bottoms-up plan for redesigning schools around the goals and strengths of students and educators. Believing such a plan is both essential and within reach, we are collaborating  with students, teachers, researchers, like-minded organizations, and influencers as we build, and scale a plan for education that meets the needs and challenges of the 21st century.

Our plan is based upon this set of hypotheses: When systems of education respect and properly resource the individual strengths and interests of students and teachers, and schools support learning in a system redesigned for bottoms-up learning, we predict students will be happier, more productive, more confident, and better prepared for life in the 21st century. The aim of school, in this model, is to better prepare students for a life of learning that is intensely personalized and collaborative.

Several projects are currently in planning stages to support the hypothesis. If you’re interested, we’ll be happy to discuss them.

Lab Team

Robert C Pianta

Robert C. Pianta

  • Batten Bicentennial Professor of Early Childhood Education

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