15 Important Trends in Education

Trying to keep track of every innovation in education can be daunting. Which ones are simply…

By Andrew Bauld

Trying to keep track of every innovation in education can be daunting. Which ones are simply fads, and which can make an actual impact on teaching and student success? We’re here to help break it all down. 

We’ve rounded up 15 of the most important educational trends you need to know. Some of these might be relatively new to you, but trends like Genius Hour could be great additions to your classrooms. Others, like metacognition, have been around for decades and are just as vital as ever for students today. 

1. Collaborative Learning

Collaborative learning is when two or more students work together to learn something. At Purdue Polytechnic High School, an XQ school in Indianapolis, Indiana, students collaborate on projects to solve complex problems related to real-world issues like sustainability, public transportation, and conservation. Throughout these ambitious projects, students learn how to become self-aware team members. 

It’s a great example of how students can become Generous Collaborators, one of XQ’s core Learner Outcomes, and highlights why collaborative learning should be a part of every classroom. By providing students opportunities to work together to solve problems, understand ideas, and create new solutions, teachers prepare students with the skills to communicate and work with others with enthusiasm and humility. 

The Center for Teaching Innovation at Cornell University identifies several research-backed benefits to collaborative learning, including:

  • Development of high-level thinking, communication, self-management, and leadership skills
  • Increased student retention and working memory
  • Increased exposure to and understanding of diverse perspectives
  • Increased student self-esteem and responsibility
  • Preparation for real-life social and employment situations

All students will need those skills, whether they plan to go to college or into careers.

2. Project-Based Learning

Forget shoebox dioramas and poster boards. When we talk about project-based learning (PBL) today, it’s much more than just a hands-on activity to wrap up a unit, but rather an approach where students gain deep knowledge by exploring a challenge or problem. When working together on a project over an extensive period of time, students develop deep content knowledge and hone their critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communications skills as they work to address real-world problems. 

PBL has become a key feature of 21st-century learning. At XQ schools, students have published their stories about climate change, partnered with local nonprofits to improve their community, and even designed a smart compost system for their neighborhoods.

This style of learning can also incorporate two of XQ’s research-backed Design Principles: meaningful and engaged learning with community partnerships for inspiration. That’s what teachers at PSI High, an XQ school in Sanford, Florida, did by working with Sanford Museum for a project where students designed their own “micro museums.” Learning about the history of their local community was even more interesting because students had a direct connection to the work. 

3. Personalized Learning

Personalized learning, also known as student-centered learning, takes a holistic approach to education by giving students control over what material they learn and how they learn it. In this model, student interest drives learning; therefore, it looks slightly different in every classroom. But there are some common features all successful personalized learning shares, including: 

  • Emphasis on project-based, interdisciplinary learning
  • Deep connection between curriculum and student interests
  • Assessment as a tool to measure learning and help students grow
  • Meaningful feedback platforms for students and families
  • Learning plans tailored to individual students and their needs
  • Flexibility and adaptability for pacing student learning

For students, personalized learning can be a transformative experience. Here’s what Jada, a 2021 graduate of the XQ school Brooklyn Laboratory High School, had to say: “Teachers viewed scholars as more than students,” she shared. “We were treated as individuals with our own ideas and viewpoints, and that were incorporated into classes and school governance. Brooklyn LAB gave me the strength to use my voice. Now, I’m not afraid to stand up and speak my opinion.”

As Jada’s comments suggest, a key feature of personalized learning shifts traditional classroom roles. Students take on greater ownership, while teachers back away from being the sole deliverers of content. Teachers who learn to emphasize youth voice and choice (another XQ design principle) in their classrooms can often discover several benefits, including better relationships with their students.    

4. Online Learning

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, online learning was a solution for many schools trying to balance education with public health safety. Although the vast majority of teens would prefer to learn in a classroom with their teacher, online learning can still be a positive experience when done right. Colleges and universities have offered online classes for decades, and many K-12 schools now offer more digital options. Some students who struggled socially or experienced bullying during in-person school preferred learning virtually.   

After some trial and error, teachers have developed strategies to make online learning more effective. One of the biggest complaints about online learning is the lack of student engagement. One way to solve this problem is to flip your typical lesson to spur greater engagement. Consider teaching a new lesson asynchronously through a pre-recorded video. Then, during the live session, have students briefly summarize what they learned before placing them into smaller breakout rooms to solve related problems.

Another thing to consider when it comes to online learning is adapting in-person activities for the digital classroom. For instance, gallery walks are a popular way to teach students how to provide peer feedback. But virtual gallery walks can be just as productive. Students can present their projects through short screencasts, and peers can provide input through a shared Google doc.  

We also know that remote learning often falls short of its potential, leaving students feeling disconnected, unsupported, and behind on learning. That’s why it’s important to continue building relationships with your students and find ways to engage them in their learning. Make sure to include more opportunities for students to connect to avoid the solitary experience of online learning.

5. Hybrid Learning

Hybrid learning is an educational model that combines both in-person and virtual learning, giving students a choice of where they learn. It also has the potential to offer even more opportunities by expanding the boundaries of the classroom and connecting students with people and resources beyond the physical school environment.   

For example, students might work together in person on a project and meet virtually with an expert in the field to deepen their knowledge and understanding. Or, students might partner with organizations that offer virtual resources that can help students explore college or career options that before might have seemed out of reach because of geographic restrictions. 

As with any learning model, it is important to monitor how hybrid learning works for your students, making adjustments when necessary. We’ve created a helpful remote and hybrid learning tool using XQ’s Design Principles to guide you in making informed decisions about improving and refining your approach. 

Students at PSI High complete a design sprint as part of their project-based learning unit on engineering and connectivity. (Photo by Chris Chandler)

6. Blended Learning  

Greg Akai, an educational innovation researcher at Loyola Marymount University, defines blended learning as a model utilizing various learning approaches, including in-person, hybrid, and online, to enrich learning opportunities through flexible and adaptive models.

One example of blended learning in action is the three-station rotation. This blended learning lesson begins with the teacher introducing the topic to the entire class. Then, students rotate through three stations: 

  • A small group, teacher-led station, where the teacher can differentiate instruction, pausing to fill in gaps or diving deeper into more complex concepts. 
  • A collaborative station, where students work together on a collaborative assignment.
  • A technology station whereby students work independently with perhaps adaptive software or view an interactive video.

These stations might start in the morning and finish after lunch, or students might complete one station daily. It’s entirely up to the teacher and the unique needs of the class how their stations are constructed—offering students choices for pacing their learning.

7. Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

Social emotional learning (SEL) is about helping students manage how they develop positive relationships with their community, as well as how to make positive decisions. While it has recently become a hot-button issue in the media, SEL has been a long-standing educational practice, and most parents strongly favor teaching SEL skills

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) says that SEL offers a number of benefits for students, including: 

  • Building skills to develop healthy identities 
  • Managing emotions
  • Achieving personal and collective goals 
  • Feeling and showing empathy for others
  • Establishing and maintaining supportive relationships 
  • Making responsible and caring decisions   

Most teachers also believe that SEL boosts academic performance and prepares students for college, careers, and civic engagement. SEL is synonymous with soft skills development, sometimes also referred to as life skills or 21st-century skills. Classroom activities can be as simple as having students reflect in a journal to working on collaborative problem-solving projects or puzzles.   

8. Maker Learning

Maker learning is a great place to start if you want your students to experience more authentic learning experiences. Blending elements of multi-sensory activities and design thinking in a project-based approach, maker learning encourages meaningful connections with people, places, and topics. It’s not about the final product a student makes but instead the authentic relationships students create along the way. 

Whether through coding, robotics, or fabrication, maker learning centers student interest while encouraging them to think about how to create and improve their designs. Some schools might have dedicated classrooms, or maker spaces, for students to tinker and design. Thanks to the accessibility of modern technology, tools like virtual reality software and 3D printing can bring maker learning into any classroom.     

Maker learning lends itself naturally to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) but adding in the arts makes STEAM learning even more powerful, helping students unlock their empathy, creativity, and communication skills.

9. Bite-sized Learning (Microlearning)

Bite-sized learning (or microlearning) is just another way of saying “chunking,” a longtime practice of scaffolding learning experiences into small, digestible “chunks” for students. Chunking allows for larger projects to be phased out into manageable parts and helps teachers when pacing their lessons. 

Not surprisingly, micro lessons work best over short periods (typically 5-15 minutes) through short activities. The benefit of these lessons is that they help capture student attention and enhance retention while focusing on a single learning objective. Students can easily access micro lessons through mobile or other digital devices, making them an excellent option for hybrid or online learning. 

Microlearning also benefits student learning beyond the classroom because it provides enrichment. Creating a playlist of microlearning activities for students to access before or after school will help promote curiosity and self-directed learning.

 Students at Lattitude collaborate together to construct homes for those in need in their community. (Photo by Chris Chandler)

10. Digital Citizenship & Digital Literacy

Most teachers wish students spent less time on social media, and most students are tired of being reminded how bad social media is all the time. Instead of focusing on the negative, teach students how to use social media responsibly through media literacy. That means teaching students explicitly how digital media demands attention and how to make smart choices about what they read, watch, and listen to online. 

Media literacy is a broad term, but the Media Literacy Now project defines it as students being able to decode media messages, assess the impact of those messages on thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and create media (like crafting an email or a tweet) thoughtfully and conscientiously. These skills will also help students be more discerning consumers of media, and being a critical reader and thinker are skills students will need now and in the future.  

It’s also important to recognize that reading and navigating a story on a website requires a wider variety of skills than simply reading a novel on an e-reader. Digital literacy requires students to not only comprehend a digital text but also learn how to navigate online spaces. Digital content typically includes hyperlinks, videos, audio clips, images, and comments. Combining these extra elements requires the reader to stop and make decisions instead of just reading from top to bottom. While these elements create a complex intertextual web of diverse content, learning how to navigate between is an essential skill for their futures.

11. Genius Hour

Can 60 minutes of less organized, less formal learning build skills and confidence in students? When it’s Genius Hour, it can. The buzzy new trend has been around for a few years, growing in popularity amongst teachers and students. Genius Hour is an inclusive learning model that promotes inquiry, research, creativity, self-directed learning, and fun. 

The idea comes from Google encouraging its employees to take 20 percent of their time to learn new skills and work on passion projects. From designing new worlds in Minecraft to recording their own album single, Genius Hour allows students to dive deep into their interests, making them curious lifelong learners. For teachers new to Genius Hour, things might seem messy initially, but that’s okay. Genius Hour is a highly creative, collaborative experience driven by students. 

While it should be a break from more rigid, teacher-centered learning, Genius Hour is not a free-for-all. Too many rules may diminish effectiveness, but it’s important for teachers to have structures in place to keep students on track. That might include a Genius Hour journal, where students can note the progress of a project. In the journal, students “pitch” their project so everyone knows what they are making, why they are doing it, and how they will accomplish their goals.

12. Gamification and Game-Based Learning

From using Dungeons & Dragons to help students develop their social-emotional learning skills, to building community through esports and video games, gamification and game-based learning can be a great way to engage and motivate your students by applying gaming elements to an educational setting. 

Research shows that using games in your classroom can help increase student participation, improve students’ attitudes toward learning, and motivate students to take risks. In addition to using existing board games or video games in your teaching, gamification is a unique way to bring gaming elements to non-game activities.      

With gamification, content is taught in a traditional manner, but teachers incorporate the mechanics and rewards of gaming, like badges and point systems, into the learning process. These can range from a simple leaderboard to reimagining lessons as narratives, with students becoming active role players.

Teachers can also use competition and redesign to add gamification to their projects. Throughout a project, teams of students pit their designs against one another in a staged process. Winning designs become iterations of the next sequence, encouraging camaraderie and competition through a redesign.

13. Metacognition Development

Metacognition is a more modern term for the old idea of self-reflection. In the classroom, metacognition happens when teachers pause daily instruction to give their students time to think about their thinking. The two most important aspects of metacognition are giving students the time and skills to recognize both what they know and how they go about learning.   

Metacognition skills have been linked to better academic performance and improved critical thinking skills. But metacognition is not an innate ability. With most students accustomed to teachers, parents, and other adults monitoring their academic process, it will take dedicated instruction to train students to ask questions and grow from their mistakes.  

However, there are many strategies teachers can employ for students to practice these skills daily. These can be quick, low-stakes activities like exit tickets or more in-depth KWL charts used throughout a unit to guide students in recognizing their background knowledge, developing a purpose for their learning, and reflecting on what they’ve learned.

14. Inquiry-Based Learning

Teachers often want to spark curiosity by letting students direct their learning, but how often have you asked a student what they are interested in studying only to receive the dreaded answer of “I dunno?” Breaking out of the traditional model of telling students facts and knowledge about a subject and letting them guide their learning can be difficult, but there’s a framework that can help.

Inquiry-based learning essentially asks students to think like scientists to construct knowledge. Teachers can approach the model in various ways, but there are a few key phases that all successful inquiry-based learning experiences share:

  • Teachers introducing a new topic or concept
  • Students developing their own questions
  • Students conducting research with teacher support
  • Students developing conclusions
  • Students sharing and discussing their results

Although students drive inquiry-based learning, teachers still play a critical role in guiding the learning process, including modeling curiosity, leading small-group and whole-class discussions, and clarifying misconceptions. Teachers need to resist overcorrecting or trying to answer all student questions, allowing them to make mistakes organically and learn from them. 

15. Experiential Learning

Learning through doing is not a novel concept, but experiential learning remains a transformative model for today’s students. Initially devised to focus on problem-solving and critical thinking rather than memorization and rote learning, experiential learning remains a powerful way to engage students in solving real-life, authentic problems. Similar to inquiry-based learning, experiential learning works best when teachers guide the learning process instead of directing—accepting some level of uncertainty about the project’s outcome. 

Experiential learning can also take on a specific community-driven mission known as Service Learning. In service learning, students enrich their communities while gaining valuable knowledge through experiential learning. It’s important to note that service learning is neither volunteering nor an internship. While volunteering is an invaluable experience, it often is a brief, one-way relationship. Service learning, however, is a partnership where students and community partners work together for mutual benefit over a project.

Service learning gets students involved in the community and helps them grow as learners, problem-solvers, and collaborators. To find potential partners, consider local nonprofits devoted to issues students care about, like local museums, colleges and universities. 

Learn More

We encourage you to try out one of these new trends in your classroom and let us know how it goes! Follow XQ on Twitter at @XQAmerica and share your stories as we #ReThinkHighSchool together. You can also sign up for our XQ Xtra Newsletter to get more resources, stories, and updates. 

Photo at top by Chris Chandler