What makes them 21st Century Skills?

As a classroom teacher–and a deep-ender–I find myself always looking for ways to improve the way I teach.  This requires me to do some research and stay abreast of some of the latest techniques and tools.  And, as a technophile, I remember being particularly excited when I heard the term “21st Century Skills” for first time some years ago.  It reeks of laptop computers, interactive whiteboards, and education out of a futuristic sci-fi movie.

image courtesy of The Elizabeth Morrow School

Like many of my colleagues, however, I have since learned that these skills have nothing to do with technology.  According to the Framework for 21st Century Skills (created by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills), the key elements are:

  • Creativity and innovation
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Critical thinking
  • Problem solving

When you look at this list, the first reaction that most people have is, “Aren’t these 20th (or 19th, or even 18th) Century Skills?”  As Jay Mathews of the Washington Post wrote in January 2009,

“[The 21st Century Skills movement] calls for students to learn to think and work creatively and collaboratively. There is nothing wrong with that. Young Plato and his classmates did the same thing in ancient Greece. But I see little guidance for classroom teachers in 21st-century skills materials. How are millions of students still struggling to acquire 19th-century skills in reading, writing and math supposed to learn this stuff?”

He’s right.  Why spend the money and time to promote something that not only should have been part of our standards already, but doesn’t address the existing deficits in our system?  These are questions that bothered me, without resolution, until I starting reading “21st Century Skills: Rethinking How Students Learn” edited by James Bellanca and Ron Brandt.

In his Foreword, Ken Kay (President of P21) provides what was for me a very satisfying answer.  He acknowledges that these skills are not unique to the current era, but explains their newfound importance in three ways.  First, he argues that these skills are much more critical than they once were:

“These skills are rarely incorporated deliberately throughout the curriculum, nor are they routinely assessed. This status quo relegates these skills into the “nice to have” rather than the “must have” domain in education, which means they are taught unevenly. It is more likely that young people pick up these skills by chance in everyday living and job experiences and, yes, sometimes in school—if they are lucky enough to have good mentors or are astute enough to recognize and build these skills on their own. We simply can no longer afford to continue this haphazard approach to developing the most critical skills if we are to remain a competitive nation.”

I couldn’t agree more.  I have seen the HUGE disparity between my students who have had experiences in their lives and personal opportunities to explore these skills, and those who have not.  Several of my colleagues have complained about the relative lack of impact our work in school has on a child’s success because so much of what is really important to learn is taught outside our walls.  When we teach these skills on our own, motivated by our awareness of the importance of these abilities, we feel like an island of learning without the support of extended vertical alignment or a “spiraling” curriculum of increasing complexity.  We wonder how effective our lessons even are.

Kay also points out that the skills that were once needed only for those in creative or management fields are now required for nearly all entry-level workers.  He adds that these skills have converged, making them more critical and more teachable than ever.  He makes a compelling case.

And that’s the real strength of this book.  After reading (and re-reading, highlighting, quoting to my friends, etc.) the chapters, I have a really clear understanding of 21st Century Skills and why we need a national shift toward implementing them in every classroom.  The next question is HOW?

If you’re curious and want to learn more, join me and several of the authors of 21st Century Skills June 16-19 for an online discussion about some of the themes of the book.  Stay tuned for a complete review later this week, and more information about the Voicethread conversation (including a link to download and read the book).

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