What and how do teachers need to teach so that their students learn the new skills and new ways of thinking they will need in order to meet and successfully address the multiple challenges of the 21st century?
A skills map was developed by the National Council of Teachers of English to ensure that students have 21st-century lists. It lists 12 skills, each illustrated with outcomes and examples that integrate content and technology in ways that demand students become actively engaged in their lessons. Alongside skills dealing directly with information literacy, media literacy, and information and communications technology, are others: creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, flexibility and adaptability, initiative and self-direction, social and cross-cultural skills, productivity and accountability, and leadership and responsibility.
Since 1996, the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) has endorsed a reform effort that promotes academic excellence through student engagement. This effort includes a number of recommendations for schools to consider as they implement whole-school reform. Among those recommended are:
Provide opportunities for all students that support/extend academic learning
Connect the curriculum to real-life applications of knowledge and skills to help students link their education to the future
Accord meaningful roles in decision-making to students…in order to promote student learning and an atmosphere of participation, responsibility and ownership
A cautionary note
Unfortunately, some schools might take a look at the list of 21st century skills and expand its traditional courses by using technology more often and feel comfortable that they have "covered" those skills. Although to be encouraged, the notion that teaching curricula via digital media is the be-all and end-all of 21st century education shortchanges not only the understanding what of 21st skills are, but also undercuts the emphasis on critical and creative thinking that have been identified as imperative. In addition to paying attention to technology, teachers need to provide projects and activities in ways that require a combination of creative problem solving and collaborative learning, and include the application of skills and knowledge learned in other curriculum areas as well as in their own.
Yes, there are naysayers
The argument about 21st-century skills is heating up, with critics issuing a volley of op-eds and press releases warning against a disastrous retreat from academic content knowledge. As Claus von Zastrow points out in his blog, “The debate itself is substantive and complex. After all, the relationship between knowledge and skills is hardly simple, and that fact has profound implications for teaching and learning. Unfortunately, many national commentators on education don't have much stomach for nuance, so we should probably brace ourselves for some well-worn caricatures. Any defender of content knowledge will be a soulless drone who traffics in facts the way a hardware salesman traffics in bolts or hinges. Any 21st-century skills proponent will be a wild-eyed revolutionary who yearns to toss centuries of human knowledge onto the bonfires.”
Other critics claim that emphasis on basic skills leads to success at reasoning and problem-solving. E.D. Hirsch, a professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, contends that it is the content itself that allows individuals to recognize problems and to determine which critical-thinking skills to apply to solve them. “As a result,” he argues, “critical-thinking skills cannot transfer from the specific content in which they are exercised to real-life contexts such as in the workplace.” If school systems move too far away from teaching facts, these critics warn, the pendulum will swing too far and fact knowledge will be in danger of being regarded as secondary or even disregarded entirely.
Unquestionably, there is great value in learning the basics. If you don’t have fact knowledge of say the Greek Myths, Physics, Health or the Social Sciences, the strategies we use in Creative and Productive Thinking loose some of their punch! (If you have no knowledge about a pendulum and how it moves, then the analogy in the last paragraph will have no meaning). We cannot write without an alphabet, or understand chemistry without the Periodic Table of Elements. We don't need to decide between teaching skills and content; we need to do both! Facts are a critical base without which thinking about solving problems or finding opportunities would not even get started.
Bottom line: it is not about the knowledge or the thinking but how we relate the two. Over dependence on either facts or thinking reduces the potency of both. We will still need to learn basic facts and processes because we need them as tools and guides to thinking. For example, we learn to read so that we can read to learn. We want kids to know their math facts, but not as an end. We want them to be able to apply them to solving problems. And yes, facts are becoming increasingly easy to look up – provided we know how and where to look. However, content and skills are not an end, but rather a means. They are tools and vehicles for students to apply if they are to meet and successfully address the multiple challenges of the 21st century. Students will also need to learn how to think with facts and processes – and on occasion, think in spite of them.
“You're aware the boy failed my grade school math class, I take it? And not that many years later he's teaching college. Now I ask you: Is that the sorriest indictment of the American educational system you ever heard? [pauses to light cigarette.] No aptitude at all for long division, but never mind. It's him they ask to split the atom. How he talked his way into the Nobel prize is beyond me. But then, I suppose it's like the man says, It's not what you know...”
- Karl Arbeiter, former teacher of Albert Einstein.
The challenge being faced by educators today is to assure that their students graduate knowing what they need to know and why; knowing how to access what they need; knowing how, when, where and why to use what they have once they have it; knowing how to use what they have to solve problems and make informed decisions; knowing whether they have suitably used what they have and how using it has served their needs; and knowing how to apply that “knowing” to a variety of other situations. As Franklin D. Roosevelt is alleged to have said, “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future."
The good news is that we already have the means to meet this challenge. We have all the pieces and know what they look like. We have a general concept of what we would like the results of putting the pieces together to be. We are even approaching a critical mass of educators and educational policy makers who are examining and shuffling those and other pieces around to see how they might work together to meet this challenge.
So what are these pieces, and how can they be incorporated into a curriculum that effectively teaches the new skills and new ways of thinking students need to learn in order to meet and successfully address the multiple challenges of the 21st century? The pieces I am referring to are the philosophies, constructs, and pedagogical methodologies, validated by research and experience, which are behind the best practices of contemporary K-12 education.
Out of the litany of these practices, six are especially germane to 21st century instructional practices. They are Project-Based Learning, Problem-Based Learning, Cooperative learning, Open Content, Critical Thinking, and Creative Problem Solving. Five others, Constructivism, Brain-Based Learning, Multiple Intelligences, Learning Styles, and Developmental Stages, strongly influencethe 21st century Curriculum’s pedagogical foundation.
“We say we respect individual differences, say we value initiative, spontaneity, and creativity, say we admire the independent thinker, say every person should be helped to realize her or his full potential, say the young need to be introduced to the real world—then we spend a half-trillion dollars a year on a system of education at odds with our rhetoric. Aligning the institution with our core values would give it the legitimacy and generate the excitement it now lacks.”
The message is clear: Students need to learn and teachers need to teach the new skills and new ways of thinking needed to meet and successfully address the multiple challenges of the 21st century.
Hal Portner is a former K-12 teacher and administrator. He was assistant director of the Summer Math Program for High School Women and Their Teachers at Mount Holyoke College, and for 24 years he was a teacher and then administrator in two Connecticut public school districts. From 1985 to 1995, he was a member of the Connecticut State Department of Education’s Bureau of Certification and Professional Development, where, among other responsibilities, he served as coordinator of the Connecticut Institute for Teaching and Learning and worked closely with school districts to develop and carry out professional development and teacher evaluation plans and programs.
Portner writes, develops materials, trains mentors, facilitates the development of new teacher and peer-mentoring programs, and consults for school districts and other educational organizations and institutions. In addition to Mentoring New Teachers, he is the author of Training Mentors Is Not Enough: Everything Else Schools and Districts Need to Do (2001), Being Mentored: A Guide for Protégés (2002), Workshops that Really Work: The ABCs of Designing and Delivering Sensational Presentations (2005), and editor of Teacher Mentoring and Induction: The State of the Art and Beyond (2005) – all published by Corwin Press. He holds an MEd from the University of Michigan and a 6th-year Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study (CAGS) in education admin¬istration from the University of Connecticut. For three years, he was with the University of Massachusetts EdD Educational Leadership Program.