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Learning in the 21st Century

by Bo Boylan

February 8,2009

21st Century Skills is a hot topic in education these days. And with the change in leadership in Washington, the topic is certain to get even more focus as the United States continues to wrestle with variation in achievement for their children. So what is 21st Century Skills and why has it become such a popular topic?

First, the what. A group calling themselves the Partnership for 21st Century Skills based in Tuscon, Arizona assembled to develop a unified, collective view of what it will take for students living in the 21st century to be successful, and how the educational system needs to adapt to succeed in a new global reality. One of the core foundation principles of the group is that knowledge is being created at a pace far beyond the current education systems ability to process and effectively deliver the content related to this new knowledge. So in a real sense, they argue, by the time students receive content using traditional methods, the information is outdated and lacks relevance to support success. It’s not the content that is most important, says the Partnership, but rather how a student learns to deal with content.

To effectively deal with this issue, the Partnership developed what they call a “framework” describing skills necessary for success in life. They include creativity and innovation; critical thinking and problem solving; information, media, and technology literacy; life and career skills; global awareness, financial and economic literacy, civic literacy, and health literacy. To buttress the framework, the Partnership developed a collection of support systems to ensure students secure the competencies necessary to learn in this new environment. The support system is composed of a set of standards, assessments, curriculum and instruction, professional development for teachers delivering the new framework, and guidelines for learning environments.

The 21st Century Skills Partnership approach resonates quite well with employers, and other consumers of the educational system. And in most cases, the educational community seems to buy in to the approach; particularly the substantial commitment to critical thinking, problem solving, project work groups, and interpersonal communication skills. Educators caution, however, that adoption and successful execution of the framework without a deep commitment to the importance of content will lead to an empty framework.

In the classroom, the impact of the change is meaningful. Rather than simply building PowerPoint slide decks, handouts, or other visual aids to support a traditional lecture approach to content delivery, teachers must assume the role of facilitator. Facilitation versus direct content instruction requires a teacher to abdicate some of their control- even authority- to allow students to experience the content using new skills with the possibility that students can and will arrive at different conclusions.

Now the why. One of the greatest challenges in our education system is the variation in curriculum and instruction standards across the individual school districts. The numbers range in the tens of thousands of distinct curricula in the United States alone. Couple this variation with an equal variety of standards for teacher qualification and certification and it is easy to see why some sort of informed standardization might make sense. This way a high school diploma from a student in Denver, Boston, and Charlotte begins to have some comparable meaning for those interested in reviewing credentials for admission to a college, the armed forces, or the work place. And this equity spans beyond simple geography.

To most people, the thought of developing a student’s problem solving skills, critical thinking skills, and inter personal communications skills is not a new idea. We simply have lacked a methodology, a system to be more thoughtful and deliberate in delivering the skills to students. But back to content. It is simply not possible to install the framework in the absence of content. This concept is at the fulcrum of an argument between purist 21st Century Skills proponents, and more traditionally focused education experts that hold tightly to reading, writing, and arithmetic debating their version of what a perfect solution looks like.

Perhaps we can engage some of the bright and talented students involved in this exciting new vision to help the adults figure out what is best for everyone involved.

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