Q & A on 21st Century Skills

What are 21st century skills?

➢    21st Century Skills are the set of skills students need to succeed in learning, work and life in this century.

➢    To ensure success, students need both deep understanding of the major principles and facts in core subjects (such as math, language, arts, science, history, etc.) and also be able to apply this knowledge to important contemporary themes (such as global awareness, financial, health and environmental literacy, etc.) using a variety of skills, such as:

  • Learning and Innovation Skills (critical thinking and problem solving, creativity and innovation)
  • Digital Literacy Skills (information, media and technology literacy); and
  • Life and Career Skills (initiative and self-direction, leadership, adaptability, etc).

Why are they needed?

➢    These skills are vital for everyone’s success in our times, and global competition, increased access to technology, digital information and tools are only increasing the importance of these 21st century knowledge-and-skills. Today, every student requires 21st century skills to succeed. Employers the world over say that recently hired workers, including postsecondary graduates, are ill-prepared in a number of basic knowledge areas and in many of the key skills for successful work in the 21st century.

➢    A number of leading education thinkers, such as Sir Ken Robinson, Daniel Pink, Howard Gardner (Harvard), Richard Murnane (Harvard) and Edgar Morin (UNESCO), agree that these skills are now critical for a country’s economic success and advocate the learning of these skills as part of everyone’s education.

Are these skills even new? It seems like Plato and Aristotle were imparting these skills.

➢    The skills are not new (with the exception of some of the Digital Literacy skills), but for centuries have been offered to only the privileged and gifted students. Yet all students need these skills to succeed.

➢    Other cultures besides the Greeks understood the importance of skills as well. Confucius recognized the need for learning by doing, quoted as: “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand”.  Michel de Montaigne said “Rather a mind well-shaped than well-full”.

What evidence do you have that says 21st century skills improve teaching and learning? Where is this impacting teaching and learning?

➢    According to Christopher Dede, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, students are better engaged and learn more deeply when they are taught in the context and environment where that learning normally occurs, such as solving a real-world problem.

➢    According to Elena Silva, senior policy analyst at Education Sector, “the best learning happens when students learn core subjects and processes, such as the rules and procedures of arithmetic, at the same time that they learn how to think and solve problems.”

➢    According to John Bransford of the University of Washington Professor of Education and Psychology, and author of How People Learn, the following characteristics are part of how we naturally learn:

  • Context – Real-world learning
  • Caring – Intrinsic motivation
  • Construction – Mental & virtual model-building
  • Competence – Multiple pathways to expertise
  • Community – Learning socially in groups & teams

Do you have examples of schools that have succeeded in implementing skills in their curriculum and instruction?

➢    A number of schools worldwide (listed here alphabetically) have implemented many of the skills highlighted in the book.  The book’s DVD highlights classroom work from some of these schools (indicated by an asterisk):

  • Catalina Foothills High School*
  • Coalition of Essential Schools*
  • Envision Schools*
  • High Tech High Schools*
  • HOT (Higher Order Thinking) Schools
  • John Cabot Schools (UK)
  • New Tech High Schools*
  • Vigo Junior Schools (UK)

And there are many more in other countries.

Are you advocating for 21st century skills to replace core subjects?

➢    Not in the least!  We unequivocally state throughout the book that you cannot develop skills apart from the learning of the underlying knowledge you are applying that skill to (critical thinking about nothing is not possible!). It is important now that learning becomes focused both on what students need to know, and what students are able to do with what they know.

The knowledge vs. skill issue is just one of a number of misleading education debates that unfortunately narrows the definition of all that goes into developing whole children – each child’s unique and wonderful mix of knowledge, skills, attitudes, behaviors, values and so much more.

➢    We advocate for the integration of 21st century skills into the teaching of core subjects and themes. In fact, our work with the Partnership for 21st Century Skills has involved many of the curriculum groups that set standards in english, science, math, geography, etc. (NCTE, NSTA, NCTM, NCGE and others, as well as Achieve/ADP), that represent the experts on what the core content standards in each field should be. We continue to support those groups in helping ensure that 21st century skills are embedded in their standards.

What makes you sure the 21st century skills movement isn’t the latest educational fad? Lots of movements have had the buy-in from the business community and haven’t panned out, how is this different?

➢    In the years spent developing the framework, educators, civic and community leaders, government officials and business people were all deeply involved. We asked what students needed to succeed at all levels. They universally replied that a combination of deep knowledge and what has come to be known as “21st century skills” represents the necessary outcomes students now need for success.

➢    Critical thinking, problem solving, communications skills, innovation skills, technology skills and career and life skills will be needed far into the next century, yet many countries have not yet focused their resources on the best ways to teach and assess these skills.

➢    The countries that fully understand the link between students learning these skills and the future health and welfare of their economies will be the ones who invest and develop the best ways to do this. That is why the 21st century skills movement won’t be short-lived. It is an economic and social imperative we all share now.

Isn’t it much more important to ensure students are capable of doing basic arithmetic and reading before moving to these soft skills?

➢    According to Elena Silva, senior policy analyst at Education Sector, “the best learning happens when students learn core subjects and processes, such as the rules and procedures of arithmetic, at the same time that they learn how to think and solve problems.”

➢    We now know that motivation and engagement are crucial to learning success. By integrating the learning of core knowledge, key 21st skills, the effective use of technology and applying this learning to relevant, real world problems and questions, in every classroom, we will help build a society of knowledgeable, responsible citizens, workers and leaders equipped to handle the challenges of our times and to continue learning lifelong.

➢    The curriculum content groups agree with us that it is imperative to infuse 21st century skills into classrooms. These groups, supported by P21, have created 21st Century Skills Maps, which provide teacher-created learning activities and models that show how this learning can be done.

➢    The learning of core subjects is amplified and strengthened by the integration of 21st century skills as these skills:

  • Help bring theory, facts, questions and problems, and real world applications together in a powerful learning experiences
  • Have a transformative potential to go beyond the walls of a classroom to connect students with global peers through the development of digital literacies
  • Promote deeper understanding, more useful knowledge, and pro-social, responsible approaches to everyday life when students study core subjects as they learn how to think critically and creatively, research answers to questions, solve problems, and innovate.

What is the opinion of students?

➢    Students have always wanted to be more engaged in their learning, with relevant materials and content that relate to their lives and the issues of the times.  That pressure is higher now than ever before, as “digital native” students, immersed in today’s technologies, have access to more information and thinking tools than ever before.

But parents and educators now have a greater responsibility to guide the students toward the effective use of these powerful tools for improved learning that meets the needs of our times.

Do you *really* think every child can achieve a high level of 21st century skills ? Is the goal to have *every* child achieve a high level of skill?

➢    Of course, and absolutely yes.  Why should any child be short-changed in their opportunities for a successful life?

Are you demanding that 21st century skills be integrated into schools all at once? Nothing is ever accomplished by rushing to judgment and implementation!

➢    Change almost never happens at once, especially in education! We recommend a “depth vs breadth” approach to learning standards and curriculum development, focused on what are the essential themes and big ideas in each subject area, and how 21st century skills can be integrated with this more focused set of learning goals.  Our work recommends a thoughtful, detailed implementation period, as it takes time to coordinate and effectively impact standards, assessments, curriculum, instruction, professional development, and learning environments.

➢    It is also important to move decisively. The future is not waiting; we need to be integrating 21st skills into the learning program, in every classroom, for every student today.

Teachers are so busy – how do you expect them to incorporate these skills?

➢    The outcome of the “depth vs breadth” decisions will help free up time for the application of skills and for deeper understanding, and as teachers apply effective inquiry, design and project learning methods, they will achieve a better balance of direct instruction and project-oriented methods.

➢    By incorporating more rich, interdisciplinary learning projects, achievement in many more learning standards across many subject areas is possible – a more efficient and effective method than by teaching each standard independently in each of the subject area courses.

Who gets to decide what to focus on/what to drop in the standards/curriculum?

➢    That is the role of standards-setters at the State/Province/Country level, with input from educators, parents, policymakers, the business community – all focused on what our students now need for success in our times.

Where do I learn how to teach that way ? what is the role of Higher Education’s teacher colleges?

➢    You can learn by observing some of the best 21st century schools and teachers in action (some of these captured on the DVD that accompanies the book).

➢    Teacher colleges are increasing their focus on skills, inquiry, design and collaborative project learning, and many professional development organizations offer a breadth of programs in developing these 21st century learning methods.

Why wouldn’t STEM be enough to represent 21st Century Skills?

➢    STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Math) are typically seen as content areas of knowledge that include technical skills, but do not usually integrate the development of many of the 21st century skills now needed.

➢    They do matter greatly in a technological society, and even non-technologists need a higher level of math, science and technical literacy to be knowledgeable citizen participants in democratic decision-making.

➢    Technology and Engineering in particular have not been taught until college or in vocational school, and we advocate their inclusion in students’ learning programs as some leading countries and states already do.

Does this mean more assessments ? Can you really measure all the 21st century skills ? Do we have enough science behind these new assessments ? How do you manage multiple measures in assessments?

➢    This means better assessments that incorporate a wider range of knowledge and skills, and that use a wider variety of measures – especially assessments that happen as the learning occurs (formative assessments) so that students and teachers have immediate feedback and can course-correct as they go.

➢    Of course, we also recommend better “high-stakes” (summative) assessments that are authentic, problem-based, and assess multiple dimensions of the learner via portfolios and other methods.  We are not the least bit proposing the elimination of summative assessments, we only ask for their improvement.

➢    Yes, there are good measures of all the 21st century skills if you consider a much wider range of assessment tools and methods, including the embedding of these assessments as part of the curriculum, so that assessments become a valuable part of the learning process and less of an added activity that takes away time from learning.

➢    Technology can help make assessments and evaluations much more a part of the learning process, just as more learning is being supported by technology.

➢    There is a great deal of solid science and modern psychology behind the move toward multiple measures of learning and a broader portfolio of methods to measure the full complement of knowledge, thinking processes, skills, understandings, mental models, attitudes, values, and much more that makes up what we now call “learning”.

What is the role of Higher Ed?

➢    Higher Ed has a large role to play. It can provide
–    Research on new teaching and learning methods, assessments and learning environments
–    Teacher learning programs in schools of education that produce 21st century teachers
–    Entrance and graduation requirements that reflect the expertise needed in our times and the knowledge and skills necessary for success in learning, work and civic life.

What is the role of Industry?

➢    Industry has been a catalyst for change, and is responsible for hiring the graduates of our education systems. They are demanding a new level of skills and expertise reflected in their agreement on the 21st century skills framework. Industry also contributes a great deal of resources to education as it is in their interest to have a well-prepared workforce.

➢    Industry does also offer education help through philanthropy and corporate social responsibility programs, with both funding and in-kind expertise from its employees.

Are you being too technology-centric ? is this just a ploy to sell more technology?

There are two parts to this answer, one regarding learning about technology, and the other, learning with technology:

➢    For learning about technology: technology, especially digital information and communications technologies (ICT) has become an intrinsic, inescapable part of the modern world.  Digital literacy is no longer a nice-to-have – it is becoming basic to life in our times.

➢    Regarding learning with technology: technology is not a panacea.  We advocate the careful choice and implementation of proven uses of technologies for learning, blended with a creative dash of experimenting and innovating.  What’s most important is the learning outcome of the use of technology – are students more prepared for learning, work and life in the 21st century?

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