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December, 2011 Blog - Revisiting the Call for 21st Century Skills

In last May’s TC blog, I wrote about what 21st Century Education needs to look like for all students—college bound and those working in the trades—to succeed and be competitive in a global world. Over the summer I read an article that speaks to the challenges in meeting this goal. The article is “21st Century Skills: The Challenges Ahead, written by Andrew J. Rotherham and Daniel Willingham,[1] was featured in the August, 2010 edition of Educational Leadership magazine, published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).  The authors caution against a hasty march to adopt 21st century skills without first understanding the true reform that needs to take place in what we teach, how we teach, and how we assess what we’ve taught.

Historically, education has globbed on to reform movements only to have them reduced to fads or supported half-heartedly by school administrations that jump from one “latest and greatest” methodology to another. The article points out the example that skills in information literacy and global awareness (two 21st century skills) are not new, at least not among the elites in different societies. The authors write, “Many U.S. students are taught these skills—those who are fortunate enough to attend highly effective schools or at least encounter great teachers—but it's a matter of chance rather than the deliberate design of our school system.” Grabbing the mantle of urgency, the authors bemoan the current “system in which receiving a high-quality education is akin to a game of bingo” and suggest a different approach to educational reform. Rotherham and Willingham contend that American education must be more deliberate about teaching 21st century skills to all students and to do so, three critical areas need to be addressed:

A Better Curriculum needs to be created for teaching 21st century skills in a way that helps students apply these skills to new situations. It’s important to be realistic about what skills are to be taught and in what sequence so that practice and mastery can take place rather than just assume students are learning them because they’re being exposed to them. Right now, we don’t know the best way to teach self-direction, collaboration, creativity, and innovation in the same way we know how to teach the basic skills of reading, computation, and memorizing. We expose students to higher level thinking through group work and assume they are learning them. But more often than not, their experience with these skills is limited to the simulation or activity of the moment. The school curriculum isn’t designed to provide further opportunities to practice and master the skills enabling students to apply them to new situations.

 Better Teacher Training. Educators understand that teaching 21st century skills favors student-centered methods such as project-based learning that allow students to collaborate, work on authentic problems, and engage with the community. Yet, recent research shows[2] that most instructional time is composed of seatwork and whole class instruction led by the teacher. If collaborative instruction is the better facilitator for teaching 21st  century skills, why aren’t more teachers doing it? One reason is these methods pose challenges to classroom management. It takes a confident, well trained teacher to make sure students collaborating in small groups aren’t off task and just “talking among themselves.” Instruction of these skills requires teachers who have a wide range of knowledge and the skills to make on-the-spot decisions as the lesson progresses balancing content instruction, classroom management and ongoing monitoring of student progress. To achieve this higher level of instruction teachers need more robust training including specific lesson plans that deal with the high cognitive demands and potential classroom management problems of using collaborative instruction methods.

Better Assessment Methods. At the heart of making any substantial shift from content-based education to higher learning skills is the political aspects. In a society that believes a student’s educational success can be measured through a prescribed and limited set of standards, it’s difficult to imagine that there is a willingness to spend more money on testing apparatus that tests students’ competency to think, reason, and create. It will take a seismic shift in the public’s thinking to understand that student learning is more than just answering multiple-choice questions. Another challenge facing schools in testing students’ mastery of 21st century skills will require they be tested on their use of 21st century tools—computers, hand held devises and the Internet. Most schools’ technology systems will also require a substantial upgrade and it will take a coordinated effort by government, the private sector and educators to create such tools.

Better, But Harder, Way

Rotherham and Willingham conclude that without better curriculum and instruction, better trained and prepared teachers, and better assessment tools and methods, the emphasis on "21st century skills" will be a superficial one that will sacrifice long-term gains for the appearance of short-term progress.

Curriculum, teacher expertise, and assessment have all been weak links in past education reform efforts. Creating more formalized common standards for 21st  century skills would help start the process and put the movement in a common direction. But more will have to be done.

The past few decades has seen much in the way of educational reform, especially reform that has benefitted less-advantaged students. Today’s reformers can build on that success, but only if they pay attention to the challenges associated with genuinely improving teaching and learning. If not, 21st  century skills will just become another fad, or worse set back the cause of education reform.

[1] Andrew J. Rotherham is Cofounder and Publisher of Education Sector and writes the blog Eduwonk.com; arotherham@educationsector.org. Daniel Willingham is Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia and the author of Why Don't Students Like School? (Jossey-Bass, 2009); willingham@virginia.edu.

[2] National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Early Child Care Research Network, 2005

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