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May, 2011 Blog - 21st Century Education

We hear a lot about how the working environment of the 21st century will be very different from that of the 20th century. Constantly we hear of the need to prepare students for a “brave new world.” Education experts extol the virtues of technology and how schools and teachers need to modernize in order to keep up with their students and prepare them for careers in an interconnected world. Pundits and politicians (it’s getting harder and harder to tell the difference these days) lament that teachers are not preparing students for the jobs of tomorrow. Parents are concerned about their children’s advancement into the next grade and will they be prepared to enter a top college or university. Nearly everyone seems to agree that education will need to be nimble, adaptable, and innovative in order for students to be successful in the century to come. But wait! It’s 2011. Over 10 percent of the 21st century is gone. Are we too late?

The work world of the 21st century is shaping up to be similar and different from the work world of the 20th century. Similar, in that students still need the knowledge and understanding of the core subject areas to build up to their next level or grade. They also need the arts—music, visual arts, industrial arts, and dramatics—to make meaning of this knowledge for their academic as well as their emotional growth. They need league and intramural sports to continue to condition their bodies for a longer, healthier life. And they need to learn a trade and gain the skills needed to work with people outside of school where they will spend the rest of their lives. With their knowledge and understanding of the core subjects, the arts, trade skills and athletics, students of the 21st century analyze, synthesize and evaluate their learning to build their lives and be successful. 

The work world of the 21st century is also shaping up to be different than the past century and is requiring workers exercise skills that go beyond taxonomy thinking. Engineers in the 21st century will build communication and transportation systems that not only move information, people, and materials, faster, cheaper and farther, but do so in a way that strengthens – not weakens – the environment and within the principles of a free-market system. The scientists of the 21st century will develop medical treatments that don’t just alleviate pain or cure disease, but regenerate cell growth to repair and replace vital tissue and reprogram cellular structure to protect itself from disease. Architects in the 21st century will design buildings that adapt to the environment and its shifting conditions, sensing outside temperature changes and adjusting inside conditions accordingly. These structures will be built with recycled materials to conserve rapidly depleting resources and produce their own energy with what was quaintly called “alternative energy” in the 20th century.

The education needed for this type of world is not just for the college-bound students. Most high school students enter the workforce upon graduation. Their ability to think creatively, adapt to changing conditions, and innovate—often times on the spot—will need to be as keen as the engineers, scientists, and architects. “Blue collar” workers will need advanced skills to build and operate the wondrous world of this century. All students will not only need to master the advancing technology in their respective fields, but more importantly, acquire the ability to continuously learn and grow as conditions dictate.

Bestselling author Daniel Pink writes in “A Whole New Mind” that successful workers in the 21st century will not be just the “left brain” sequential, logical, and analytical thinkers, but also “right brain,” nonlinear, intuitive and holistic thinkers. Workplace, employer, and consumer expectations have changed over time. "For businesses, it's no longer enough to create a product that's reasonably priced and adequately functional. It must also be beautiful, unique, and meaningful...," writes Pink.

Pink’s findings concur with the North Central Regional Education Laboratory’s (NCREL) enGauge 21st Century Skills report Literacy in the Digital Age (2003). According to this study "As society changes, the skills needed to negotiate the complexities of life [will] also change. In the early 1900s, a person who had acquired simple reading, writing, and calculating skills was considered literate. Only in recent years has the public education system expected all students to build on those basics, developing a broad range of literacies. To achieve success in the 21st century, students also need to attain proficiency in science, technology, and culture, as well as gain a thorough understanding of information in all its forms.”

The 21st century is here. We can no longer take comfort in referring to it in terms of the future. Young people today need to be critical thinkers, adaptable, and good communicators, whether they are “blue” or “white” collar workers. They must be creative, innovative, and show aptitude in multiple disciplines—civil literacy, finance, communication, scientific reasoning—and they must display an empathetic understanding of the world they live in. It is essential that this occur now. The education system of the 21st century must be an environment where students are engaged in the higher-order thinking of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation through active learning strategies that encourage experimentation and real-world problem solving.

At the Teacher’s Center, we what to know how you are preparing your students for the 21st century. Every day we hear from innovative teachers who are doing some incredible things in the classroom. Check out our Forum section where teachers can share ideas and methods. Or contribute to our Blog discussions. We want to hear from you.

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