The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) has been designing and communicating a framework for schools to integrate critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, collaboration, creativity, information and media literacy, and life skills into teaching the core academic subjects. Recently, there have been published accounts that question whether the dialogue around 21st Century skills is promoted by business interests that could financially benefit from a greater focus on technology integration into school curricula. Stephen Sawchuk, in his Education Week article on December 9, 2009, writes about what critics of the 21st Century skills movement are saying, “P21 is a veiled attempt by technology companies, which make up the bulk of the group’s membership, to gain more influence over the classroom.” While the criticism is valid to explore, it strikes me its purpose is to shift the focus from discussing what it will take to make our classrooms more engaging places for students to learn to maintaining the status quo of a traditional classroom conceived out of a 20th century model.
The 21st Century skills movement, represented by P21, is a unique partnership between fourteen states and a consortium of businesses with interests in education; however, it is not the first partnership that has brought together businesses with educational institutions. There have been other businesses that develop relationships with school systems in which the central focus is an economic one, such as all the big publishing companies providing textbooks, food service companies staffing school cafeterias, and testing companies that provide the standardized tests.
Conversations around 21st Century skill development are important for classroom teachers and administrators to have. Granted, many of the skills listed under the umbrella of P21 or in the writings of other educators (see an article by Nancy Walser or her blog devoted to a conversation with Tony Wagner, author of Global Achievement Gap), are skills that teachers have always recognized to be important. However, the current dialogue is about how to more fully integrate these skills in every classroom setting. Business leaders are working with educators to define the skills they feel will be critical for our children’s future (see the document outlining a business and education summit in Wisconsin). While we know these skills have been valued by educators for many years, we also know that they have not been fully integrated into the learning environment or fully aligned with each states’ educational standards. In addition, we know that teaching these skills will change as we take advantage of 21st Century technologies that can modernize our classrooms and the curricula.
We still have not fully envisioned what a 21st Century classroom should look like. Will it have four walls, desks in rows, textbooks as the central organizing piece, a teacher guiding instruction, and tests and quizzes used to measure student learning? These types of classrooms are the standard in most of our schools. But is the P21 vision calling for a classroom that might not have “four walls,” where students form teams that are broken up into learning pods, where technology is seamlessly integrated into all aspects of classroom instruction, where students connect with learning partners across the globe, and where students are full partners in the assessments designed to measure their learning? If the 21st Century skills movement is trying to help educators conceptualize and actualize the best classroom for digital learners, then I think we owe it to our students to partner with these organizations to conceptualize and construct the most desirable learning environment.
One of the challenges that has always confronted educational innovations is putting the theory into practice or aligning the innovation with current curriculum. How will a 21st Century classroom be different than the traditional classroom we know? We may need to design a prototype classroom one and teach in one before we will know. The National Middle School Association partnered with businesses to construct a 21st Century prototype classroom for their 2009 Annual Conference. The links below will illustrate what the organization is trying to accomplish.
*National Middle School Association Website on their 21st Century Classroom
*You Tube video on the NMSA 21st Century Classroom
*You Tube video that explores the 21st Century Classroom as conceived by NMSA
The 21st Century Classroom by Logical Choice Technologies is also working with school districts to help them design and implement 21st Century classrooms.
In her Harvard Education Letter September/October 2008 article, Nancy Walser writes, “Teaching 21st Century skills doesn’t necessarily mean using a lot of technology, although projects may involve computers, software, and other devices, like a global positioning system (GPS). Sometimes it’s simply a matter of approaching an assignment differently to allow students to demonstrate skills like teamwork, collaboration, and self-directed learning. Equally important is making sure teachers are able to coach students on how to advance to the next level of a particular skill. This is often done with rubrics that explain clearly what poor, average, and effective skills look like in practice.” While technology will be an integral part of 21st Century classroom and curricula, it is only one piece of the puzzle. Many of the skills that educators and business leaders believe our students will need in the future can be taught with or without the use of technology. When integrated effectively into the curriculum, technology has the potential to engage today’s digital learners.
Defining what a 21st Century classroom looks like is one major challenge we face; however, there are three other challenges that educators must tackle in order to effectively prepare students for the future.
1. Build a 21st Century structure for assessing student performance. Our current system that relies on frequent quizzes, unit tests, and summative achievement tests is not the foundation that will prepare students to function effectively in the future.
2. We need to require educators to understand what the current research is saying about how the brains of digital learners are wired differently and how they learn differently.
3. We need to provide the best 21st Century professional development for educators who may not be sufficiently prepared to teach digital learners in a technological age (recent Ryshke blog on professional development in November 2009 archives).
The Partnership for 21st Century Skills advocates a blend of old and new. “Ultimately, we view this as the future of the No Child Left Behind Act, which measures whether students can perform core skills,” says Kay. “The real issue is, do we have the collective will to make 21st century skills a priority?” This is an exciting time for educators. Are we up to the challenges?