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Is the 21st Century Skills Discussion Necessary?


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?

7 comments on “Is the 21st Century Skills Discussion Necessary?

  1. marthacaldwell

    A collaborative, creative partnership between business and education seems exciting and rewarding. Many business leaders, especially in the area of technology, entertain some of the more far reaching and futuristic ideas for humanity. They forecast trends and chart directions for growth and development, not only of their companies, but for the economies surrounding them. They realize that in order to thrive, others must also thrive. While profits may be important, these leaders are capable, nonetheless, of thinking beyond the bottom line and charting economies of the future. It’s important for educators, who share a similar orientation toward the future, to prepare students to align with coming trends.


    • Martha:

      I totally agree with you. I see value in partnerships between business and education so long as educators get a place at the table and can guide the conversations when they involve teaching and learning. We do have a lot to learn from our business colleagues and should cherry pick their creative brains for solutions to our issues. What about NCLB? Can we sustain the type of educational environment high-stakes testing demands and still motivate our students to develop a passion for learning. I am not too sure. Even our best schools struggle developing life-long learning skills in their students. I appreciate your comments to the blog. PLEASE let me know how we can best facilitate this conversation. It is an important one.

      Happy New Year!



  2. Bernadette

    This is such an important conversation to have. There are some questions that I would ask: why does the classroom environment have to change drastically? Is eliminating the “four walls” literal or metaphorical? I certainly agree with the metaphorical idea of eliminating the “four walls” in that students must be able to connect and interact with communities near and afar to develop their global knowledge and cultural sensitivity; this of course can be accomplished with technology as well as travel. However, there are other important elements to the classroom environment as well. I certainly do not think that students should be alienated from books–they must absolutely retain the essential skill of opening a book, reading, comprehending and making notations on the pages. So I think a classroom library of a variety of books is necessary. In terms of the physical setup, learning pods or grouped seatings facilitate collaboration in the classroom if and only if the teacher is an effective coach and facilitator–sitting in a group does not necessarily mean collaboration occurs. In essence, I would agree with Nancy Walser in that simply changing the approach to the assignment can ensure that students are applying the 21st Century skills. But in the end, does any of this matter if the 21st Century Skills movement remains on a collision course with NCLB and standardized testing?


    • Bernadette:

      I agree this is an important conversation. I don’t know that the classroom environment has to “change alot,” although I do think if we applied what we knew we would see some substantial changes. The “four walls” is simply metaphorical. I think classrooms could conform to a 21st C. model and still have four walls and I also think that just because there are no walls doesn’t mean a classroom is “cutting edge.” I do think both technology and travel would allow students to meet the objectives of connecting to their peers locally, nationally, and globally. I can just image how things would change if we only connected our students to their peers in Atlanta, as well as in Peru. I don’t disagree with you about the importance of the written word–books have their place and hopefully they always will. I read them all the time. However, my reference is more to the TEXTBOOK being the rigid guide to the yearly syllabus. Marching from Chapter 1 to Chapter 23 without a break. This is my daughters math class in Algebra II Honors. Chapter 9, assign 10 problems, take a few quizzes, and then a chapter test. Gets a little tedious and many teachers are wedded to this approach. I also totally agree with you that in order to make the collaborative culture in a classroom work, the teacher needs training. Not everyone’s personality or style is well suited to running this type of classroom. Your final point is so important because if the collision cannot be avoided and NCLB maintains its hold on the type of teaching and learing that goes on, then little will happen. I am an optimist and want to continue looking for the path through the woods. I sincerely appreciate your thoughtful comments. PLEASE let’s continue the dialogue and partnership as we find this path through the woods.

      Happy New Year!



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