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Teaching for the 21st Century

October 19, 2010


What is the most important 21st century skill?

  1. Collaboration
  2. Communication
  3. Global Empathy
  4. Problem Solving
  5. Multi-Tasking
  6. Technical know-how

We hear a lot these days about preparing our students for the 21st century.  Policy makers, business owners, parents, community members, and educators all seem to agree that students need to leave school ready to participate actively in and contribute to a rapidly changing world.  However, what does preparing a child for the 21st century actually look like?

Alan November, founder of November Learning, posed this question to members of a symposium I attended at the University of San Diego.  He asked the audience to choose the most important skill and then explain our selection to the person sitting next to us.  Looking over the six choices, I selected “collaboration.”  In a world that has become more complex, sophisticated, and globally integrated, there must be collaboration in order to solve the increasingly difficult problems that confront our world.  Even the Lone Ranger needed Tonto.  Making it on our own seems obsolete in an inter-connected age that calls for more understanding, tolerance, and cooperation.

While acknowledging that we should strive to endow our students with all of these skills, November argued that the most critical skill is actually “global empathy.”  His argument is interesting and convincing.  Global empathy is actively seeking to understand different points of view and perspectives.  As November argued, if we don’t understand different points of view, the other skills are meaningless.  We must initially understand the perspectives of those we are working with in order to build a foundation to use the other skills.

November’s analysis left me thinking about teaching, learning, and how we can help students acquire global empathy within the context of expanding technology.

Send a text, follow tweets, update your Facebook status, Skype with a friend, edit a wiki-page.  Social media technology is changing the way we interact with the world.  However, a convincing argument can be made that instead of creating a global village, where differing points of view can be discussed and understood in a well-reasoned manner, the internet has, in reality, produced more tension and a clash of cultures.  Rather than visiting a marketplace of ideas where they can question and think critically before forming opinions, people can now isolate themselves from contrary opinions.  In a self-defined cocoon, they gravitate towards a smaller version of the truth.  November argues that people tend to surround themselves with information that validates what they already believe, failing to question or even discover what other truths or perspectives may exist.

In a related context, Malcolm Gladwell even questions the ability of social media to be an effective tool for advocacy and agent of social change.

All of this makes the function of a teacher that much more important.  We must be the lead learners in our classroom, modeling what we are asking of our students.  Our role is to help students connect with the rest of the world; using inquiry and analysis to acquire a greater understanding of those in other places.

November asserts that achieving global empathy is more than reading a book about another part of the world or discussing current events.  It must be genuine and it must be done in every discipline.  Today’s students must utilize authentic methods to connect with other cultures, whether it’s Skyping with a classroom in England, tweeting a student in India, or creating a YouTube documentary for students in Greece.  It may simply be asking the question, “What truth are we discussing and from whose perspective?”.  Teachers need to build the capacity for shared knowledge, and use technology to develop critical thinking and a global perspective.  Students must learn how to work not only with those sitting next to them, but also those sitting in classrooms around the world.

With stringent standards, standardized exams, and inequitable distribution of technology, effective teaching of global empathy is a challenge.  However, as I strive to prepare my students for the world beyond our classroom walls, I will continue to seek meaningful ways to use technology to promote multiple perspectives and a global empathy.

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