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Considering 21st Century Skills

October 23, 2010

When teachers are “off for the summer” we find all sorts of wonderful ways to work on our own learning and practices.  This past summer I had the chance to read the book 21st Century Skills, and even a chance to talk with one of the authors, Bernie Trilling (who co-authored the book with Charles Fadel).  The results of my reading and our conversation were put into an article in the Education Week Teacher Professional Development Sourcebook: “Adapting Teaching to a New Era.” However, within the constraints of that article, I couldn’t quite incorporate all of thought-provoking ideas and valuable information that Trilling shared with me, so I’m using this blog post to pass along a few more pieces of our conversation from this summer.

“Librarians get it!” – Let’s give a shout out to the often overlooked and undervalued educators who work in our school libraries and media centers.  If you’ve ever worked with a great librarian, you know what I mean.  In our discussion about how teachers can adapt old teaching practices to new realities about the construction of knowledge and the dissemination of information, Trilling emphasized that librarians have the potential to be wonderful resources for teachers and students.  I’ve realized in recent years that if I were to switch teaching jobs and give up teaching English, I’d want to be a librarian.  The contact with every subject area and every grade level in a school, and the constant immersion in information would be quite energizing, if not overwhelming.

“Free-agent learners”These kids nowadays… In an apparent challenge to their formal education, students now can go online and learn what they want to learn.  For teachers, parents, and schools stuck in out-dated modes of thinking, it looks like students are wasting time when they spend hours online ignoring their homework and studies, but in many cases, another view of the situation might suggest that they’re studying what they really want to know.  As adults, we can rail against children for pursuing knowledge we didn’t ask them to pursue, or find out what makes kids tick, tap into their interests and skills, and try to engage students in productive ways, leading to learning that neither they nor we might predict ahead of time.

• Regarding Bloom’s Taxonomy – “I would stand on a mountaintop and yell to everyone, ‘It’s wrong!'” – Maybe the most challenging idea from our conversation, this statement would force me to give serious consideration to changing my approach to differentiation, and I’m sure many teachers wouldn’t even want to entertain the idea.  It is almost pedagogical gospel that Bloom’s taxonomy is an accurate view of levels of learning: many of us assume it’s true that students move from lower levels of comprehension associated with recall, description, and basic uses of information, and then up to analyzing, evaluating, creating and synthesizing.  I’ve been considering this matter during the first couple months of school this year, and I’m still wrestling with it.  I can see Trilling’s point when I watch my students attempt to evaluate and synthesize newly acquired learning.  They don’t necessarily wait until they have mastered basic understanding of a book or a writing technique – they sometimes “jump ahead” as it were, and my impulse, perhaps wrong, is to try to rein them in until they have more mastery of information that they can recall and use a more basic level.  So, would it be wrong to encourage a more spiraled approach, liberating students from my expectations about sequences and types of understanding?  I’m working up to that point perhaps, but I still think that even if students can bypass some of the lower parts of the taxonomy, they might be more likely to excel in those higher areas after some mastery of lower level knowledge.  However, I might be wrong.  Perhaps students would really excel at those higher level functions if I let them dabble and rehearse and fail in more, early attempts, and help them learn from the process.

I’ll add a couple more pieces from my talk with Bernie Trilling in another blog post, coming soon now online.

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