An Argument for 21st Century Skills
This post follows up on my prior one, which began…
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.
“If you’re not engaged and motivated, you won’t learn. Boredom is the enemy.” – The statement sounds obvious, and for skilled teachers, engagement is more than a pat word and an item on a performance checklist; genuine engagement reflects the teacher’s commitment to students, knowing them as people and as learners and then applying your skills and knowledge to the situation. In discussions about 21st century skills, I think many people jump to thoughts about technology and communications, but that’s not the key idea. Trilling mentioned the results from the High School Survey of Student Engagement, a project from Indiana University, which reported not surprisingly that students are often bored at school. They don’t want to sit through classes that have no apparent connection to them and their lives. So educators faced with that situation can become defensive about being those boring teachers and the uninspiring leaders of these dull places, and we can complain about children today, just as every generation does going back through the millennia. We can blame the families. Or, we can look at the landscape around us and see how our students are living in and interacting with the world. A key point about 21st century skills is to understand that whether or not the technology is a high-profile part of the coursework, the technology has changed the way our students understand the world and their place in it. We’re back to the idea of the “free-agent learner.” Students have myriad ways to learn about the topics that interest them, and they are able to connect with the world. Adolescents in particular bring interests, skills, and creative ways of thinking to the classroom, along with strong opinions and the habit of expressing themselves. That has become their norm. If we teach as if students should find a single text and a single mode of communication or expression sufficient, we simply reveal our own disconnect, and students turn off.
The good news from the survey is that students report they enjoy interaction, creativity, and intellectual challenges. Technology can facilitate that kind of teaching, but students are not necessarily thirsting to do everything on a computer. How about students running a small business, credit union, or branch of a bank? What about helping people with their tax returns, micro-lending to borrowers on other continents, organizing and facilitating a community education event, or conducting scientific research? None of these require high degrees of technology, though you can see how technology would naturally support each one. Critics of constructivism would wonder where is the focus on skills, and how do students engage in these activities if they are struggling academically? Trilling says that the risk of actual failure – outside a classroom – is a great motivator. That’s a dynamic I’ve seen in my own teaching. A constructivist approach does not preclude all direct instruction, but when direct instruction happens, it’s more likely to be purposeful and relevant. Take a student who needs to work on writing and speaking skills, and have her write a speech for a public event with one-hundred strangers of all ages in attendance. You will see the student pay closer attention to direct instruction about writing, and put much more time and effort into drafting, organizing, practicing and perfecting their work. From a technical standpoint, the skills develop more rapidly, but more importantly, the student begins to internalize an understanding of why anyone would care to develop speaking and writing skills. You can’t have all your students give speeches at large gatherings on a regular basis, but by teaching with those types of opportunities available, other lessons that might never go public still seem more relevant.
“We should all be asking the big questions – is this particular lesson, work, or curriculum wasting students’ time, or moving them in the right direction?” – Trilling made this comment in the context of a broader lament about education politics. Charter schools vs. traditional public schools, performance pay, standardization and testing… we’re embroiled in a number of debates that involve some strong feelings and generate some rhetorical heat and light. Those debates are relevant because they shape our school conditions and the constraints and resources with which we work. But those debates operate at one level, and prevent us from sustaining a deeper, systemic focus on some fundamental shifts in the ways students learn and teachers teach. For educators who want some kind of benchmark for their practice or their school to see where they’re at in teaching and learning with 21st century skills in mind, Trilling recommends the MILE Guide from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.