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An Argument for 21st Century Skills

October 27, 2010

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.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 27, 2010 4:43 pm

    I think one of the key differences that I’ve seen between students today and students ten years ago, David, is that technology has allowed them to be far more influential and active in serious communities than we ever were.

    There’s a certain equality in social spaces—-It doesn’t matter if you’re fifteen when you’re joining in online communities playing games, taking pictures, or posting videos. You can be seen as an expert and bring value to conversations just as easily as someone who is 30.

    Fifteen year olds can also make a real difference working towards real causes in digital spaces today. They can raise their voice, protest, petition, raise funds, and sway popular opinion. They can become mini-activists working on issues that matter.

    And they know it.

    That’s what turns them off about school. They go from a digital world where they can be influential, where they can be seen as intellectual equals, and where others can see them as experts with value to add to conversations. Then, they step into classrooms where there are no opportunities to participate and where they’re reminded time and again that the teacher is the expert.

    There’s a dissonance between the learning environments our kids have embraced beyond school and the learning environments they’re forced to suffer through for 180 days every year. It’s that dissonance that drives ’em nuts.

    Which is why the microlending work that we do in my classroom are so powerful. They tap into the desire that my students have to make a difference.

    It’s like hiding the aspirin in the applesauce. I hook the kids with a project that aligns nicely with the work that they are already doing beyond school and that respects who they are—and who they can be—as real citizens who are making a real difference.

    And then I build the rest of my curriculum—-persuasive writing, visual influence, managing information, crafting messages, studying the countries of the developing world—around that project.

    Any of this make sense?

  2. David B. Cohen permalink*
    October 27, 2010 5:06 pm

    Lots of sense, Bill! Thanks for adding so much to the discussion. You make a great point regarding expertise – and it’s a point that is lost in boxed curriculum and deficit-models of thinking about teaching and learning. I had a student working on a project about child psychology, using that particular lens to analyze some of the literature we studied during her sophomore year of English. Now, it turns out her particular interest in child psychology was related to early childhood development, and her interest in that topic arose from her family’s business – a day care center. So, rather than write up a traditional research paper, I suggested that she take lessons from the literature, look to her research to explain the problems in the literature (because of course, we don’t read many novels about happy, well-adjusted kids in healthy environments!), and then present a superior vision of how to nurture children by creating something useful for her family’s day care center. She chose a web site as the form, though a brochure would have worked as well. So, by tapping into her interests, I guided her to do more work, more careful work, more types/modes of work, more relevant work, and more practically useful work for the short term (immediate benefit to her family) and long term (she produced something that helped her develop and demonstrate some skills with potential career connections). I guess I should have put that all in the blog post above!

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