It’s 2019. So Why Do 21st-Century Skills Still Matter?

21st Century Skills

It’s 2019. So Why Do 21st-Century Skills Still Matter?

By Suzie Boss     Jan 22, 2019

It’s 2019. So Why Do 21st-Century Skills Still Matter?

This article is part of the guide: Game-Based Learning: Preparing Students for The Future.

When tech giant Amazon announced its search for a second headquarters site, cities across the country scrambled to produce persuasive pitches. In Loudoun County, Virginia, fourth-graders from Goshen Post Elementary School took up the challenge personally. To create compelling video arguments, student teams interviewed experts in economic development, researched state history and geography, and even wrote poems to sing the praises of their region. When Northern Virginia was ultimately picked as a new HQ site, students were as proud as any civic leaders from their community.

The story offers a good example of how education is shifting as we wrap up two decades of the 21st century. Instead of relying on textbooks and teacher direction, these students had to think critically about unfolding events, collaborate with peers and adults, and make creative use of digital tools to communicate their ideas. In the process, they also learned plenty about social studies and civic engagement. For Loudoun County Superintendent Eric Williams, what makes such authentic learning experiences worthwhile is how they prepare students “to make meaningful contributions to the world.”

4 Cs and More

The call for 21st-century learning dates back more than two decades, when blue-ribbon committees, policymakers, business leaders, and education experts began sounding the same alarm: Yesterday’s focus on memorization and rote learning would not prepare students for a fast-changing, increasingly automated, information-saturated world.

Figuring out how schools should respond, however, remains an open question for many communities. In my own work with educators around the globe, I’ve watched the emergence of 21st-century trends such as makerspaces, flipped learning, genius hour, gamification, and more. Each has its own champions, teaching practices, and even hashtags; all have the potential to disrupt what we think of as traditional, teacher-centered education by giving students more voice in how they learn.

Although some educators have grown weary of the term “21st-century learning,” the drive to transform education “matters more today—a lot more—than when we started the conversation,” says Ken Kay, who in 2002 co-founded an influential consortium called the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (later rebranded Partnership for 21st Century Learning, or P21.) He currently serves as CEO of EdLeader21, a national network of Battelle for Kids.

In hindsight, Kay can identify three phases that have been critical in the 21st-century learning movement. “The first was defining,” he says, with experts generating a laundry list of skills and competencies considered essential for students’ future success. Next came the communication phase, when those 20-plus competencies were condensed into a more memorable set of 4Cs: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.

These core competencies remain relevant as we get further into the current century, argues David Ross, global education consultant and former CEO of P21, “because they seem to be the one constant in a rapidly changing social and economic environment.”

The third and current phase of the 21st-century learning movement is all about “empowerment,” says Kay. “People are interested in not just adopting the 4Cs, but understanding what they can do to customize this framework at the local level. What can they design that works well for their community?”

EdLeader21 has developed a toolkit to guide districts and independent schools in developing their own “portrait of a graduate” as a visioning exercise. In some communities, global citizenship rises to the top of the wish list of desired outcomes. Others emphasize entrepreneurship, civic engagement, or traits like persistence or self-management. Kay estimates that some 800 school systems across the U.S have developed portraits so far.

When stakeholders in Loudoun County, Virginia, went through the visioning process, they decided to emphasize the 4Cs (along with content mastery), plus the competency of “contributing.” Explains Superintendent Williams, “By this we mean contributing to the world through careers in the public sector, the private sector, and the not-for-profit sector; through civic engagement; and through community service. When a student is a contributor,” he adds, “it turbo-charges their ability to employ the other competencies and their content knowledge.”

The Human Factor

As the 21st-century learning movement expands internationally, we’re seeing an abundance of frameworks, assessments, and semantic labels as different organizations put their spin on what’s worth knowing.

PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) now compares the global competence and collaborative problem-solving skills of students from different countries along with more traditional scores for reading, math, and science. ISTE Standards for Students highlight digital citizenship and computational thinking as key skills that will enable students to thrive as empowered learners. The U.S. Department of Education describes a globally competent student as one who can investigate the world, weigh perspectives, communicate effectively with diverse audiences, and take action.

The unifying theme of these various frameworks seems to be the human factor. “The core skills of collaboration, communication, and critical thinking are things that humans do well and machines not so well,” argues Ross. “Machines are getting better at them,” he adds, “but perform them best in concert with humans.”

From Mission to Methods

How wide is the gap between lofty aspirations for learning and day-to-day classroom practice? It’s hard to measure, but leaders at the forefront of the 21st-century learning movement tell me they still see too many students sitting passively while teachers deliver instruction; too much technology is still used to replace routine tasks rather than turbo-charge the experience of learning.

Frameworks provide mental models, but “don’t usually help educators know what to do differently,” argues technology leadership expert Scott McLeod in his latest book, Harnessing Technology for Deeper Learning. He and co-author Julie Graber outline deliberate shifts that help teachers redesign traditional lessons to emphasize goals such as critical thinking, authenticity, and conceptual understanding. (See the resource list below for more suggested readings and teaching tools.)

More examples and practical strategies will help chart the way forward. Translating from vision to classroom implementation “is the journey we’re all on now,” says Ken Kay.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron offers a good role-model. She wears a number of hats as middle school teacher, instructional coach, and author (@tweenteacher). In the classroom, she teaches collaboration skills by challenging students to solve mysteries, and then debrief how well they worked together. She fires up students’ communication skills (along with their engagement) by having them interview an astrophysicist about the science of superheroes. She leverages social media and blogging to reflect on what works and shares her insights with colleagues.

When coaching other teachers to make similar moves, Wolpert-Gawron encourages them to “tease apart what it means to collaborate, communicate, think critically. This is a language that teachers at all grade levels, in all subjects, are able to embrace.” The more concrete, the better. For example, if the big goal is student-led inquiry, teachers might brainstorm “how to see if a kid is curious. What questions are they asking? Do their answers spark even more questions?” To cultivate healthy curiosity, teachers can remind students “to hit pause [in their thinking] and take a mental screenshot. It’s empowering for students to realize, ‘Oh, so I do have ideas!’”

The good news is, there’s no shortage of creative ideas for fulfilling the promise of 21st-century learning. In all kinds of contexts, I see teachers designing learning experiences that challenge students to not only imagine the future, but help to shape it. The challenge that remains is making sure all students have similar opportunities to dream and do.

Credit: EdSurge. Full sized infographic here.

A 21st-Century Reading List

Looking for more resources to support 21st-century learning? Here are suggestions from Suzie Boss:

1. Wondering how to teach and assess 21st-century competencies? The Buck Institute for Education offers a wide range of resources, including the book, PBL for 21st Century Success: Teaching Critical Thinking, Collaboration, Communication, and Creativity (Boss, 2013), and downloadable rubrics for each of the 4Cs.

2. For more strategies about harnessing technology for deeper learning, listen to the EdSurge podcast featuring edtech expert and author Scott McLeod.

3. Eager to see 21st-century learning in action? Getting Smart offers suggestions for using school visits as a springboard for professional learning, including a list of recommended sites. Bob Pearlman, a leader in 21st century learning, offers more recommendations.

4. Book group discussions can jumpstart conversations among colleagues. Here are three titles certain to lead to lively discussions about the future of learning:

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