21st Century Skills: Rethinking How Students Learn

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This anthology introduces the Framework for 21st Century Learning from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills as a way to re-envision learning and prepare students for a rapidly evolving global and technological world. Highly respected education leaders and innovators focus on why these skills are necessary, which are most important, and how to best help schools include them in curriculum and instruction.

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Chapter 1 Five Minds for the Future

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Educational institutions change very slowly. In some ways, this conservatism is positive; it discourages faddism and encourages educators to build upon tried-and-true methods. Of course, such conservatism can go too far. I remember a revealing experience I had in China more than twenty years ago. I was invited to observe a college course in psychology and was dismayed to find that the class consisted entirely of students simply reciting the textbook content verbatim. Afterward, with the interpreter by my side, I engaged in a ten-minute debate with the instructor. I emphasized that the students all knew the rote material and suggested that it would be far more productive to raise provocative questions or ask the students to draw on the memorized material in order to illuminate a new phenomenon. The instructor was not the least bit convinced. Indeed, after we went back and forth, she finally cut off the discussion with the statement, “We’ve been doing things this way for so long, we know it is right.”

 

Chapter 2 New Policies for 21st Century Demands

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We badly need a national policy that enables schools to meet the intellectual demands of the twenty-first century.

—Linda Darling-Hammond (2007)

James Bellanca: In your article for The Nation magazine (Darling-Hammond, 2007), you call for a national policy so that students can meet the intellectual demands of the 21st century. What are these demands?

Linda Darling-Hammond: Our economy and our lives today are much more complex than many people understand. That complexity is exacerbated by the extraordinarily fast rate of knowledge growth in this century. Some people say that the amount of technological knowledge in the world is almost doubling every two years. Thus, the notion that we could take all of the facts that a person needs to know, divide them into twelve years of schooling, and learn those facts and be done does not clearly equip young people for the future. Twenty-first-century students need a deeper understanding of the core concepts in the disciplines than they receive now. In addition, students need to be able to design, evaluate, and manage their own work. Students need to be able to frame, investigate, and solve problems using a wide range of information resources and digital tools.

 

Chapter 3 Comparing Frameworks for 21st Century Skills

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Many groups have called for all students to learn 21st century skills. In response, some organizations have developed, as part of their institutional brand, frameworks for the new millennium that delineate content and processes teachers should convey as part of students’ schooling. How diverse are these definitions for 21st century skills, and is the term becoming an umbrella phrase under which advocates from various groups can argue for almost any type of knowledge? Lack of clarity about the nature of 21st century skills could be problematic; many educational reforms have failed because people use the same terminology, but mean quite different things. What do the various frameworks for 21st century skills have in common? What can they add to the overarching concept of knowledge necessary for new graduates to be effective workers and citizens?

The 21st century is quite different from the 20th in regard to the skills people now need for work, citizenship, and self-actualization. Proficiency in the 21st century differs primarily due to the emergence of very sophisticated information and communication technologies (ICTs). For example, the types of work done by people—as opposed to machines—are continually shifting as computers and telecommunications expand their capabilities to accomplish human tasks. Economists Frank Levy and Richard Murnane (2004) highlight a crucial component of what constitutes 21st century knowledge and skills:

 

Chapter 4 The Role of Professional Learning Communities in Advancing 21st Century Skills

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When the Partnership for 21st Century Skills articulated the knowledge and skills essential to the future success of students in the United States, it stressed that the traditional school culture was not designed to deliver those outcomes. To its credit, the Partnership recognized that if its initiative were to have a positive impact on student achievement, educators would need to transform their schools and districts into professional learning communities (PLCs).

The Partnership (2009) was emphatic on this point and stipulated that the environments best suited to teach 21st century skills “support professional learning communities that enable educators to collaborate, share best practices and integrate 21st century skills into classroom practice.” The Partnership called for schools to be organized into “professional learning communities for teachers that model the kinds of classroom learning that best promote 21st century skills for students” and urged educators to encourage “knowledge sharing among communities of practitioners, using face-to-face, virtual and blended communications.”

 

Chapter 5 The Singapore Vision: Teach Less, Learn More

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Singapore’s visionary education framework—Teach Less, Learn More—was created for the nation’s entry into the 21st century (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2004). It is part of a larger framework consisting of four separate but interrelated components: (1) a vision for the whole nation, (2) a vision for Singaporean education, (3) a vision for implementing school change, and (4) a vision for the collaborative constructs—the professional learning communities—that are necessary to anchor the change in each school.

The synergy created by these four distinct, yet interdependent, visions provides the catalyst for significant change efforts in Singapore’s schools. In fact, it is the blending of these components that makes the country’s journey of change an educational exemplar. Together, these four visions propel substantive change to previously accepted practices, and they support the transformation of Singapore’s education system to meet the challenges of the 21st century. The visions create a landscape for others to contemplate as they begin their own journeys of 21st century change. The framework is shown in table 5.1 (see page 98).

 

Chapter 6 Designing New Learning Environments to Support 21st Century Skills

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Visit any number of new school buildings across the United States, and behind the beautiful, new (and sometimes green) facilities, you will still see the same old 700- to 900-square-foot classrooms, superbly designed for a teacher to stand in front of a class of thirty students set in neat rows, listening, taking notes, and doing worksheets. Yes, you might see wiring for computers and interactive whiteboards at the head of the classroom, but other than that, little has changed.

Go across the pond to England, where they are six years into the eighty-billion-dollar Building Schools of the Future (BSF) program to replace or renovate every secondary school in that country, and you will see some significant innovations beginning to emerge. The aspirations of many local education authorities are high: “BSF is being seen as the catalyst for transformation of education in [England]. BSF is not simply a buildings programme, and must not result in ‘old wine in new bottles’” (Hertfordshire Grid for Learning, 2009). What you see, however, in the first wave of new builds and renovations, is still mostly the same “old wine”—traditional education. But because the United Kingdom’s process is so much deeper, involving so many more institutions, companies, local education authorities, and student voices, some significant innovations are emerging.

 

Chapter 7 An Implementation Framework to Support 21st Century Skills

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A growing number of voices within and outside the educational establishment are calling for an enhanced emphasis on “21st century outcomes”1 that include “the knowledge, skill and expertise students should master to succeed in work and life in the 21st century” (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2009, p. 2). This call for a comprehensive focus on 21st century outcomes raises two important and practical questions for educators to ask:

1. How might we effectively infuse these outcomes into an already over-crowded curriculum?

2. Which current educational practices and school structures are likely to support the attainment of 21st century outcomes, and which may inhibit it?

To answer, we propose a framework for supporting 21st century learning that presents a systemic approach to educational reform, adapted from one found in Schooling by Design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007). Figure 7.1 (page 150) shows a graphic representation of this framework, with essential questions linked to its five major, interrelated components: (1) the mission of schooling, (2) principles of learning, (3) a curriculum and assessment system, (4) instructional programs and practices, and (5) systemic support factors. We will examine each of these components and suggest ways that schools and districts can transform themselves to implement a viable approach to teaching and learning that results in 21st century skills acquisition for all students.

 

Chapter 8 Problem-Based Learning: The Foundation for 21st Century Skills

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Recently, I noticed several magazine advertisements that summarized for me why it is so important to challenge today’s students to become skillful problem solvers. The first advertisement depicted a serene Antarctic scene: an iceberg looking like a tall ship, high bowsprit facing into the winds, with surrounding ice in wonderful shades of blues and whites. The ad was by Kohler, a manufacturer of plumbing supplies, telling readers that if they substitute their usual shower head spraying 2.75 gallons of water per minute for one using only 1.75 gallons per minute, they can save 7,700 gallons of water per year (Kohler ad, 2009).

This advertisement led me to consider some current issues and critical problems that need solving in the wider world, such as conservation of natural resources, the United States’ overreliance on foreign fossil fuels, and the need to develop alternative sources of clean, renewable energy.

In more ads for U.S. manufacturers, I noticed the following headlines:

 

Chapter 9 Cooperative Learning and Conflict Resolution: Essential 21st Century Skills

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When preparing to live in the tumultuous 21st century, it is essential that students learn how to function effectively in cooperative efforts and resolve conflicts constructively. Intentionally facilitating and teaching the skills of cooperation and constructive conflict resolution will raise the quality of collaboration students experience and deepen their learning, not only in face-to-face interactions in school, but also in their online relationships.

This chapter discusses four important challenges of the 21st century and how cooperation and constructively managed conflicts (constructive controversy and integrative negotiations) are at the heart of meeting these challenges.

The 21st century brings four important challenges in which cooperation and constructive conflict resolution play a central role: (1) a rapidly increasing global interdependence that will result in increasing local diversity as well as more frequent and intense conflicts, (2) the increasing number of democracies throughout the world, (3) the need for creative entrepreneurs, and (4) the growing importance of interpersonal relationships that affect the development of personal identity. The tools for meeting these challenges include cooperative learning, constructive controversy, and problem-solving (integrative) negotiations.

 

Chapter 10 Preparing Students for Mastery of 21st Century Skills

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“Does it work?” asked a curious adolescent as she stared at the chalkboard at the front of the classroom.

We don’t like to think of ourselves as getting older, but the bewildered question of a teen who is flummoxed by the sight of an object “us old people” take for granted, a common blackboard, certainly makes us feel old. What led up to this question requires a bit of explanation.

Nancy was scheduled to speak to a group of school principals in a nearby community during a professional development meeting on quality instruction for all learners. It has become our practice to include students from the high school where we work in our presentations, whenever possible, to bring the audience a student’s perspective. Three tenth-grade students, Coraima, Susana, and Mariana, accompanied Nancy to this presentation. As the four of them entered the room where the meeting would take place, the girls stopped and let out an audible gasp.

“Does it work?” asked Coraima.

 

Chapter 11 Innovation Through Technology

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There is no turning back. The Internet has become integral to life in the 21st century—a place for work, play, communication, and learning. It is easy to lose sight of just how integral it has become, and how knowledge-based the world economy has become. The combination of human ingenuity and digital tools has led to innovations that have, in some cases, become viral (Foray & Lundvall, 1998). The statistics are staggering: in 2009, the mobile world celebrated its four billionth connection (Global System for Mobile Communications, 2009); over one trillion unique URLs have been registered in Google’s index (The Official Google Blog, 2008); there have been nearly sixty-one million views to date of the YouTube most-watched video, Guitar (Jeong-hyun, n.d.; Shah, 2005); on average, nine hundred thousand blogs are posted every twenty-four hours (Singer, 2009); over 2.5 billion tweets have been sent (Reed, 2008); YouTube was sold to Google in 2006 for $1.65 billion (Associated Press, 2006); over one hundred million users are logging onto Facebook every day; and approximately 2.6 billion minutes globally are dedicated to using Facebook daily, in thirty-five different languages (Singer, 2009).

 

Chapter 12 Technology Rich, Information Poor

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Yesterday, I was in one of the most beautiful and caring independent schools I have ever visited. It had resources that took my breath away. When I addressed the combined junior and senior class, many of whom would be attending top-ranked universities upon graduation, I asked them if they knew why my website was ranked third out of more than seven hundred million results when I typed the word November into Google. Their responses were immediate and confident:

• “You have the most important content.”

• “You paid Google.”

• “Your site has the most visits.”

All of these answers are incorrect. The students were so overly confident that they knew what they actually did not know—it was frightening. The teachers were shocked at what their students did not know. The Web has become the dominant media of our society, yet we are not teaching our children critical-thinking skills in this media. Calculate how easy it would be to manipulate people who believe the most important information is at the top of their search results. Also consider how many students (and adults) only look at the top page of results when they do a search. Or, how many only use one search engine when they are doing research. Why do we teach students to use PowerPoint and build wikis before we teach them to be literate in the most powerful information media ever invented by society?

 

Chapter 13 Navigating Social Networks as Learning Tools

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Nelson Smith could not start a fire, even if his life depended on it. In fact, he could not even produce smoke. He had the perfect piece of yellow pine, a nice blob of lint from his clothes dryer, a sturdy spindle, and a perfectly strung bow to make it spin. But thirty minutes of pulling and pushing the bow back and forth produced little heat where the wood pieces ground together. The wood stayed cool even as his skin turned hot.

However, Nelson, a twelve-year-old from Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, with a passion for outdoor survival skills, had a plan. He wanted to master this crucial, yet basic, part of bushcraft, and he knew the perfect tool to make it happen: his mom’s video camera.

“Hello,” Nelson says in the opening frame of his video as viewers see one of his grass-stained bare feet holding down the block of yellow pine and his hands clutching the pieces of his set. “I’m trying my hardest here to make a bow-drill set . . . ”

 

Chapter 14 A Framework for Assessing 21st Century Skills

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How do we know students are learning? For most of the 20th century, the answer to that question was an idiosyncratic combination of subjective grades from classroom teachers and scores on standardized norm-referenced tests. From 1990 to 2010, norm-referenced tests were supplanted in elementary and secondary schools by standards-referenced tests, as their use exploded from twelve states in the early 1990s to fifty states in 2010. The use of tests linked to academic standards has also increased throughout Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and many other nations. Today, when someone asks, “How do we know students are learning?” the most common response is a test score that purports to show that students are “proficient” in meeting academic standards. Whereas in the previous era of norm-referenced tests, fewer than half the students could, by definition, be “above average,” in the era of standards-referenced exams, all students can aspire to a combination of the knowledge, skills, and critical-thinking processes that combine to form the essential skills for 21st century learners.

 

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