Monday, November 17, 2008

21st Century Skills - An Overview

This is the "mystery meat" of the Iowa Core.

According to the DE's document, 21st century skills are the skills that are necessary for "upward mobility in the new economy". Or, as Ray McNulty has mentioned:

“The primary aim of education is not to enable students to do well in school, but to help them do well in the lives they lead outside of the school.”

Implicit in this are many of the themes of quality education, be it authentic learning, relevance to the real-world, or performance assessment. The list of skills draw from four fields:
  • Employability skills
  • Financial literacy
  • Health literacy
  • Technological literacy
It can be argued that this list is both do-able for schools, and also short-sighted for what is needed to be successful. There are indeed several other areas that the state could identify and prioritize. Regardless, what is perhaps the best written paragraph in the statement is as follows:

The reality of building capacity for the 21st century is that we do not know what the work of the future will be like or how technology will influence health and financial issues. The challenge is to prepare students to think critically, to engage in mental activity, or habits of mind, that “…use facts to plan, order, and work toward an end; seek meaning or explanations; are self-reflective; and use reason to question claims and make judgments…”. It may be that our task is not only to prepare students to “fit into the future” but to shape it. “…If the complex questions of the future are to be determined… by human beings…making one choice rather than another, we should educate youths - all of them - to join in the conversation about those choices and to influence that future…”

You can see what I like about it. It puts aside the ridiculous notion that we know what the future will be like, but rather emphasizes the importance of our students shaping the future themselves. We need to teach students to be aware of how our society changes, and then give them the skills to be leaders in this new world.

That's why I see the crux of this is not the technology skills, but rather the employability skills. They call for "leadership skills", "adapting to various roles", "initiative", "social responsibility", and "incorporating diverse perspectives".

No one will dispute the importance of these skills, but the question is whether we will be able to implement these well. The Core calls for these skills to be integrated into all subject areas, not to create a special 21st century class to address them. Therein lies the problem.

• What will this look like in a math classroom? A social studies classroom? A music classroom? (How do you implement health literacy in music without it being a forced fit that detracts from the curriculum?)

• How will these skills be assessed in the classroom?

• What will accountability look like for the teaching of these skills?

• How do we train teachers to teach in this way? How do we explain how this is different?

Right now, this collection of skills is very abstract. In the time ahead, we will need to make it more concrete, not an easy task, but one that will separate moving forward from staying put.

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