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21st Century Skills and The Road Ahead

Sunburst Digital's Spiraled Technology Curriculum addresses the need for 21st Century SkillsA growing number of business leaders, politicans, and educators are united around the idea that for students to be successful today they need to develop "21st Century Skills." However, these "21st Century Skills" are not new, but reinvigorated.

Critical thinking, problem solving, information literacy, and global awareness have always been part of human progress. The need for mastery of different types of knowledge, ranging from fact memorization to complex analysis, is not new either. What is actually new is the emphasis placed on an individual's success with such skills. Today, many U.S. students are taught these skills, but it is a matter of chance rather than the deliberate design of our school system. If we are to have a more equitable and effective public educaiton system, these 21st Century Skills must become part of the everyday classroom.

This distinction between "skills that are novel" and "skills that must be taught more intentionally and effectively" ought to lead policymakers to different education reforms than those they are now considering. If these skills were indeed new, then perhaps we would need a radical overhaul of how we think about content and curriculum. But if the issue is, instead, that schools must be more deliberate about teaching critical thinking, collaboration, and problem solving to all students, then the remedies are more obvious, although still intensely challenging.

What Will It Take?

The history of U.S. education reform should greatly concern everyone who wants schools to do a better job of teaching students to think. Many reform efforts, from reducing class size to improving reading instruction, have devolved into fads or been implemented with weak fidelity to their core intent. The 21st century skills movement faces the same risk.

To complicate the challenge, some of the rhetoric we have heard surrounding this movement suggests that with so much new knowledge being created, content no longer matters; that ways of knowing information are now much more important than information itself. Such notions contradict what we know about teaching and learning and raise concerns that the 21st century skills movement will end up being a weak intervention for the very students—low-income students and students of color—who most need powerful schools as a matter of social equity.

The debate is not about content versus skills. There is no responsible constituency arguing against ensuring that students learn how to think in school. Rather, the issue is how to meet the challenges of delivering content and skills in a rich way that genuinely improves outcomes for students.

What will it take to ensure that the idea of "21st century skills"—or more precisely, the effort to ensure that all students, rather than just a privileged few, have access to a rich education that intentionally helps them learn these skills—is successful in improving schools? That effort requires three primary components. First, educators and policymakers must ensure that the instructional program is complete and that content is not shortchanged for an ephemeral pursuit of skills. Second, states, school districts, and schools need to revamp how they think about human capital in education—in particular how teachers are trained. Finally, we need new assessments that can accurately measure richer learning and more complex tasks.

For the 21st century skills effort to be effective, these three elements must be implemented in concert. Otherwise, the reform will be superficial and counter-productive.

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