Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Neglected Stepchild: 21st Century Skills

In school districts nationwide, there is an overzealous drive to increase student achievement on standardized test scores especially among targeted sub-populations of students.  The impetus for this phenomenon is no doubt the result of federal legislation NCLB ( No Child Left Behind) and the annual ritual of setting AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) goals for specific grade levels and content area.  Regardless, if one lives in Darby Township, Pennsylvania, San Diego, California, or Houston, Texas, the same recursive theme is seen everywhere—school systems designing elaborate pacing charts, instituting scripted learning activities, and “over poking” students excessively through the practice of benchmark assessments in their quest to improve student test scores. 

One can argue that many of these educational practices have a relative degree of merit (especially me) in terms of promoting greater accountability and consistency as it relates to classroom practices.  However, what inherent message are we sending to our stakeholders in terms of preparing students for their active roles as participants in a 21st Century society?  Many business partnerships, educational think-tanks, and related non-profit organizations have spent painstaking hours to quantify a set of skills needed by today’s students (i.e., the Millennial, Digital Native) to be successful participants in a society dominated by a global economy, the use of the Internet, and cultural diversity.  These skills often referred to as 21st Century Skills are summarized below.


Students need to be able to exercise sound reasoning in understanding and making complex choices involving the interconnections among systems as well as the ability to frame, analyze and solve problems.


Students need to able to (1) develop, implement, and communicate new ideas to others, staying open and responsive to new and diverse perspectives, (2) evaluate and create information in a variety of forms and media, and (3) become effective oral, written, and multimedia communicators in a variety of forms and contexts.


Students need to be able to demonstrate teamwork and leadership; monitor one’s own understanding and learning needs; locate appropriate resources as needed; and act responsibly with the interests of the larger community in mind.

As you review your latest curriculum map or ponder a grade level pacing guide, where are these 21st Century Skills located?  Too many times, these curriculum documents are carefully distilled and address only those elements found on a standardized test, dismissing many essential skills needed to prepare students for their successful matriculation into a 21st Century society? 

My intent here is not to surface the hypocrisy of public education in terms of saying one thing (i.e., promoting 21st Century Skills) and doing something entirely different (i.e., focusing only on a standardized test), but to find a common ground where we can promote higher levels of student achievement, higher levels of technology use in the classrooms, and higher levels of student engagement using 21st Century Skills as our keystone in this quest.  This is more than just paying tacit lip surface to these skills as an annual after-high-stakes testing affair.  The same rigor that we address with the core content in terms of critical content, benchmark assessments, and pacing charts need to be applied to 21st Century skills as well.  I am a firm believer in the adage, “you need to inspect what you expect.” 

The expectation and implementation of 21st Century Skills needs to be woven into our collective psyche in terms of what and how we teach each day.  Image if Michael Jordan was only allowed to practice and play basketball for 15 minutes once per month.  What kind of player would he have become on the basketball court?  The same holds true with 21st Century Skills.  You cannot teach or reference these skills for 15 minutes once per month if you expect students to become active problem-solvers and critical thinkers.  It needs to be addressed daily.

Many school districts have already taken steps to close the gap between its curriculum frameworks and practices and 21st Century Skills.  The result will be students who can both master the content on their state’s high-stakes test and solve the type of complex problems needed for their productive participation in the 21st Century.

May the LoTi be with you Always!

Chris Moersch