Wednesday, March 3, 2010

21st Century Skills – Importance and Cautions

This week I’ve had a good look at the debate about 21st century skills and their importance in our education system to help prepare our youth for the global economy that is driving our world today. 21st century skills such as creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, communication, innovation, technology literacy, self direction, and global awareness are suggested to not only help prepare students of today for the workforce but also prepare our students to be global citizens. I have mixed feelings and ideas about this debate and how it should be impacting our education system and educational pedagogy.

The first pressing argument seems to be fueled by the rapidly changing world, especially in the technological sense. New technologies which cause a new way of life for all of us is changing so rapidly that it has brought about a sense of urgency in the need to change how we teach our students. Arguments presented by Chris Johnson and Ken Kay have really emphasized the need to make rapid and immediate changes in our schools and classrooms.

Johnson suggests that the “perception” of what schools should be is not preparing workers for the 21st century. His main argument is wrapped around the learner, the student. What our students are “doing” now is directly related to what school now means to them. Students today no longer want what our schools are currently providing for them. Kay suggests that students now don’t know how the content areas of Social Studies, Math and Language Arts translate into global citizens. Although Kay’s perspectives does see the need to make learning relevant to our current learners, his arguments also pointed out the importance of still holding on to the content that we teach.

The document, 21st Century Skills, Education & Competitveness – A Resource And Policy Guide, created by the Partnership for 21st century skills has pointedly stressed the importance of making immediate and rapid changes to how we educate our students. “Our ability to compete as a nation—and for states, regions and communities to attract growth industries and create jobs—demands a fresh approach to public education. We need to recognize that a 21st century education is the bedrock of competitiveness—the engine, not simply an input, of the economy” (Partnership for 21st Century Skills).

Although I can see the importance of making changes, the biggest question that I have is how much. In some ways I wonder how much change has already taken place in our teaching pedagogy. Many of the skills mentioned as “21st Century Skills” seem to be skills that have been stressed as important ways for students to learn for quite a few years now. Creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving and communication have always been a priority in my teaching career as well as a priority for me when I was a student. I guess my concern is how quickly we will jump on to too many changes which will cause a pendulum swing that will eventually need to come back. Jay Mathews writes about this question in an article titled, The Latest Doomed Pedagogical Fad: 21st-Century Skills. He cautions the changes suggesting that it is an all-at-once syndrome. He questions why these changes need to be made all at once.

One of these all at once changes is wrapped up around the “content” that we teach. With technology, we have immediate access to a wealth of content which we can communicate, and collaborate at very rapid speeds. The movement seems to suggest that we don’t focus as much on content, but stress the “skills” needed in accessing it, interpreting it and communicating it. I wonder how successful we will be if we don’t establish a foundation in content. I believe that students will have a harder time using these 21st century skills if we evade the foundation of content. It’s like teaching someone the skills to read, and to read quickly, but their comprehension of what they are reading is what is lacking. What use is the skill of phonetically sounding out language if we cannot understand what we are reading? I believe with a foundation of knowledge and content, students will be able to evaluate and use their 21st century skills that are needed in this day and age.

Teaching upper elementary students I see a need for knowledge and content, but yet the use of these 21st century skills can help us keep students engaged and actively involved with the content. Getting students to collaborate, communicate and solve problems are always a big part of my classroom experience. Having technological literacy is also very important and that is the piece that will continue to change the most. As educators we need to be willing to incorporate those changes which will not only aid us in our teaching by keeping students excited and motivated, but it will also develop their literacy in technology. If we teach our students to be critical thinkers and good communicators while stressing creativity, personal best and innovation it is inevitable that we will be helping our students be prepared for the world they will be participating in. But we must hold on to our content to build a foundation that will provide understanding for our students.

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