You may hear the term 21st Century Skills and wonder what that really includes. When the term first came to be (shortly before the turn of the 21st Century) we tended to equate it with the use of technology. And while that is certainly a part of it, it also entails the knowledge, skills, and behaviors required in post-secondary education and in today's work place which relies less on routine and more on collaboration and innovation. The list is comprehensive and what we in education would consider "cross-curricular" which simply means it can and should be found in any subject. 21st Century Skills consist of of skills like problem solving, research, analysis, creativity and innovation. But it also addresses behaviors like perseverance, leadership, teamwork, self-direction and self-discipline. The ability to clearly communicate in a variety of formats is also a key ingredient for the successful 21st Century Learner. Finally it addresses the need for civic mindedness, financial and global awareness, ethical behavior, and personal responsibility. (Click here for more information.) Who wouldn't want their son or daughter to grow up to be proficient in many or all of these skills and abilities? "Oh the places you'll go!"
One can't help but notice that the world has changed dramatically in the last 50 years, so it stands to reason we must adjust the educational experiences we provide for students as we prepare them to be successful adults. One very obvious example is that you are reading this blog on the Internet. We were just beginning to hear about Internet 20 years ago (think about the Today show clip that opens the BMW Superbowl commercial with Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel) let alone blogging. Yet here we are. We have email account(s), Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, apps for our phones, and a whole lot more ways to connect with anyone around the world. We may not be able to go visit every place in the world, but every place can come to us. "Dorothy, we aren't just in Kansas any more."
This past week during their newscast, KWCH Channel 12 out of Wichita, Kansas featured the project based learning experience that was occurring in the sixth grade at Andover (KS) Middle School. This project utilized a wide variety of skills from math, language arts, history, geography, science, and technology. They connected with their class pen pals in Nairobi, Kenya via Skype (instead of that pack of letters that we would have sent back in my day that would have taken 2 weeks to arrive) ready to have a nice visit when they found out about the broken water pipes and the subsequent issues that accompany water problems in Kenya. That encounter produced a class project to raise awareness and provide some solutions for the water problems experienced half a world away. Listen to the excitement of the Andover 6th grade students as they talk about what they learned and the importance of their work in the video shared by Channel 12. "Oh the places you'll go!"
This Andover example is the kind of learning I would like to see all kids experience on a regular basis. It is full of 21st Century Skills where students are asked to apply what they know rather than just memorize for a test. Think back to your best learning experience. Or if you are a teacher, think about the best lesson you ever taught. ........... Said. No. One. Ever: "It was a worksheet, 60 minute lecture, or a chapter test" More than likely you identified some type of project or active learning session. My Psychology classes loved the Marriage Unit, the Personality Box, Juggling to demonstrate how learning occurs, and creating neurons with the elementary PE equipment. They may have enjoyed the discussions or the stories I told during those "lecture days" but in reality when they were "doing" the learning, it was more memorable and long-lasting because they were experiencing the learning not having it done to them.
There is some controversy concerning the idea of moving to a classroom or school totally immersed in 21st Century Learning. Some of the people that question this change in instruction focus on the idea that the "basics" might be lost when instruction includes so much activity. In my graduate Curriculum Design Course that I teach, we talk about being hands on and minds on. This means that the activity must be purposeful and lead to achieving the learning goal. If we are just "being active to be active," then potentially that is a waste of everyone's time. Therefore, teaching 21st Century Skills requires that teachers learn to be facilitators of learning instead of the sage on the stage. In addition, teachers have to experience 21st Century Skills in their own learning and practice so they can find balance and purpose as they guide their students along that journey.
We learned to ride our bike by riding it, falling off, and getting back on to try again. When we fail, we learn. We ask for help. We talk to our friends and watch how they ride a bike. We figure out what we did wrong. We get a new idea. We try again. These are the benefits of project based learning when that experience includes the 21st Century Skills that are needed in adult life.
As the budget crisis in Kansas worsens with each political pot shot and bill that further restricts the autonomy and financial backing that schools require to operate effectively, remember school isn't, nor should it be, the way we remember it. After all, we have changed with the times, and we must encourage and allow schools and educators to do the same. Probably the most important 21st Century Skills we can use today are perseverance and effective communication as we demonstrate our civic and ethical responsibilities to educate our youth. Let's encourage our young people to "get out of Kansas" during their learning- not literally, but to see and experience what's out there, so we can use their knowledge and skills right here IN Kansas and see the "Places They'll Go!"