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Why Are '21st-Century' Skills Important?

March 14, 2011
By Linda Krulock and Elizabeth Hofreuter-Landini

There has been a lot of talk about 21st-century skills in education. While it is a term that educators exchange somewhat easily, it is not fully understood by everyone else. Indeed, a grandparent at our school recently commented, "I'm tired of hearing about 21st-century skills. It is the 21st century. Get on with it." That prompted us to offer this summary and explanation of what we teachers mean by 21st-century skills.

The essence of the skills includes collaboration, communication, creativity and innovation and critical thinking coined the 4Cs by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (a group of corporations who partnered with the U.S. Department of Education in 2002). As you can see, 21st-century skills mean much more than using and applying technology, as some are want to imagine.

Many other researchers and authors created lists similar to the 4Cs. For example, Tony Wagner from the Harvard Graduate School of Education interviewed more than 600 chief executive officers, and asked them the same essential question: "Which qualities will our graduates need in the 21st-century for success in college, careers and citizenship?" Wagner's subsequent Seven Survival Skills correspond to the 4Cs but also include agility and adaptability, accessing and analyzing information, as well as curiosity and imagination.

There is agreement among all researchers that these skills of collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking are necessary and must be integrated into our classrooms. Indeed, states are adopting new standards to ensure these skills are met. It is important to note that West Virginia was one of the first states to accept the challenge of being a leader in fusing content (the three Rs) with the 4Cs.

What should parents (or grandparents for that matter) expect to see in the classroom with a focus on 21st-century skills? The classroom set up might not be the same - rather than students sitting in rows, you might see clusters of desks, a group area or no students in the room at all as their community and the world become the classroom. No longer fragmented, you might find a curriculum that is more integrated where information is not dispensed, but children are asked to generate knowledge. Perhaps teachers will be using alternative assessments. Instead of a pencil-and-paper quiz, students might be asked to participate in a mock trial of a British loyalist or a fictional character. Rather than write a book report, students might be found role-playing the part of famous people or literary characters, as they would interact at a dinner party. Their writing and their thinking may be judged over a long period of time through an e-portfolio.

Some of those that have researched this question offer additional descriptions of 21st-century learning. Daniel Pink offers a few practical examples in his book, "In A Whole New Mind." For example, he urges us to ask students to write a caption for a cartoon. With a cartoon caption, one has to be creative. There is "no set path to the answer - that makes it challenging."

Patrick Bassett, president of the National Association of Independent Schools, offers some practical examples of students who were asked to create "complex real-world problem-solving via team-structured, project-based learning." He points to a pair of third-grade students who were asked to invent something new. This entrepreneurial duo invented wedgie-proof underwear, and was ultimately interviewed by the national media because of their creativity.

In another classroom example, young students were asked to form a research team to determine an important question, conduct original research and interview experts in order to reach a conclusion. Bassett recounted that one team of boys hit the nail on the head by researching a very important question: "Why are girls so mean to boys?"

So you see, 21st-century skills are far more than technology skills put to use in the classroom. This is real world learning that will equip children with the skills to survive in the 21st century in jobs or careers that we cannot even imagine right now. It won't be enough to do business as usual in schools, so we must "get on with it." I guess that grandfather had it right after all.

- Linda Krulock graduated from West Liberty State College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in elementary education and early childhood. She teaches senior kindergarten at Wheeling Country Day School. Elizabeth Hofreuter-Landini is head of school at Wheeling Country Day. She is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

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