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Deeper Learning

21st century skills. Deeper learning. Global competence.

There is an ever-increasing variety of terms to describe the knowledge and skills students need to succeed in the world.

But questions remain on how to teach and assess these skills. The National Research Council (NRC) examined these important questions. A timely task given, as many have pointed out, we are well into the 21st century.

In its report, Educating for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century, the NRC classified these competencies into three intertwined domains: "The cognitive domain involves reasoning and memory; the intrapersonal domain involves the capacity to manage one's behavior and emotions to achieve one's goals (including learning goals); and the interpersonal domain involves expressing ideas, and interpreting and responding to messages from others."

The Council then looked through the skills proposed by various groups and individuals, and assigned them to the three competency domains:

  • Cognitive Domain includes skills such as critical thinking, information literacy, reasoning and argumentation, and innovation.
  • Intrapersonal Domain includes skills like flexibility, initiative, appreciation for diversity, and metacognition.
  • Interpersonal Domain includes communications, collaboration, responsibility, and conflict resolution.

The report defines "deeper learning" as the process of taking what has been learned and applying it to new problems and situations—or "knowledge transfer," including content expertise in a subject area and procedural knowledge of how, why, and when to apply this knowledge to answer questions and solve problems.

Through this process students develop "21st century competencies." (A term familiar to readers of this blog as it was discussed as the primary focus of education reform in Singapore.)

This is obviously a brief overview of a 300-page report. What I want to focus on is the validation that deeper learning strategies support the development of global competence in the classroom. The similarities between the skills of global competence and those outlined above are clear:

  • Investigate the World, that is, to be aware of and interested in the world and its workings. This ability involves formulating and exploring globally significant questions and creating a coherent response that draws useful and defensible conclusions.
  • Weigh Perspectives. Students recognize that they have a particular perspective and that others may or may not share it. They can articulate and explain the perspectives of other people and schools of thought and can construct a new point of view.
  • Global competence entails effective communication—both verbal and non-verbal—with diverse audiences. Globally competent students are proficient in English and at least one other language, and use their language and other relational skills to collaborate across cultures. They are also skilled users of media and technology.
  • Take Action. Globally competent students see themselves as being capable of making a difference and being aware of opportunities to do so. They're able to apply what they have learned to weigh options based on evidence and insight, assess potential for impact, consider possible consequences for others, and act and reflect on those actions.
  • Importantly, students develop these competencies through disciplinary and interdisciplinary study—learning and learning how to learn as historians, scientists, and artists do within and across subject areas.

An encouraging finding of the report is that the new common standards in math, science, and English language arts go beyond basic academic skills and include some 21st century and global competencies. Critical thinking, non-routine problem solving, and constructing and evaluating evidence-based arguments are key parts of all three sets of standards. However, the competencies in the interpersonal and intrapersonal are not evenly represented in the standards. This leads the report to recommend that additional instruction time and resources be given to further developing them. It also states that even where the common standards do not overlap with 21st century competencies, there is little evidence of conflict between them. Therefore it is beneficial for students to have these skills, even if not explicitly mentioned in the standards.

And the connection between global competence and the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)? The Education Policy Improvement Center (EPIC) found teaching for global competence clearly supports students' achievement of the CCSS in math and English Language Arts. What's more, EPIC found the emphasis in teaching for global competence on "taking action" adds a priority for students' application of skills and knowledge to address important, real world problems not found in the CCSS.

The Educating for Life and Work report also recommends "instruction targeted at deeper learning and development of 21st century competencies should begin with clearly delineated learning goals and a model of how learning is expected to develop, along with assessments to measure student progress toward and attainment of the goals." The report points out that the extent to which 21st century competencies are tested drives the extent they will be taught. It also acknowledges that there is a lack of valid, reliable measure of 21st century competencies, particularly those in the intra- and interpersonal domains. It's a huge topic unto itself; more on this in future posts.

Whatever definition we are talking about, one thing is clear—good education has always included these competencies, however, today we must ensure all students have access to them.

Educating for Life and Work was commissioned by several foundations across the U.S., including The William and Flora Hewlett, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur, and Nellie Mae Education foundations. Asia Society is a member of the Hewlett Foundation's Deeper Learning Network. The Network collectively addresses questions of how to teach and assess deeper learning skills.

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