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Study: '21st-Century Learning' Demands Mix of Abilities

The modern workplace and lifestyle demand that students balance cognitive, personal, and interpersonal abilities, but current education policy discussions have not defined those abilities well, according to a special report released this afternoon by the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science in Washington.

A "who's who" team of experts from the National Academies' division of behavioral and social sciences and education and its boards on testing and on science education collaborated for more than a year on the report, intended to define just what researchers, educators, and policymakers mean when they talk about "deeper learning" and "21st-century skills."

"Staying in school and completing degrees clearly have very strong effects," said James W. Pellegrino, a co-editor of the report and co-director of the Interdisciplinary Learning Sciences Research Institute at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Americans get about 7 to 11 percent return in higher career earnings based on their years of schooling, "and cognitive skills don't explain all the effects of schooling. Schooling is probably a proxy for some combination of different clusters of skills," he said.

The committee found these skills generally fall into three categories:


  • Cognitive skills, such as critical thinking and analytic reasoning;

  • Interpersonal skills, such as teamwork and complex communication; and

  • Intrapersonal skills, such as resiliency and conscientiousness (the latter of which has also been strongly associated with good career earnings and healthy lifestyles).

Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who was not part of the report committee, said developing common definitions of 21st-century skills is critical to current education policy discussions, such as around Common Core State Standards.

"Unless we want to have just a lot of hand-waving on 21st-century skills," Ms. Darling-Hammond said, "we need to get focused and purposeful on how to learn to teach and measure these skills, both in terms of research investments and in terms of the policies and practice that would allow us to develop and measure these skills."

Ms. Darling-Hammond said she was pleased with the report's recommendation to focus more research and resources on interpersonal skills such as complex communication and teamwork and intrapersonal skills such as resiliency and resourcefulness. "Those are the things that determine whether you make it through college, as much as your GPA or your skill level when you start college," Ms. Darling-Hammond said. "Putting that back on the table is a particularly useful thing; we have tended to de-emphasize those skills in an era in which we are focusing almost exclusively on testing, and a narrow area of testing."

Transfer in Context

Yet the keystone skill, the one that underlies and connects skills in all three areas, may be the trickiest to teach and test: a student's ability to transfer and apply her or his existing knowledge to a problem in a new context.

Transfer is the sort of Holy Grail in this whole thing and it is very challenging," Mr. Pellagrino said. "We'd like to believe we can create Renaissance men who are experts in a wide array of disciplines and can blithely transfer skills from one to the other, but it just doesn't happen that way. We do know how to promote transfer but it is limited in scope."

The committee found students develop the best ways to solve new problems by learning procedures and conceptual models within a specific subject area, and even experts often fail to apply their existing knowledge when a problem is presented in a totally new context.

"Transfer is deeply connected to your knowledge base and your skill in an area," said Christine M. Massey, one of the NRC committee members and the education director for the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's not the case that you can just practice up a set of generic skills and apply that in a certain area. You have to do it on top of a well-founded knowledge base. We really just don't know how to get that cross-discipline deep transfer."

However, the ability to transfer knowledge can be taught within individual subject areas. "If we really believe that the fundamental proposition here is transfer, it would dramatically affect what we did in curriculum assessment and instruction," Ms. Darling-Hammond said. "In math, for example, we wouldn't necessarily just give kids these problem sets but engage them in identifying, framing and solving real-world problems that would use those problem sets."

The committee pointed to one 2008 five-year longitudinal study of 700 California students in three high schools: one urban and one rural school, each with large proportions of minority and English-language learner students, and another overwhelmingly wealthy, white school. While at the start of the study, incoming 9th graders in the diverse urban school performed significantly below the students in the other schools in mathematics, the school designed its algebra and geometry courses to highlight multiple dimensions of math concepts and approaches to problem-solving, self- and group-assessment and developing good questions. When tested at the end of the first year, the students exposed to the "deeper learning" math had caught up with their peers in algebra, and they performed significantly better than students in the other schools in the following year. By the 4th year of the study, 41 percent of students at the urban diverse school were taking calculus, in comparison to only 27 percent at the other two schools.

The study was partially funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which also supports coverage of "deeper learning" in Education Week.

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