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21st-Century Skills and Teaching


By now, I hope you've had a chance to check out this story on the 21st-century skills movement and a group of individuals who are raising questions about it. Ken Kay, the president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the main group that advocates the incorporation of these technological, communication, and analytical skills into the curriculum, offers a lengthier explanation of his group's stance on the group's Web site here.

The argument from naysayers with respect to teachers isn't really so much one of content versus skills, it's that "project-based" instruction is an incredibly difficult kind of teaching to do without losing sight of content, and requires excellent preparation.

When I went to West Virginia to check out how the state is instituting professional development on 21st-century skills, this was one tension that even teachers who were really good at doing project-based learning fully acknowledged..

I remember watching 4th grade teacher Rachel Hull, who was in the process of doing a project-based unit with her students. Kids were asked to create a toy for Santa Claus to deliver that had to meet certain specifications, and one element of the toy involved circuits. So the students were gathered around investigating why small lightbulbs lit up when the circuits were wired one way and not another and asked to test various hypotheses about why that might be.

The problem was that in allowing kids this type of freedom, a lot of questions came up that Ms. Hull didn't know how to answer offhand. For example, she related to me that one of her students wanted to know if the circuit could power a Christmas-tree lightbulb, rather than the lighbulbs included in the project materials. Ms. Hull told me that she was going to have to look up the answer to that question and others on her own time.

Another teacher, Juanita Spinks, told me that making project-based learning relevant to kids' lives was hard to do in English/language arts. Her solution was not to throw out classic literature but to use such works as the core texts for exploring other types of narratives.

But when you multiply these challenges by 30 kids, that's a lot of extra work for a teacher. Some will be up to it; inevitably, some will not.

(I'll also take this opportunity to point out that in West Virginia, teachers were tying their projects to state content standards.)

I'd argue this debate shares some similarities with the test-prep/No Child Left Behind debate. One of the complaints about NCLB, for instance, is that it forces teachers to focus too much on preparing for tests. But most teachers would prefer to give kids a rich curriculum that will get them over what by most accounts are basic-skills tests, rather than do straight test prep.

So, does this mean that many teachers are not equipped, either because of poor training or a lack of resources and time or a less-than-supportive administration, to deliver a really powerful curriculum for kids?

If so, what do you think the solution is?


In my experiences teaching high school English in a school with a very high graduation rate and a student population whose vast majority will be attending college, students have more of a need to be prepared for college rather than the 21st Century Workplace. There is certainly value in project-based learning as a means of demonstrating the ability to apply knowledge, but it also creates a disconnect to how many college programs offer an education. Granted, it has been a long time since I was an undergrad, but I do not remember an excessive amount of project-based learning and group work. I remember writing a lot papers, taking a lot of tests, and talking a lot about material. There needs to be found a better balance. For schools in districts with a vast majority of higher learning students, there needs to be an infusion of 21st Century collegiate skills.

Why not allow the student to research his Christmas bulb question on the internet or bring one in to test? He would 'own' his learning and was being challenged in his thinking. Good learning begets good questioning and creative thinking. I would bet that morning he couldn't wait to get to school with the light bulb. That's a great project the teacher offered her students. We need to continually allow this to happen. 'Let's find out together..' Today's teaching is guiding and facilitating.

Unfortunately this is all so true. Many acadmeic teachers lack the personal experiences and professional training to relate their content material to students' lives. WIthout, that personal committment to the content, students often do not learn the content and if they do after the test they do a brain dump. Too many content teachers are not equipped to manage multiple projects and groups in a class working toward the same end only taking different paths to get there.

I teach college classes and I would suggest that the issue lies in our interpretation of the word "teacher". To teach is to impart information so that another can learn...it doesn't have anything to do with having every answer all the time. In the example that was shared in the article - the assumption is made that the teacher must either HAVE all the answers...or find them. On the contrary - there is considerable learning that takes place in surfing the web for information (which any 3rd grader can do quite well) and returning to the class with information that can then be discussed and shared. I would say that if there is "poor training" - it's in not challenging teachers to be brave enough to take the journey of knowledge discovery WITH their students and easily say..."you know...I don't know the answer to that question. How about if you (and you, and you..:-)) do some research when you get home tonight and see what you find out - and we'll talk about it tomorrow." From my standpoint...that is "a really powerful curriculum". Developing the ability to think critically is an ongoing learning opportunity that is an important 'transferable skill' into a college environment.

If creative problem solving (CPS) is, as Kay and others contend, a skill that is critical to a successful personal and work life in the 21st century, then that skill needs to be taught. I would argue that CPS be considered content as much as is math, science, etc. What's involved in doing so is not only the ability of teachers to teach CPS, but also their ability to intigrate those "core" subjects into learning the CPS process as well as integrating CPS into learning the "core" subjects.

I just want to sound off concerning my own situation. I have been teaching both public and private (Christian) education for over 32 years. I have never been so insulted by having my current principle hold a meeting with our grade level (5th) and inform us that he had no plans on "retaining" any fifth graders regardless of how they perform!
Now this lets me know that standards to him mean nothing and the quality of education is down the tubes when it comes to holding kids accountable. We have already been chided because our fifth graders are not performing up to standards...but they haven't been for three years...this same bunch of kids. I am sick of being told what I do in a classroom does not amount to anything!!

I have to say hats off to all you teachers. You are as unique as every student you meet. Each of you meets every child with your level of expertise, experience and belief system. You are modeling an outstanding teacher you had. Believe you me, you do have an impact on each and every child. As long as you head into that classroom believing in what you do, I think you will impart important life long skills, knowledge and abilities to problem solve on each child you encounter.

I do hope you know what an important job you do. I am almost 64 years of age and I certainly appreciate what you do on a daily basis! I don't know of too many people that can sustain the energy level, knowledge and strong belief in mankind that you have.

Please continue to use multifacited assessment when judging students. One test on one day does not cut it! Do everything you can to get your parents involved. I know you have to have your students highly engaged in the learning process or you would find other work. I remember those teachers who took me from where I was in the learning process and pulled me forward. I was not expected to be part of an assembly line. I know each of you is striving to develop life long learners who have the desire to continue their education.

For all the above, I thank each and every teacher.

Good Job! its a great tips to be a good teacher. thanx

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