Learning 21st-Century Skills Requires 21st-Century Teaching

By Saavedra, Anna Rosefsky; Opfer, V. Darleen | Phi Delta Kappan, October 2012 | Go to article overview

Learning 21st-Century Skills Requires 21st-Century Teaching


Saavedra, Anna Rosefsky, Opfer, V. Darleen, Phi Delta Kappan


Globalization, economic necessity, and low civic engagement compound the urgency for students to develop the skills and knowledge they need for success. The interconnectedness of our global economy, ecosystem, and political networks require that students learn to communicate, collaborate, and problem solve with people worldwide. Employers demand fewer people with basic skill sets and more people with complex thinking and communication skills (Levy & Murnane, 2005). Low levels of civic engagement highlight the recognition that rote learning about government is not a sufficient way for students to learn how and why to be engaged citizens (Levine, 2012).

But the movement toward 21st-century skills--as any movement--must define its objective, to wit, the skills that comprise the movement. Based on several hundred interviews with business, non-profit, and education leaders, Tony Wagner (2008) proposes that students need seven survival skills including:

* Critical thinking and problem solving;

* Collaboration and leadership;

* Agility and adaptability;

* Initiative and entrepreneurialism;

* Effective oral and written communication;

* Accessing and analyzing information; and

* Curiosity and imagination

The Assessment and Teaching of 21st-century Skills consortium (AT21CS), organizes skills, knowledge, and attitudes into four categories: ways of thinking, ways of working, tools for working, and living in the world (2012).

Regardless of the skills included or the terms used to describe them, all 21st-century skills definitions are relevant to aspects of contemporary life in a complex world. Most focus on similar types of complex thinking, learning, and communication skills, and all are more demanding to teach and learn than rote skills. These abilities are also commonly referred to as higher-order thinking skills, deeper learning outcomes, and complex thinking and communication skills.

Why students aren't learning them

The outdated, transmission model of education, through which teachers transmit factual knowledge to students via lectures and textbooks, remains the dominant approach to compulsory education in much of the world (OECD, 2009). Through the transmission model, students can learn information, but typically don't have much practice applying the knowledge to new contexts, communicating it in complex ways, using it to solve problems, or using it as a platform to develop creativity. Therefore, transmission is not the most effective way to teach 21st-century skills. Students are not developing them because they are not being explicitly taught (Schleicher, 2012) and because they are more difficult to assess than factual retention (AT21CS, 2012).

Nine lessons

Despite the challenges, we can educate students differently. Learning scientists have taught us nine lessons relative to teaching 21st-century skills. All of the lessons are about how students learn 21st-century skills and how pedagogy can address their needs. Many of the lessons--especially transfer, metacognition, teamwork, technology, and creativity--are also 21st-century skills in themselves.

#1. MAKE IT RELEVANT. To be effective, curriculum must be relevant to students' lives. To make curriculum relevant, teachers must begin with generative topics or topics that have an important place in the disciplinary or interdisciplinary study at hand and that resonate with learners and teachers (Perkins, 2010).

The relevance of a specific topic is clearer to students when they understand how it fits within the big picture. In his book Making Learning Whole (2010), teaching and learning expert David Perkins uses baseball as an analogy to explain that players must know how hitting, catching, and running bases contribute to the game. Similarly, students need to understand how statistics fit into the bigger picture of mathematical thinking, and they must have a sense of the value of mathematical thinking in the first place.

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