Steven Weber

Superintendent or Asst Super

Fayetteville, AR

Interests: Curriculum design and...

  • Posted 7 Years ago
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21st Century Skills: What Should Students Know and Be Able to Do?


What skills should we teach?

In 1860, Herbert Spencer wrote, "Before there can be a rational curriculum, we must settle which things it most concerns us to know."  According to Walker & Soltis (1992), "no substantial agreement exists among philosophers, the public, or educators on what should be the aims of a general education for all" (p. 79).  As we enter 2011, which 'things' are important for K-12 students to know and be able to do?


A Disjointed Curriculum


The push in education is for educators to transform teaching and learning in all classrooms.  According to Erik Palmer (2010), “Ten years into the 21st century and not much has changed in schools because we have had the wrong approach in 'teaching' about 21st century tools.”  Ken Kay (2010) stated, 21st century skills “are rarely incorporated deliberately throughout the curriculum, nor are they routinely assessed.  This status quo relegates these skills into the ‘nice to have’ rather than the ‘must have’ in education, which means [the skills] are taught unevenly” (p. xx).  


What should every student know and be able to do?


This may be the most fundamental question asked by K-12 curriculum developers. At this point in the school year, it may feel like a race to Spring Break, followed by a final sprint to summer vacation. According to Jay McTighe (2010), "The most successful teaching begins with clarity about important learning outcomes and about the evidence that will show that learning has occurred" (p. 274).  By moving towards a consensus about the outcomes of a 21st century education, we will ensure consistency between teachers and across schools.


Moving Forward

The time to debate the need for twenty-first century skills passed about ten years ago.  If we continue to teach students in straight rows, using multiple choice assessments and rewarding the students who have the correct answer, we will ultimately fail our students.  Nearly every teacher I have met is a hard working teacher and they care about students.  The intent of this article is not to bash teachers for working hard.  Hargreaves (2010) wrote, “Twenty-first century skills require 21st century schools” (p. 340).  What is the current reality in your school?  Do teachers have a clear picture of the 21st century outcomes for students?  Do your assessments measure the intended outcomes?   When it comes to curriculum and instruction, for many school systems, "there is a gap between the compass and the clock – between what's deeply important to us and the way we spend our time" (Covey, Merrill & Merrill, 1994, p. 16).  In order to develop a 21st century curriculum, teachers will need time allocated for professional conversations about what matters most.

Questions to Consider:

1.  Does my school have a guaranteed and viable curriculum that embeds 21st Century Skills?

2.  How is the intended curriculum different from the received curriculum?

3.  What are the learning outcomes related to 21st Century Skills? (i.e., at your grade level or for your course)?

4.  Ask yourself, would I want my son or daughter to experience the school’s curriculum?

5.  What is the current reality when it comes to student understanding of 21st Century Skills in my class?

What the best and wisest parent wants for his or her own child, that must the community want, for all of its children.

John Dewey
As cited by Gene Carter, Executive Director ASCD
ASCD Education Update - December 2006, p. 2


Covey, S.R., Merrill, A.R., & Merrill, R.R. (1994). First things first.  New York: Simon & Schuster.

Hargreaves, A. (2010). Leadership, change, and beyond the 21st century skills agenda. In Bellanca, J., & Brandt, R. (Eds.), 21st century skills: Rethinking how students learn.  Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Kay, K. (2010). 21st century skills: Why they matter, what they are, and how we get there.  In Bellanca, J., & Brandt, R. (Eds.), 21st century skills: Rethinking how students learn.  Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

McTighe, J. (2010). Understanding by design and instruction. In Marzano, R. (Ed.), On excellence in teaching. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.  

Palmer, E. (2010). Ten years in and still not worth it? ASCD EDge. Retrieved on January 19, 2011, from

Walker, D. F., & J.F. Soltis (1992). Curriculum and Aims. New York: Columbia University.


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21 Jan 11, 07:19 PM


I am advocate for technology integration. I think that today's students appreciate it when educators make lessons more meaningful by utilizing existing and emerging technology. In 2011, most educators have decided that computers, SMART Boards, iPads, GPS, and other gadgets are tools which support student understanding. I don't see many teachers utilizing technology for the sake of checking 21st century skills off their list for the week.

Two Concerns:
1) Technology (alone) does not mean we are incorporating 21st century skills. See a sample list of 21st Century Skills on the P21 site.

2) Curriculum Design around technology or a new gadget does not constitute technology integration.

Teachers and professional learning teams need to identify the "Essential Learning Outcomes." Once these have been established, educators can begin discussing how to assess whether students know or understand the "Essential Learning Outcomes." With the 'end' as the starting point, educators will be able to identify which keys and concepts they are trying to teach. Finally, a learning activity can be designed to meet these goals. (I didn't explain it quite as pretty as Wiggins and McTighe, but you get the picture). I agree with teaching students Key Concepts, Key Skills, and Big Ideas. I also feel like educators need to identify which 21st century skills they are going to teach in each course and/or grade level. It is difficult to have intentional teaching towards common "Essential Learning Outcomes" if the outcomes do not exist.

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21 Jan 11, 11:11 AM

Steven, I'm curious about how you would view technology integration into 21st century skills. I'm not suggesting technology for technology's sake, but should teacher be also asking themselves: How can I use technology to better engage my students in the "big ideas" I want to teach them?

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