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.
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.
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 http://edge.ascd.org/_Ten-years-in-and-still-not-with-it/blog/2409956/127586.html.
Walker, D. F., & J.F. Soltis (1992). Curriculum and Aims. New York: Columbia University.