21st Century Skills | Feature

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Schools continue to deliver new graduates into the workplace lacking the tech-based "soft skills" that businesses demand. Experts blame K-12's persistent failure to integrate technology.

In the 2007 report "Maximizing the Impact: The Pivotal Role of Technology in a 21st Century Education System," a task force of leading employers, ed tech advocates, and educators concluded that schools were barely using technology, much less developing the tech skills needed of those entering the workplace.

"To a wireless nation," task force members wrote, "which relies on technology for ordinary tasks and extraordinary achievements, it is shocking and inconceivable--but true--that technology is marginalized in the complex and vital affairs of education."

The upshot of this neglect, the report goes on to say, is to leave students unsuited for a work environment in which knowing core subject content can be secondary to being able to use technology to demonstrate the so- called 21st century skills that employers now demand: "Even if all students mastered core academic subjects, they still would be woefully under prepared to succeed in post secondary institutions and workplaces, which increasingly value people who can use their knowledge to communicate, collaborate, analyze, create, innovate, and solve problems."

The report, published jointly by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), was a loud, disruptive clarion call to schools to move purposefully toward the use of technology to develop 21st century skills.

Or it should have been, anyway.

Although some progress has been made in the four years since the release of the report, it's difficult to find anyone who would argue that in their preparation of K-12 students for the technology-fueled, knowledge-based economy they will soon enter, schools are hitting the mark.

High-tech companies are increasingly looking for new hires whose skills go beyond mastery of core content--but by and large are not finding them. Employers are finding that for all of their texting, IM-ing, and downloading, and their fluency with each new gadget, young entrants to the labor force are woefully devoid of the skills that companies need as technology continues to transform the workplace. Work readiness is no longer just about the three R's; now it's also about turning information into knowledge through Web searching and vetting. It's about developing effective multimedia presentations. It's about seamlessly using digital tools to collaborate and problem-solve.

"Since the early 1990s, we've seen a shift away from the routine, because those tasks are largely being automated or outsourced," says Tim Magner, executive director of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. As a consequence, the skills in high demand now are not exclusively reading, writing, and arithmetic. Magner's organization says United States schools need to fuse the traditional three Rs with the four Cs--critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity--while also making room for problem solving and innovation.

"This is not what our education system was designed to teach," Magner says, "so we need to be more purposeful in embedding these kinds of skills into educational landscapes."

Traditional Skills, Digital Setting
While these so-called "soft skills" have been considered important for some time, he explains, they need to be taught differently if K-12 graduates are to thrive in the tech-infused job sectors they will enter upon graduation. It's no longer enough, for example, to instruct students in spoken and written communication; they also need to be taught how to communicate electronically, including the nuances and etiquette of text, e-mail, and Web interactions. Similarly, collaboration doesn't happen exclusively face-to-face anymore; materials and documents are shared without regard to physical space. Magner said he believes more and more collaboration will be occurring in 3D, immersive environments, so students need to be adept at navigating virtual worlds.

Indeed, observes Don Knezek, CEO of ISTE, what's required of schools is not developing within students a whole other skill set, but simply teaching them to apply to a new arena the ones they already have. "These new skills that we call digital skills are simply cognitive skills in digital settings," he says. Beyond being able to use technology efficiently and productively, Knezek explains, K-12 graduates should understand how to use it to define and break down a problem, look into how similar problems have been solved, and design and implement a solution. In communicating that solution, they should be skillful not merely at typing a Word document but also at telling a compelling story through an interactive multimedia presentation.


The two fastest-growing occupations in the U.S. economy, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, are biomedical engineers and network systems and data communications analysts.

"Decisions on everything from what people buy to how they vote are now made much less by text or verbal logic than by these visual, persuasive media," says Knezek, whose organization represents more than 100,000 education leaders engaged in advancing the effective use of technology in K-12 and teacher education. Having command of imparting a message through digital media could be a difference maker in the tech-based workplace.

"Today's students could be technologically literate as well as great communicators in traditional settings," Knezek says, "but get the socks beaten off them by someone who has learned to communicate in a digital setting."

While many schools have taken the step of asking students to use digital media in assignments, few are teaching them strategies for doing it well--much less imparting more sophisticated skills such as the ability to use scripts to combine applications, according to Cisco Systems' Charles Fadel. In 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times (Jossey-Bass), a 2009 book Fadel co-authored with Oracle's Bernie Trilling, media literacy is identified as one of three "critical" classes of digital skills for those entering the modern high-tech workplace. Fadel, Cisco's global education lead, says his company wants students to have mastery of multiple digital media mechanisms.

"Ideally, we'd like people to be able to routinely take a database of H1N1 flu cases and overlay that onto Google Maps," he says. "But that's not even being taught in universities."

Fadel and others concerned about the tech skills of the future workforce also emphasize the importance of information and communication technology literacy: a working knowledge of computers and the applications that run on them--everything from e-mail and spreadsheet tools to statistical analysis packages--along with the ability to learn new ones rapidly.

And there will be new ones all the time, given the speed with which technology advances. Being able to gain command of them quickly broadens students' ability to incorporate features that help them produce their best work, says Dan Meyer, CEO of Atomic Learning, a provider of online products that teach educators how to effectively use technology.

"Students should be able to analyze changing demographics in a community by graphing the data in various ways using a spreadsheet, as well as developing hypotheses out of that data," Meyer says. "They should be able to put it into a PowerPoint or some other presentation software and incorporate visual elements."

Then there is information literacy--the ability to sort through the vast amount of source materials now available to anyone with Internet access, and to discern what's trustworthy from what's questionable. "Kids are so used to having reliable information provided for them, but that's not the way it works in the real world," Meyer says. "There is a skill to typing the right question into the search engine and knowing how to discriminate between different sources of information."

"It's different from when you went to the school library and could be confident that the sources were legitimate," adds Eileen Lento, K-12 strategist at Intel. "We need to teach students to be discriminating consumers of information. Can they vet information, pull together different materials, and demonstrate their constructed new knowledge? That's the mother lode."

Collaboration has always been important, Lento notes, but never more so than now, when the growing high-tech sectors are demanding employees be able to work with others on complex tasks. "Most of the problems we need to solve require distributed intelligence," Lento explains. "Innovation occurs at the intersection of different fields of expertise."

For the same reason that working together and bringing multiple areas of expertise to bear on a problem is important, the ability to synthesize disparate approaches through technology is a key skill in an era when disciplinary boundaries are fraying. Pamela Clute, a math professor and assistant vice provost at the University of California, Riverside, who served on a National Science Board panel that authored a report to Congress last September on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, notes that one of the major projected growth fields in the next decade is nanotechnology. A vast frontier of materials, devices, and systems to be created by manipulating objects at the levels of molecules and atoms, nanoscience is expected to drive progress in everything from manufacturing and computers to energy, electronics, and health care.

"This involves integrating the sciences, and it's where K-12 needs to change how it presents content," Clute says. "High school students are taking physics, biology, and math classes as independent silos, and yet employers expect their employees to have the ability to integrate knowledge."

A Core Problem, Too

Return to SenderIntel's Eileen Lento says that schools' failure to supply employers with well equipped new graduates extends beyond a lack of attention to the "soft" skills of problem solving, collaboration, innovation, and the like. Inadequate instruction of core "hard" subject matter--namely in science, technology, engineering, and math--is also a culprit.

"The U.S. isn't creating enough engineers, they're not creating enough math majors, they're not creating enough science majors," Lento says. She cites the fairly undemanding graduation requirements for high school math--passing algebra--which don't align with the far more advanced math skills required in high-tech work environments.

"For the most part, the bar is kind of low," Lento says. "When you're looking at a high-tech industry, or whether you're a software company or a hardware manufacturer, the people who are doing the innovation on the edge clearly have better than algebra skills. So it really is about beeing up the pipeline in those content areas."

Teach Through Technology
What is keeping students from leaving the K-12 system as the idealized profile of the multiskilled, technology-fluent 21st century worker that employers covet? From being expert collaborators, problem solvers, knowledge integrators, and information vetters?

The root of the problem, as spelled out by the "Maximizing the Impact" report four years ago and still true today, is the way K-12 deploys technology in instruction, which is generally inadequate, disjointed, and poorly thought out--or not thought out at all, according to Intel's Lento. Lento says that too many districts invest in technology with neither a long-term vision for how it will be used nor any definition or measurement of success.

"The thinking tends to be that the change is incremental, so you purchase computers and software without thought to what they're going to replace," she says. "Districts feel pressure to modernize, so they buy technology but don't consider its transformative nature. What often happens, then, is computers are used as expensive pencils, and then they wonder why they're not getting different results."

Cisco's Fadel describes three layers of technology implementation in schools. The first is simply teaching about technology use. The second is to teach with technology--embedding technology in the instruction. While many schools have reached that stage, he says, few have moved on to the more advanced level: teaching through technology, such as with simulations or augmented reality.

"Most teachers have gotten to the point where they tolerate technology, but they're not exactly sure where and how to use which technology to its best effect," Fadel says.

So what has happened, Magner explains, is the technology is being diminished. "Much of the emphasis has been on fixing 20th century schools rather than on building 21st century schools," he says. "The mindset is often that we're going to use technology to get really good at delivering instruction the old way rather than for things like providing the flexibility for kids to learn online, doing more project-based learning, and having teachers come together in an interdisciplinary way to create experiences that enable students to explore these digital technologies, while continuing to ensure that they have a rigorous academic experience."

As a result, Knezek laments, students learn a subject such as science in a manner that doesn't resemble the way scientists work. When Knezek learned that his friend, a chemical engineer, was retiring, he congratulated him on "hanging up the lab coat." The friend grinned, shook his head, and said, "No, I'm pushing away from the workstation." He then explained to Knezek he was spending the vast majority of his time in a virtual environment rather than in the lab.

"If you meet someone who tells you his interest is science, ask how much technology he uses," Knezek says. "If he says, 'Not much,' you know that person is a student or a teacher in our school system. If you meet someone who is interested in communications who doesn't use a lot of technology, same thing. I guarantee you it's either a teacher or a student."

Far from learning in a way that resembles the way they will be operating in their future jobs, Knezek notes, students are told while in school to turn off the very mobile devices that are so integral in today's workplace and are typically unable to access expertise outside the classroom.

K-12 education must leave behind the days of teachers delivering lectures in front of the class and instead embrace a more social learning process, Knezek says, one that is more oriented toward the way things get done in the workplace today. Although some progress has been made in moving toward more project- and team-based learning, students continue to be pulled out of that setting when the time arrives to take assessments.

"We don't let them see or hear anyone else, and they certainly can't go online," Knezek says. "With the modern tools we now have, why aren't we assessing them in performance-based, realistic settings?"

In his view, the obstacle is the system of accountability via standardized testing established by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which has the effect of discouraging innovation in the classroom, as teachers choose to stay with what's familiar to them when faced with student performance mandates. As a result, Knezek asserts, "our measures of performance are horribly misaligned with what's required in the workplace."

Focus on the Risk-Takers
The obstacles to better, deeper, more meaningful technology integration that will better prepare students for the workplace are familiar, but no less formidable: educators' lack of confidence in their own tech skills, fears of how more-tech-savvy students will use technology in the classroom, and a lack of cash.

"School budgets will likely continue shrinking, or at least be flat, for several more years," says Chad Ratliff , assistant director of instruction and innovation projects for Albemarle County Public Schools in Charlottesville, VA. "Tech companies are innovating at a breakneck pace, and we have to be careful not to get caught up in a gadget race."

Ratliff advises schools to invest in tech spending with impact, replicability, and sustainability in mind. He recommends focusing their efforts on classrooms of teachers willing to take risks. "Top-down directives--particularly ones that aim to fundamentally change someone's daily work--are rarely successful," Ratliff says. "We'll have a greater shot at scalability with small wins in key classrooms."

Though it won't be easy, Clute points out that the imperative for K-12 schools to better equip graduates with the tech skills they need to flourish in 21st century jobs could not be clearer.

"If the United States is to stay economically powerful in this global economy, we have to develop the next generation of STEM professionals--young people who are not only good at math and science, but who think creatively and work in teams," Clute says. "The platform for doing that is technology."