21st-Century Skills


If students are to gallop into the 21st century, many people believe that technology is the horse they'll be riding.

Think about it: What in your life hasn't been transformed to some extent by technology? Maybe you regularly extract $100 from your checking account by using your bank's ATM. Or Email your resume (with that great photo of you hard at work) to companies across the country. Or drive a car that can find its own way to the new pizza place across town. Or participate in video conferences with your business counterparts from around the world. Or organize your entire summer vacation--travel, hotel, attractions--online.

Maybe you even use a cell phone.

Now think about the world on the horizon for today's students. What skills will they need to navigate that world, skills you didn't need when you were emerging from adolescence? An organization called The Partnership for 21st-Century Skills (www.21stcenturyskills.org) reports on a nationwide poll that asked registered voters just that question, among others. Three relevant findings:

  • Four out of five voters say that the kind of skills students need to learn to be prepared for the jobs of the 21st century is different from what they needed 20 years ago.
  • Two out of every three voters say that they believe students need to learn more than just reading, writing, math, and science; high on the list are computer and technology skills, critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and teamwork and collaboration.
  • Almost three out of every four voters rank "computer and technology skills" at least a 9 in importance on a scale of 0 to 10. The only item that got a higher ranking was "reading comprehension."

The implications for education are deep. If students are to learn these skills, they may need to get very different kinds of assignments. Here's a traditional assignment: "Read the following descriptions of sites in Metropolis and, referring to the specifications, determine which site would be the best for a park." A corresponding assignment that would teach 21st-century skills might be this: "Using GPS equipment, work with students from two other schools in this city to determine the best site for a park, collaborate on a multimedia presentation, and arrange to make that presentation to the city council." In the latter assignment, students use various forms of technology (Internet, Email, GPS equipment, perhaps digital cameras, PowerPoint™), solve real-life problems, and work together to produce the desired result.

Note that the technology alone is insufficient. Good pedagogy is still good pedagogy, and that means engaging students, challenging them, encouraging them, and trusting them to do well. The trick--the goal--is incorporating technology into that pedagogy.

To do that requires a team. First, of course, is teachers and media specialists trained in the hardware and software that their students will be using--not only computers, but also digital cameras; not only word processing and spreadsheets, but also web pages and Internet search tools; and so on. A necessary part of the team is administrators--superintendents and principals and technology supervisors that can choose the appropriate technology, train the appropriate staff, and maintain the appropriate support for both machines and humans. And let's not forget parents and other segments of the community: For one thing, they need to endorse a budget that encompasses this technology and all its accoutrements. For another, they're in a position to promote a consistent message, whether it's from the parent helping with homework or the business owner hiring part-time students or the local civic organization volunteering to tutor. That message is "This is important stuff, and we're here to help."

The last member of the team is the most essential--the student. Students are charged with having the discipline to bend technology to their academic, and later their vocational, needs. Today it's seventh-graders working with their classmates to videotape interviews of veterans; 15 years from now, it's those same students working with their colleagues to create a digital production of their company's latest offerings.

The 21st century will demand much of students--as employees and as citizens. To a great extent, people's ability to work with technology and with each other will determine their success as both. So technology--hardware, software, infrastructure, training, and the budgets to support it--needs to be an everyday tool for teachers and students, a standard part of students' curriculum, and school communities need to be open to it. Technology is no longer a frill; it's as basic to education as the textbook and the ruler.