Which Side Are You On?


In the debate over how to best prepare studentsfor the global economy, some favor teachingpractical technology know-how; others argue forabstract cognitive skills. The answer may be abalance of both.

Which Side Are You On?IF YOU'RE UNDER 18 and you're looking to acquire thelatest and greatest 21st-century skills, you might want to tryto figure out a way into Thomas Jefferson High School forScience and Technology in Alexandria, VA.

The very selective public magnet school requires that all of its 1,800 students take at least one computer science course during their freshman year-- a course that serves to familiarize them with programming languages such as Java and C. Afterward, many students go on to take additional courses to prepare themselves for the advanced placement exam in computer science, which they take at the end of their sophomore year.

And that's just as a warmup.

In post-AP electives, students can study everything from artificial intelligence to parallel programming, in addition to learning programming languages such as PHP, Perl, C++, Matlab, and Mason. By the time Jefferson students graduate, it's possible that they could know more programming languages than many 22-year-olds with bachelor's degrees in computer science.

"Our kids leave here with specific technology skills, but also with a great capacity for learning," says Shane Torbert, one of the school's computer science teachers. "Once you learn a couple of programming languages, it becomes that much easier to learn others and expand your abilities."

Jefferson High's curriculum is much more advanced than the average high school's, but its approach to preparing its students for life in the real world is worth considering. At a time when educators are talking about emphasizing the skills graduates must have to compete in the 21st century, some observers believe that schools are not in tune with what a 21st-century-skill truly is, and that not enough of them are teaching their students the very technologies they need to get ahead. Just what are 21st-century skills? Most conversations on the topic focus on concepts such as creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving, and communication and collaboration. But are those skills something students can easily show off on a resume or college application, or in a job interview? Probably not.

"Job applicants would be hard-pressed to demonstrate problem-solving excellence or critical-thinking prowess through an application packet or a one-time meeting," says Michael Schmidt, director of education and community development for the Ford Motor Company Fund. "You can get a sense of these skills from work samples, but by and large they take time for people to showcase, and usually can't be demonstrated until after the person has the chance to join the company and shine."

The consensus from the education and business worlds seems to be that the best-equipped new graduates possess both abstract cognitive skills and practical technology know-how-- and that having one without the other is a shortcoming. Ken Kay, president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, contends that 21st-century skills aren't so much about mastering one particular technology as they are about using technology to master a skill.

Codes of Honor

Which Side Are You On?ACROSS THE COUNTRY, a select number of high school studentscompete in the TopCoder High School Tournament, an annual computer programming contest thatchallenges students' problem-solving skills.

The competition is conducted from January to March. The firstthree rounds are done online before the finalists meet faceto-face on the campus of Indiana's Purdue University tosee who can write the most elegant algorithms to crackcomplex word problems. Launched by TopCoder last year,the contest is open to any high school-aged memberwithin TopCoder's community of more than 145,000 programmersworldwide. Nonmember students can sign up andjoin the community for free-- the competitions are also free.

TopCoder COO Rob Hughes says the contest provides a greatopportunity for students to show off their programming talents inthe use of Java, Linux, Ajax, and Flash. While most student participantsdescribe these skills as self-taught, Hughes says that a growingnumber report they are learning programming basics as part of theirregular school curriculum. "More and more, we're seeing students saythey've learned languages like Lisp, C++, Perl, and PHP in high school,"he says. "If the right type of skills are followed and developed early on,then, as a nation, we can ensure both jobs for our youngsters andgrowth for our workforce as globalization continues."

According to Hughes, the benefits of these kinds of programmingcontests are much broader than one might think. First, of course, studentsget practice writing code. But he says the competitions sharpenintangibles such as problem solving and critical thinking, which can beas critical as programming skills for success in the 21st-century economy.

"Beyond the bits and the bytes, young people need to be able tosolve complicated equations and think critically on the fly," Hughessays. "Anything that requires them to do these things-- whetheryou're talking about competitions or just an ordinary class-- is astep in the right direction."

"Understanding specific technologies is important, but technologies change," Kay says. "Our definition of literacy is the ability to use any kind of technology to innovate, collaborate, and communicate. From there, everything else is extra."

As Kay suggests, hard-core tech skills and less demonstrable cognitive abilities can go hand in hand. In fact, the former is enhanced by the latter, as Jeffrey Yan sees it. Yan, CEO of Digication, an e-portfolio vendor in Providence, RI, says that when he's on the lookout for new employees, he tries to hire fresh-out-of-college kids who can demonstrate the holy trinity of skill sets: critical thinking, problem solving, and programming.

Specifically, Yan says he likes to hire people with knowledge of HTML, C++, Java, and Ajax; people who have the ability to build web and database applications that can grow over time. During interviews, he quizzes candidates on how they would use programming to address a particular challenge. He may even present them with a challenge (build a better system for filing content, for instance) and asks them to write a basic program to fix it. Yan says such tasks inherently demonstrate broader ability to tackle complex problems. While he concedes that many programming skills can be learned later in life, he says the best candidates are those who got started as K-12 students.

"It's not enough to tell me you can design a database anymore," Yan says. "Nowadays, I want you to be able to tell me you can design a database that can interface with programs X, Y, and Z, or a database in which certain queries will be scalable." He adds that, for his professional purposes, the true 21st-century skill is the one that gets the job done: "Creativity and ingenuity are important, but at the end of the day, if you can't write the code, you can't get much further than a concept."

"Job applicants would be hard-pressedto demonstrate problem-solvingexcellence or critical-thinkingprowess through an application packetor a one-time meeting."

Teaching Web 2.0

Mastery of certain programming languages is critical to a career in technology, but not for students who wish to go on to careers in other industries. For them, different tech skills are prized-- such as multimedia creation, managing social networking, and collaborating online.

At Newport Mesa Unified School District in Southern California, an extensive online education initiative emphasizes student familiarity with Web 2.0 technologies such as social networking applications, as well as collaborative tools like Google Docs and educational wiki spaces, such as those hosted by PBwiki.

According to Steven Glyer, the district's director of educational technology, the program makes students from an early age familiar with web-based technologies that will grow even more prevalent in the decades to come. Glyer says that the emergence of these technologies, which are rooted in facilitating communication and collaboration, should be driving schools to prepare their students accordingly. "Communication, collaboration, and how to work more efficiently-- you can't really go wrong teaching students those kinds of skills," he says. This recalls Ken Kay's point: Understanding how to operate the technology is necessary for students to demonstrate their higher-order skills-- one does not happen without the other. For graduates to stand a chance in the global economy, they need, as Glyer says, "to have a handle on both."

A Digital Disconnect

A RECENT REPORT by Irvine, CA-based nonprofit Project Tomorrow indicates a stark discord between schools' perception of the value of the education they'reproviding and what students think about it. Released this spring, the fifth annual Speak Upsurvey assesses how well schools are doing to prepare students for the jobs of the future.

The answer appears to be: Depends on whom you ask. While 66 percent of schooladministrators, 47 percent of teachers, and 43 percent of parents say "local schoolsare doing a good job preparing students for the jobs and careers of the future," only23 percent of middle and high school students agreed with that assessment.

What's interesting is the survey suggests that students seem to be more in tune with21st-century skills than the adults who hold sway over their education. They rate theimportance of developing creativity and teamwork skills higher than do their parentsand teachers. On top of that, 74 percent of high school students identify good technologyskills as the top priority for success in the 21st-century job market.

The technology behind Newport Mesa's online coursework is a fairly typical solution from Angel Learning, and has existed in some form since 2003. Students enroll just as they would for any other course, and "report" to class on the first day. From that point forward, they participate virtually and can log on from home as their time permits.

One of the attractions of Newport Mesa's online course offerings-- though limited currently to health, economics, and government-- is that the program enables students to get comfortable communicating and collaborating online.

"Many students don't have any experience with social networking and online tools until they get to college," says Glyer, explaining that the Angel Learning system enables students to access lectures, chat with their teachers, and collaborate on projects. "Here, at least a certain percentage of our kids experience the benefits of this stuff before they even get their diplomas. That familiarity is invaluable down the road."


EARLIER THIS YEAR, author Matt Villano hosteda podcast for T.H.E. Journal on K-12's effortsto teach 21st-century skills with two membersof the corporate world: Andrea Brands, directorof public affairs at AT&T,and Allyson Knox, academic program managerfor US Partners in Learning at Microsoft. The two businesswomenidentified some of the specific skills necessaryfor students to get ahead. Download theaudio file here.

In the corporate world, the strategy of exposing students to Web 2.0 tools early on is applauded. Andrea Brands, director of public affairs at AT&T, says that expertise in Web 2.0 tools is considered fundamental for the 21st century. In particular, companies are looking for new employees with the skills to gather information, interpret it, and then present it digitally.

"Digital photography, digital audio recording, and the ability to put it all together-- these are all skills I'd say we're expecting everyone to have," she says. "A lot of what we do also revolves around polling, so an understanding of technologies to facilitate and process that sort of thing is going to be huge."

Like Kay and Glyer, Brands also cites the interdependency of being tech savvy with being a quick thinker. "Being able to think quickly and creatively enough to use technology to present information is something [every company] will be looking for to some degree," she says. "This reality makes technology skills central to better 21st-century skills overall."

A Framework for Success

At the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the future is captured in three letters: ICT-- information, communication, and technology-- a blueprint the organization has drawn up that outlines how schools and school districts can best prepare students to use technology to maximize creativity and innovation, improve critical thinking and problem solving, and get better at both communication and collaboration.

There's no set list of specific technologies that students need to learn, but instead a framework of skills that can be applied to a vast number of them, including proficiency in programming languages, multimedia creation, and Web 2.0 tools, as well as basic familiarity with wireless applications, comfort with databases, and a general understanding of how best to access information available on the internet.

"ICT literacy focuses on your ability to work with others using technology," says Kay. "It's not just your ability to Google stuff; it's your ability to use other types of media to obtain the information, and your ability to determine if the information you find is actually accurate."

Interestingly, Margaret Honey, senior vice president for strategic initiative and research at Wireless Generation, points out that one of the reasons students need to acquire technology skills is to help them maintain some order over the enormous output of information flowing from these very technologies.

To make her point, Honey cites the example of her 18-yearold son. When the soon-to-be college freshman recently showed Honey his e-mail program, she was stunned to see the volume of messages flooding his inbox, unsorted, and to learn that the boy had not developed strategies for organizing the influx of all that information. While it's clear that her son knows how to usee-mail, she says that that skill is not sufficient in and of itself.

"What he really should be doing is taking advantage of those aspects of his e-mail system that would enable him to categorize and sort and do a much more analytical job of keeping track of the information that's coming his way," Honey says. "This is the whole point with technology skills for the 21st century-- knowing specific technologies means nothing unless you understand how to apply that knowledge to the real world."

If you would like more information on 21st-centuryskills, visit www.thejournal.com. In the Browse byTopic menu, click on eLearning/Web.

Matt Villano is a freelance writer based in Healdsburg, CA.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.