Directions in Education

21st-Century Skills: Evidence, Relevance, and Effectiveness

"The 21st century isn't coming; it's already here.... Public schools must prepare our young people to understand and address global issues, and educators must re-examine their teaching strategies and curriculum so that all students can thrive in this global and interdependent society."
--Dennis Van Roekel, president, National Education Association, April 2010

The new millennium. A new epoch? Sure it was seismic, even apocalyptic in the eyes of some. But that's the thing about perspective. How something moves from point A to point B depends entirely on how you look at it. Einstein said so. And all he'd learned up to that point were 19th-century skills.

But even with an extra fivescore under our belts, Albert's theory still applies. Perception informs all knowledge and opinion, and there is no universal definition of a 21st-century skill. But let's give ourselves a break. We're barely a decade into said century. And we were still debating the merits of teaching trigonometry and humanities to future auto mechanics and beauticians into the late 1990s. Some believe we'll put a man on Saturn before we put Thomas Mann on the workbench of someone repairing a Saturn (a gross generalization, to be sure, and my sincerest apologies to anyone who has before them Death in Venice to their left and a fuel injection valve to their right).

As with any journey of a thousand miles in as many different directions, though, we have to take that first step. So how about a template, a set of broad classifications that at least suggest some practicable goals? Does there exist such a Rosetta Stone?

Believe it or not, there is not one, but rather a spectrum of them, from the very broad to the very discreet. To date, one of the more pervasive templates among education experts and curriculum designers has been the National Education Technology Standards, for Students (NETS-S), and for Teachers (NETS-T), initially devised in 1998, and then revised and updated in 2007 (2008 for teachers), by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). But while these standards are an adequate top-line entrée into the realm of 21st-century skills, they are quite broad, and they don't explore the long-term goals; nor do they suggest means for achieving them.

Several states have taken the NETS standards one to several steps further in identifying what K-12 education must achieve in terms of facilitating student proficiency in the defined skills. These efforts have, in some cases, led to standards being issued by each state for its own students to meet, including:

Finally, the Partnership for 21st-Century Skills (P21) has created a series of detailed "maps," practical guides containing well defined tasks at multiple education levels, designed to help schools guide their students along a consistent path on their way to full proficiency in 21st-century skills over the course of their K-12 education. Each of these maps covers a major subject, such as English, mathematics, or science, and gives goals that should be met for each skill by 4th, 8th, and 12th grades in order for a student to be considered proficient at that level of education.

The maps are the result of a collaboration between several organizations focused on integrated educational content and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. According to P21, they "are useful in helping teachers in each discipline understand the ways in which 21st century skills can be integrated into instruction."

For example, for the skill defined as "media literacy," the geography map recommends that, by the completion of 8th grade, a student be able to demonstrate a "fundamental understanding of the ethical and legal issues surrounding the access and use of information." The map then suggests the example of having students use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology, such as software or digital maps from Google, Yahoo, etc. to play the role of a geographic consultant and select the optimal location for a new youth center in a well developed community. The students further have to research the social, economic, and environmental impacts, drawing from the understanding of such issues and research proficiency reasonably expected of an 8th-grader, and use what they learn to solve the problem and support the reasoning behind their respective answers. Such assignments are usually pursued by groups of students rather than individuals, with each student taking on a portion or component of the necessary research, which also contributes to the skills of collaboration and interaction.

The Partnership's Skills Maps for each subject can be found at the following links:

The maps for mathematics, foreign languages, and the arts are still being developed. The Partnership expects to have these completed by summer 2010.

Are These Skills We Can Teach?
Jay Mathews is the education reporter and columnist for The Washington Post and the author of five books on education, including, most recently, Work Hard, Be Nice: How Two Inspiring Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America. He is also, quite proudly, an outspoken critic of efforts to introduce 21st-century skills into America's schools when, in his opinion, we still haven't hit on a really effective way to teach the traditional subject areas so that they'll stick.

"In attempts to define [21st-century skills]," said Mathews, "people tend to talk about critical thinking, knowledge about technology, creative thought, thinking outside the box, etc. These are all very interesting buzzwords, but they don't tend to say much about what teachers are supposed to be teaching. We want students to be able to read and write critically and do math a few levels above what we've got now. And most of all [we want them] to appreciate the totality of the changes the world is going through.

"There's been a lot of focus on deepening our lessons, and making sure they not only speak to the three Rs, but speak to using those skills to understand the world better, and to be prepared for particular challenges of adult life, starting with college, and whatever job one goes to."

It seems simple enough, but Mathews said the problem comes in trying to introduce additional, and more complex, dimensions to these simple concepts. He said he sees the focus on the six NETS-S standards as a deliberate attempt to do just that. And while he does not oppose either schools or society in general making an effort to foster education and improvement in these skills, he said be believes the effort is woefully misguided.

Ken Kay, president of P21, definitively disagrees. "Decades ago, mastering core subjects guaranteed success. As the world has changed so have the requirements of citizens and workers. Through discussions with business and community leaders and educators, it has become apparent that in addition to deep subject knowledge students must develop 21st century skills like creativity, critical thinking and problem solving, to succeed in today's world. If we do not create an education system that intentionally combines knowledge and skills, our students and country will be ill equipped to compete with their international peers."

To this end, P21 has devised and issued its maps, as well as the Milestones in Improving Learning and Education (MILE) Guide, a concise, downloadable primer for fully integrating 21st-century skills into the educational spectrum. At its core is a self-assessment, which lays out a set of practicable guidelines for modernizing, through updates in policy and approach, several key components of the education complex. Broken out into six top-level categories--student knowledge and skills, support systems, leadership, policymaking, community partnering, and long-term strategic planning--and then subdivided into logical extensions of these categories, the self-assessment is designed, in simplest terms, to serve as a means for administrators and educators to answering the questions, albeit broadly, "Is my school prepared to face the new and existing challenges in the new century?" and "Are my students receiving the concepts, skills, practical and theoretical knowledge, and encouragement they need in order to compete in the new century?"

And Are They Even Skills, per se?
Some of the distaste for, and debate over, 21st-century skills, at least as defined in the NETS-S, may arise from the fact that the very first category listed is anything but a skill. Even the most avid supporters of the standards would have a tough time arguing that we can actually measure creativity and innovation, maybe even define them. (Read "The Myths and Mechanics of Innovation" for more discussion about the trouble with innovation.) These are qualities so completely subjective that throughout history observers have rarely identified them until after some groundbreaking achievement. DaVinci, Gutenberg, Galileo, Thomas Edison, Ben Franklin--their creativity changed the world, but the world felt the impact before people were praising them for these traits. Einstein supposedly developed his earliest theories of relativity while working as a clerk, and it's unlikely anyone at the patent office was exclaiming, "What a creative genius!"

In his 2006 article "Students Thrive on Cooperation and Problem Solving," which appeared in the online journal Edutopia, Bob Pearlman wrote that even if governments ensured all schools have all the necessary technological tools, and students aced all of the standardized test areas required by the NCLB Act, these accomplishments alone would do little, if anything, to ensure students are prepared to compete once they hit the increasingly globalized job market. True project-based learning, as opposed to the longstanding practice of simply introducing projects into traditional classroom environments, can combine all of the knowledge, skills, and applications of both that students will require in order to be truly competitive.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills also advocates project-based learning, or what has come to be known as the PBL Model, as the most effective sweeping change the United States system can pursue. "One of the most effective ways of teaching 21st century skills alongside core subjects," said Kay, "is through rich and engaging learning projects that are rooted in a real-world problem or question."

Michelle Ravnikar is an instructional technologist at Lake Havasu Unified School District #1 in Lake Havasu, AZ. She previously was a business computing teacher who won the Microsoft Technology Teacher of the Year Award for Arizona in 2005 and the Arizona Technology Teacher of the Year in 2006. She said teaching the "skill" is not about instruction per se, but about eliciting creativity in students.

"Teachers can bring out wonderful creativity and innovative ideas, and allow the students to think and to apply [them]," Ravnikar explained. "When I was in the classroom ... we did digital storytelling. The students needed to document 10 hours of community service. They had to take pictures, and they had to document it, then they had to write a narrative. I had an English teacher come in and talk about narrative writing. They used MovieMaker software to put their pictures in, and then they recorded their voices for the narrative, and then we put music in. They invented the whole thing. I think that's creative and innovative, even though we touched on writing, a standard, using [a piece of software], another standard, and taking pictures and using digital devices, and collaborating in the outside world. Project-based learning is a big opportunity for creativity and innovation, as well as these other standards."

Pearlman discussed in Edutopia just how far the PBL method can take students in integrating knowledge acquired through traditional classroom instruction with the application of skills defined as "21st century."

In the article, Pearlman explained the dramatic shift in the way educators approach instruction, as well as the way their own part in the instruction process:

In traditional classrooms, students typically work on simple assignments that emphasize short-term content memorization; they work alone, write for the teacher alone, and rarely make presentations. But don't confuse PBL with simply doing activities injected into traditional education to enliven things as a culminating event for a learning unit. Real PBL, by contrast, is deep, complex, rigorous, and integrated. Its fundamentals are fourfold:

1. Create teams of three or more students to work on an in-depth project for three to eight weeks.

2. Introduce a complex entry question that establishes a student's need to know, and scaffold the project with activities and new information that deepens the work.

3. Calendar the project through plans, drafts, timely benchmarks, and finally the team's presentation to an outside panel of experts drawn from parents and the community.

4. Provide timely assessments and/or feedback on the projects for content, oral and written communication, teamwork, critical thinking, and other important skills.

If it appears somewhat similar to an overview of project management in a professional environment, that's no accident. The one assertion that seems to be echoed repeatedly, both by those who fully support 21st-skills integration and by those who believe schools should focus on students completely mastering the basics, is that the K-12 education system must prepare its students to the greatest degree possible for an increasingly competitive professional world.

A New Century, a New Direction
One example of PBL completely transforming students' entire education process is the New Technology High School. Since its launch in Napa, CA in 1996, the charter school has built its entire curriculum around PBL, with remarkable results, including a network that now encompasses 41 similarly modeled high schools in nine states.

Because students work in teams throughout their high school careers at New Tech and receive grades from one another (anonymously) as well as from teachers, they are compelled to practice and exercise their 21st-century skills, most notably critical thinking, creativity, and, of course, collaboration, from day one and continuously throughout their three years at the school. In order to graduate, students are also required to create a digital portfolio that outlines their achievements in each of eight skills areas, referred to in the school's curriculum as "learning outcomes," and includes links to evidence of their achievements in each area.

Building on the success of the pilot school in Napa, CA, and with the support of two Gates Foundation grants, the New Tech Network has opened a network of New Tech schools in several states, including California, Indiana, North Carolina, Texas, and Louisiana, all following the cornerstone PBL model.

The model allows educators to guide students' educational progress and achievement rather than simply lecturing and giving assignments based on prescribed curricula. Instead, students themselves design and follow the path to their educational goals, relying upon one another, as well as their teachers' expertise in specific subjects and in overall education. Teachers monitor and comment on individual student progress, but unlike the traditional model, at New Tech all of the grades and comments are available, and continually updated, online for students to peruse at their own discretion.

Howard Mahoney, principal/director of the original New Tech in Napa, explained what makes the school unique. "We focus on PBL as a way to make kids find that their learning is relevant and vital to them. We don't just do projects in the conventional sense, like where teachers will study a unit and then say, now go and do a project to show me what you learned."

The projects require in-depth research, analysis, contemplation, and presentation related to an idea or circumstance. "We actually put a driving question in front of the kids," Mahoney said, "like how to resolve global warming, or you're a court and you have to make this court decision. We do the Scopes Monkey Trial, and they're the jury. They have to figure out, from a know and a need-to-know list, what they're going to do to learn this information and get the results that they want out of that."

What's It All About, Arne Duncan?
Even Mathews cited New Tech as one of the few instances in which he has seen the 21st-century skills approach really have the desired effect. In his opinion, though, PBL is not the primary component of the solution. He champions an intensive combination of traditional instruction and PBL, but with a strong caveat: students need more of both, in terms of both hours in the school day and overall coverage of material, and for that, hiring the most qualified and most talented teachers, and putting the entire education process in their hands, is absolutely essential.

"It's far more about the teachers," Mathews argued. "There are two things you have to have. You have to have really energetic, committed, talented, smart teachers, who are allowed to be creative and teach in ways that make sense to them, and that's the flame, and then you feed that flame with more time in the school day. If you have those two things, that is what has produced the most successful schools we have in the country at the moment."

More hours and better teachers? It doesn't sound that difficult. So why are so many districts continuing to come up short? Mathews said he faults the current top-down approach favored by so many districts, wherein hiring decisions are made by administrators in the upper echelons of district bureaucracies, people who are far removed from the actual day-to-day instruction. These bureaucrats, said Mathews, are basing their decisions on documentation (resumes, professional development histories, etc.) rather than getting a real sense of each individual teacher's special talents. And those talents, far more than anything one can read on a piece of paper, are what may make someone ideal for fostering a new kind of education in a new era.

The only way to ensure this happens, Mathews advised, "is to create schools like New Tech that are organized by top-flight educators, people who have already mastered these lessons and know how to teach them and can thus hire the teachers they think will most readily be able to learn [the new approaches and] organize their lessons in this way."

He added that the school has to give a "very well trained, expert educator of a principal the power to hire and fire, the power to figure out, along with his/her team of new teachers, what way will work best for their kids, and the power to change what they're doing if it's not working very well. Again, the charter school system, the pilot school system that we seem to be working towards, in which schools are run by the educators inside of those schools, and they don't have to bow to whatever the district wants or whatever the latest fad is, that's the way to go."

Super Model?
New Tech's Mahoney may or may not be an example of that "expert educator of a principal" to which Mathews referred, but the principal said he sees the model, as well as the school's ability to train teachers, all teachers, to work within the model and foster students' ambition for learning, as being more important than hiring teachers who are already experts. In addition, all new hires, no matter their respective experience and subject expertise, attend a five-day intensive training program to "indoctrinate" them to the PBL model.

"It's a very active and very different model, because the teachers aren't the deliverers of all knowledge. They're more the facilitators, helping students to figure out how to find the solution. And with that, we [create] a different kind of culture. We model our culture on trust, respect, and responsibility. And we also try to do a flat hierarchy. So we sometimes empower kids or empower teachers to make decisions and take action and make decisions in a way that other schools wouldn't do."

Mahoney also pointed to a proprietary technology New Tech employs, a portal known as PeBL, which serves as a learning management system to roll out new projects, organize elements of each project, monitor progress, and, most importantly, foster collaboration. Team members communicate about a project, give each other suggestions and feedback, receive feedback from teachers and other interested parties, and track their own progress, all via the PeBL portal.

And just in case the model still seems easy enough to replicate in schools nationwide, there are a few more elements that weary, cash-poor administrators would likely argue are akin to expecting miracles. First, New Tech in Napa only enrolls 400 students in grades 9 through 12, about 100 in each grade, and all schools in the network similarly limit enrollment. In addition, the school maintains a 1:1 computer-to-student ratio, something Mahoney said contributes enormously to the technology element of 21st-century skills training and would be far less likely in a school with 2,000 or more students.

Finally, while successful replication of the New Tech model would likely be a boon to any high school, nothing can turn back time, and while most U.S. districts are just now gradually getting up to speed with 21st-century skills, teachers and students here were identifying and taking on the challenges of the new millennium back in 1996. With a turbo-charged environment and a fourteen-year head start, New Tech and its sister schools in the network may remain the pinnacle to which others aspire.

Still, no teacher worth his or her salt would advise anyone that, if you can't be the best, you shouldn't even try. And this is especially true when the goal is for every student from coast to coast to benefit from the opportunities that acquiring these new skills can potentially afford them. If an immediate transition to a complete PBL model isn't feasible, which it likely is not for most, if not all, traditional schools, then perhaps an incremental approach could work.

Taking Mathews' argument that exceptional teachers, when given significant latitude to be creative and to drive their students to achieve well beyond existing standards, can make unforeseen strides in improving both traditional learning and 21st-century skills proficiency, perhaps the seeds of a more effective educational system already exist in schools throughout the country. After all, in the midst of all the bureaucracy, political posturing, missed opportunities, overreaching, underachieving, overcrowded classrooms, and underfunded government mandates, good and great teachers exist. And with the federal government offering unprecedented amounts of money, a sizeable portion of it in the form of rewards for competitive achievement in innovation or improvement, the system may finally have sufficient impetus to give these teachers the freedom to unleash their own creativity and innovation.

Lake Havasu's Ravnikar gave a prime example of how it can be done without making radical changes up front. Start by pushing students to become active in the community. Have them look for a problem to solve and then think about possible solutions. Stoke their interest in something besides keeping up their grades and their social lives. Right away, without spending an extra cent from the budget, collaboration, decision-making, and critical thinking are underway. Then have them go further, by doing online research, writing about their experiences, examining and analyzing their successes and their mistakes. Instruct them to keep a journal of all their activities, their progress, and any thoughts or ideas they might have related to their work. And let it all culminate with a multimedia presentation. It's not a comprehensive PBL model, but, as Ravnikar noted, it introduces all components of the NETS standards, and it is, indisputably, project-based learning.

We have to start somewhere.