Schools tap '21st-century skills'
To prepare students for a fast-changing future, teachers are reaching beyond the R's.
For decades, the emphasis in public education has been on making sure that students can read, write, and do math. But can they apply those skills in a real-world scenario, such as designing a bridge? Can they identify what information they need and use digital tools to find it?Skip to next paragraph
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Those are some of the capabilities known as "21st-century skills" – what everyone from CEOs to President-elect Obama says that today's students need for their fast-changing future.
In a knowledge economy, the reasoning goes, the ability to articulate and solve problems, to generate original ideas, and to work collaboratively across cultural boundaries is growing exponentially in importance. The challenge for schools is to find ways to shift from traditional rote learning and teach these skills, while still doing due diligence to the three R's. The good news about 21st-century skills, advocates say, is that they can be integrated into core subjects.
"For a long time there have been two worlds that we prepare our kids for.... One has been the world of academia, and the other, quite frankly, has been the real world," says West Virginia state superintendent Steven Paine. "What I see in 21st-century learning is a blending of the two.... [But] education has long had a weakness in the application of knowledge ... in real, contextual situations."
Exhibit A for that weakness is an international test called PISA. The United States ranked near the bottom among the developed countries tested in 2003 on problem solving.
There have always been innovative teachers who use engaging projects or new technology. But the US should have "a system built around the idea that every kid needs to be able to critically think and problem-solve," says Ken Kay, president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a national advocacy group in Tucson, Ariz., which includes businesses, educational organizations, and policymakers.
To do this, teacher training, state curricula, and testing all need to be aligned with such goals, Mr. Kay says. So far, 10 states have signed on with the Partnership to try to do that.
In North Carolina, one of the partner states, graduation starting next year will depend partly on the completion of an in-depth research project that incorporates skills needed for college or the workplace. Students will pair up with a mentor who works in a field related to their research problem. They will produce a portfolio that includes reflective writing, "so they are thinking about not just an end product, but really a process for solving complex problems," says Tricia Willoughby, executive director of the North Carolina Business Committee for Education, a public-private partnership.