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?
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.
West Virginia, meanwhile, is changing teacher-preparation courses. And for teachers already in the system, it's providing significant professional development – everything from a comprehensive website to workshops offered by businesses such as Oracle and Intel.
Many schools are eager to impart technological literacy, but that often requires a computer upgrade or better coaching for teachers. And lessons using technology must be about more than the "gee whiz" factor, says Ann Flynn, director of educational technology at the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va.
Mr. Obama has said his economic stimulus plan will put new computers into schools and boost high-speed Internet access nationwide. He also campaigned on the need for improving teacher preparation and educational testing to reflect "the kinds of research, scientific investigation, and problem solving that our children will need to compete in a 21st-century knowledge economy."
How to measure mastery of 21st-century skills is a subject of much discussion and experimentation. The Partnership states are exploring how to adapt their statewide tests. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, which gives a periodic snapshot of students' abilities, has designed its 2009 science test to include application of scientific knowledge.
Some private schools already give a test asking students to respond to a task by synthesizing information from an online package of materials. And what's known as performance-based assessment is common in 40 US public schools that use the New Technology High School model, developed in Napa, Calif. In these schools, students work in groups, and teachers act as facilitators. Students are evaluated not just on math, physics, and writing, but also on such things as communication skills and creativity.
Whether or not the trendy label of "21st-century skills" lasts, says Elena Silva, a senior policy analyst at the Education Sector in Washington, what's important is the evolving research on how people learn. Teachers were long taught to cover content first and wait for children to get older before having them apply it, she says, but now research shows that "people learn best by learning content at the same time they are acquiring [and applying] new skills."