21st Century Learning Initiative
The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (the Partnership), formed in 2002, is a public-private organization working to create a model of learning that incorporates what the organization calls 21st Century skills into the current American education system. The Partnership members consist of AOLTW Foundation, Apple Computer, Inc., Cable in the Classroom, Cisco Systems, Inc., Dell Computer Corporation, Microsoft Corporation, National Education Association, and SAP. Key partners are the United States Department of Education (USDOE), Appalachian Technology in education Consortium. Strategic partners consist of the Consortium for School Networking, ISTE, SETDA, and Tech Corps. Because the organization members believe “Public education provides the bedrock from which our national and individual prosperity rise together;” and that the “nation needs a compelling vision for education that will inspire education leaders, teachers, parents, and students alike” (USDOE, 2002), leaders in both the private and public sectors came together to identify specific educational elements students need in school to be successful when they graduate from school in the 21st century.
Six 21st Century Key Educational Elements
The Partnership for 21st Century Skills identifies six key educational elements of 21st century learning: emphasize core subjects, emphasize learning skills, use 21st century tools to develop learning skills, teach and learn in a 21st century context, teach and learn 21st century content, use 21stcentury assessments that measure 21st century skills. According to the report, these elements prepare students to work in a global community, and understand and manage financial, economic, business, and civic dynamics (USDOE, 2002, p. 4-5).
According to the report, leading educator Jerome Bruner says that “learning core subjects makes it possible for students ‘to participate in the process that makes possible the establishment of knowledge . . . and to take part in the process of knowledge-getting,’” (as cited in USDOE, 2002, p. 8). The report identifies traditional core subjects such as English language arts (ELA), mathematics, science, and social studies. In schools where I have taught, emphasis has been placed on ELA and mathematics, with science and social studies coming second in importance. The emphasis on ELA and mathematics most likely relates to the fact that most states began writing state standards for ELA and mathematics first and subsequently created state standardized tests for those two subject areas first. While states have now added social studies and science standards and assessments, the schools for which I have taught still tend to place more emphasis on ELA and reading, as well as basic mathematic computations and algebra. In a 1983 report called A Nation at Risk, educators were encouraged by the Commission on Excellence in Education to increase the number of years certain core subjects were taught, and to encourage college-bound students to take two years of foreign language, and computer programming (as cited in USDOE, 2002, p. 8). There was also a push to begin instruction in the core courses earlier, a recommendation founded in research by the National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education that indicates that “‘the more content they [students] are taught early on, the more they learn and the better they perform on later achievement tests,’” (as cited in USDOE, 2002, p.9)
The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) once again redefined the recommended core subjects in American schools. The core subjects under NCLB are English, reading or language arts, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics, government, economics, art, history, and geography. According to the Partnership, these core subjects more accurately reflect 21st century workplaces and communities (USDOE, 2002, p. 9). “For example, in a global economy, a foreign language, economics and geography are ‘new basics’ for functioning effectively,” (USDOE, 2002, p. 9).
The Partnership identifies learning skills necessary for 21st century schools as information and communication, thinking and problem solving, and interpersonal and self-directional skills. “People who can learn new information, new software programs or new ways of doing things, for example, have much better prospects in the world than people who cannot,” (USDOE, 2002, p. 10). The report also cites the Business Coalition for Education Reform, “‘Today’s economy is vastly different from fifty years ago, fueled bow by brains rather than brawn. In order to survive, businesses need individuals who possess a wide range of high-level skills and abilities, such as critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, and decision-making skills,’” (as cited in USDOE, 2002, p. 10). The Partnership emphasizes that the need for the routine worker is falling to the wayside. The 21st century workplace needs a person able to function on many levels doing many different tasks, and willing and able to make adjustments skill-wise, emotionally, and intellectually. Essentially, the 21st century worker must be able to work independently and/or work with others, and not rely entirely on one form of work.
21st century tools consist of the technology that has made the world a smaller place. “Technology helps prepare students for the workforce when they learn to use and apply applications used in the world of work . . .. Workforce skills are mastered with technology use. When content and strategies meet accepted education standards, research shows that technology increases master of vocational and workforce skills and helps prepare students for work when emphasized as a problem-solving tool (Cradler, 1994)” (as cited by USDOE, 2002, p. 10). These tools include computers, Internet, PDAs, cell phones, audio devices, DVD, blogging, social and professional networking cites, etc., and assist people in budgeting, bookkeeping, building scenarios, graphic design, advertisement, entertainment, news gathering and disseminating, research and others. The report makes an argument that students need to be ICT literate so that they can properly use the technology for designated purposes, such as using a web cam for a conference with people who are located throughout the world. The benefits of this kind of technology can be seen in the amount of time and money that is saved when businesses conference with one another without having to travel to distant locations to conduct their business deals. The report states, “Developing ICT literacy requires good leadership, a strong technology infrastructure, adequate and equitable access to technology and the Internet in schools, integration of technology with classroom learning, and adequate methods for assessing ICT literacy,” (USDOE, 2002, p. 11). The Partnership creates an ICT literacy framework educators can use to incorporate 21st century tools and ICT literacy. On page 11 of the report, a chart identifies which tools coincide with which learning skills and then identifies the ICT literacy that results. For example, the learning skills, thinking and problem solving, requires the use of problem solving tools such as a spreadsheet, a decision support or design tools, and the ICT literacy that results would be “using ICT to manage complexity, solve problems and think critically, creatively and systematically,” (USDOE, 2002, p. 11).
Teaching and learning in a 21st century context, as defined by the Partnership, includes learning by making content relevant to students’ lives, bringing the world into the classroom, taking students out into the world, and creating opportunities for students to interact with each other, with teachers, and with other knowledgeable adults in authentic learning experiences, (USDOE, 2002, p.12). The report provides several reasons why this kind of learning is important. One reason is so that students can see the connections between their schoolwork and their lives outside of the classroom. Meaningful, applicable work also increases interest, rigor, achievement and attendance at schools where real-world work is produced and assessed (USDOE, 2002, p. 12). Another reason supporting this kind of real-world teaching is that technology has made it possible for schools to bring the world to the classroom and the classroom to the world through virtual outreach software programs. The report also claims that the technology changes the dynamics between students and teachers, “allowing students to pursue topics in depth and, at times, become experts in charge of their own learning,” (USDOE, 2002, p. 12).
21st century content includes global awareness, financial, economic, and business literacy, and civic literacy. The report states that the founders of our nation believed in a free society with active and educated citizens who will be able to sustain the new government. “In 1789, Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, recommended that future citizens of the new republic learn foreign languages, arts, sciences, history, government and logic,” (USDOE, 2002, p.12). The Partnership believes that this sentiment should be reflected in the modern American classroom, where students become citizens in a global economy, work with diverse populations and cultures, must manage personal and/or business finances, and must be aware of their rights, the laws under which they must live and their civic duties as a citizen of the United States, (USDOE, 2002, p. 13).
The final 21st century educational element is assessment. This element essentially calls for balanced assessment of 21st century skills, including standardized tests and classroom assessments that demonstrate the students’ ability to apply the 21st century learning skills, use the 21st century tools, and demonstrate an understanding of 21st century content and context.
The 21st Century Skills initiative’s most pertinent aspect is that it endeavors to make learning more practical for learners. Throughout high school, I found myself wondering how the information I was learning was going to benefit me in the future. Where and when would I apply algebra? How would I apply the scientific process in my future career? Since I planned on becoming a journalist and writer, I felt that knowing a wide range of information would help me to cover diverse stories. I justified what I was learning in class based on the career I hoped to pursue. Although there are some students who are motivated by deliberately justifying what they are learning when plugging through a high school class, I suspect most students do not. As a matter of fact, I have had many students over the years ask me, “Why are we studying this? How is this going to help me get a job?” When reading “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe, justifying fiction written about a crime from the perspective of a mad man can be a tricky task. When I teach that particular story (and I think many English teachers share this focus), we focus on the details revealed in the story and the questionable trustworthiness of the narrator. We then discuss how certain details can lead a person to certain conclusions, and how as a reader, you cannot always count on the reliability of the narrator. Students need to understand that not everyone who writes is writing to reveal an objectionable truth. We talk about how this translates to advertising, campaigns, and persuasive arguments. In this way, I work to bring meaning to reading and analyzing fiction and nonfiction. The underlying 21st century skills in this lesson are information and communication, thinking, and even problem solving, in that the students must be able to identify the problem in a message or the element that reveals an underlying agenda. In this lesson, I can use technology to have students write a paper, research information about Poe, analyze the reliability of web sites, or any number of other tasks, but at its core, all I need is the story, a newspaper, and a group of students.
I think validating the necessity of core coursework is a task that our current educational system fails to do. Although there are individual teachers and schools deliberately incorporating meaningful learning activities into the fabric of their curriculum and lessons, I feel that on the whole, our best educational institutions are still small, private schools that have teacher-student ratios averaging 1-17, use project oriented, cross-curricular learning activities.. Many of these schools also integrate technology more effectively into the teaching and learning process; however, I don’t think that the technology element is absolutely necessary to help students become life-long learners. What I think these schools have over public education is money to make sure students receive individual attention and exposure to meaningful uses of technology. I would bet that they also have more autonomy on how to spend their money.
The biggest setback for the 21st century initiative is that it requires the kind of learning that best takes place in schools where there are fewer students with each teacher, where technology equipment is available and teachers know how to use it and incorporate its use effectively in the classroom, and where teachers are willing and able to collaborate across core subject areas. In Indiana, public schools are increasing the number of students per teacher because of insufficient funds. What other losses occur because of insufficient funding most likely differs from district to district. Some schools will not hire teachers, but will buy or update technology. Some schools will cut art, music or smaller sports teams. Whatever is cut, the job of implementing 21st century learning skills becomes an even more daunting task for teachers.
Additionally, I have seen very few efforts by Indiana schools or teachers to create cross-curricular lessons. Most often time is the blame. The teachers simply do not have the time to plan these kinds of lessons. Other culprits preventing more integration between core subjects are scheduling, location, the issue of coverage, and a fear of going outside ones own comfort zone. Teachers may not share the same prep times, or may be teaching on the opposite side of the building of the science or social studies department. Teachers may say that they will be unable to cover all of the standards if they try planning cross-curricular projects. Fear of stepping out of the box and getting messy seems a major reason why teachers do not like cross-curricular teaching. Whatever the barriers, I would like to see this element of education given more attention because I think it is crucial to the 21st century initiative. Math, science, reading, art, economics, geography, history and even music play integral roles in our lives not as separate entities. We must read to understand the details of public notices or changes in privacy policies from our banks. We need to write and speak to express our needs and desires to others, explain the history or logic of something. We need to understand the way the legislation is conducted so we know how we will be affected, and so on. Too often students fail to learn about their communities and how to live in them until they are out there, floundering around and making mistakes that we could have helped prevent if we had been more innovative and connective about how we teach the core subjects.
The Partnership’s report states:
We recognize that we are calling on schools to change dramatically even as they face difficult economic challenges and vigorous discussion of student achievement and assessments. However, while current budget constraints eventually will subside, the long-term need for 21st century learning will not: Accelerating technological change, rapidly accumulating knowledge, increasing global competition and rising workforce capabilities around the world make 21st century skills essential, (USDOE, 2002, p.2).
This statement raises several contradictions for me. First, how can a school district fully implement the framework of the 21st century skills without more money and without more teachers? I do not have an answer to that question. It seems to me that something has to give, and I have no idea what they will be or even what it should be. I do know that the issue will force schools to seriously rethink their structure and budgets in coming years. Second, teachers have the task of managing large classrooms, and schools have policies limiting the use of technology for fear students will be on sites inappropriate for the school environment. The teacher cannot monitor the activities of 30 students on 30 computers or hand-held devices all at once. To help teachers better monitor students, phones are not allowed in schools and many web sites are blocked. The management of the school and technology usage makes full integration of 21st century skills extremely difficult, because many of the ways the technology could be used are blocked by the school or teacher because of the schools’ and the teachers’ inability to monitor students’ technology usage adequately in other ways.
21st century skills are only 21st century skills for two reasons: 1) they are being taught in the 21st century; 2) they include the use of modern. Most of the 21st century learning skills set forth by the Partnership are not new, such as gathering information, communicating effectively and problem solving. “Of course, these higher level thinking skills, learning skills, are not new, but they are increasingly important in workplaces and community life,” (USDOE, 2002, p. 9). The Partnership’s report argues that the difference between the 21st century and previous centuries in the United States and throughout the world is that we have moved from an industrial age to a technological age. We no longer have well paying and numerous jobs that allow a person to clock in, perform a rote task, and then leave. “Today, factory and office workers perform multiple tasks on much more sophisticated machines and electronic equipment in work places that are constantly evolving to respond to market expectations for customized products and services,” (USDOE, 2002, p.6). What I find most interesting about this statement is that it seems to leave out the fact that there are and always have been people who do not want to have to think at work. There are also plenty of intelligent, thinking people who could obtain jobs that require these high level thinking skills and technological sophistication, but prefer to have a mindless job so that they can work, get paid and then go home and do whatever it is they do. What jobs will be left for these people? In the past, they have farmed, worked in factories and offices, worked maintenance, or on construction sites. Will technology so permeate our world that a person will not be able to succeed without intimate exposure to it and use of it? Given histories lessons, I think there will be jobs that will not require such sophistication from every citizen, but I do believe we should still offer students the opportunity to reach that level of sophistication should they choose to do so. I do not think our current educational system fairly offers all students that opportunity.
I see many benefits of integrating technology and 21st century skills in the educational framework of our educational system. Broadening the core courses to include more education about economic, personal finance, geography and civics is essential. I believe more emphasis needs to be places on cross-curricular educational projects, and I agree that meaningful, real-world application of knowledge needs to take place in the classroom. I am fascinated by our technological prowess. Our ability to connect with people from across the world within minutes or even seconds makes the world an even smaller place, where anything seems possible. Dragon and other computer reading programs help people who suffer from paralysis or MS communicate when in the past communication was lost.
Despite the benefits, the push for technology usage that seems to drive the 21st century initiative comes with great costs. Spell check makes it easy for a person to spell correctly, but typewriters made it necessary for writers to make sure they checked their own spelling before they even typed the word. Students had to look up the word in a dictionary, and determine if the word they looked up was most appropriate. Yes, students can do this on the Internet, but many do not. They simply look for the word or a synonym listed on the computer program, often not thinking about the connotation of the words they are using, something they might get a better idea of in a good, hand-held dictionary. Typing on a typewriter also required writers to pay more attention to the details of spacing and to typos, which were not automatically detected by early typewriters. Before typewriters, we had to write our work, requiring that we learn to write legibly, using more of our fine motor skills in the process. Now, we are talking about eliminating the teaching of cursive except to teach students how to sign their names. Although this evolution of writing venues may seem minor, the implications are that students are losing the ability to focus on details and to own skills, such as spelling. Instead, they rely on the computer to do most of the work for them. As we proceed through education reform, we need to think seriously about how we replace the old with the new so that we lose as little as possible in the process.
The benefits of incorporating the 21st century framework into the educational system or replacing it with the current system do not outweigh the costs. However, I think the 21st century initiative incorporates the skills necessary for students to become independent and collaborative life-long learners, and if students do become life-long learners, they will be better prepared for their future careers. My job as an educator is to learn how to integrate technology in meaningful ways, to learn more about how literature and language arts, my subject of expertise, relates to real-world jobs, and teach my students how to apply the knowledge they learn to other areas of their current and future endeavors. To me, these goals are not unique to 21st century goals. They just look different in the context of the 21st century.
Bruner, Jerome. (1966). Toward a theory of instruction. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., p. 72.
The Business Coalition for Education Reform. (2001). Why business cares about education.
Cradler, J. (1994). Summary of research and evaluation findings relating to technology in education. Educational Support Systems. Retrieved from http://www.wested.org/techpolicy/refind.html
National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education. (1997). Time spent teaching core academic subjects in elementary schools: statistical analysis report. Retrieved from http://www.nces.ed.gov/pubs/97293.pdf
United States Department of Education. (2002). Learning for the 21st century: a report and MILE guide for 21st century skills. Partnership for 21st Century Skills, Washington, D.C. http://www.21stcentryskills.org