Many of the current efforts to reform education and rethink learning through technology in the United States point to the need to design and construct these new systems of learning around the skills students will need for the twenty-first century. These futurists believe that the current curriculum taught in schools does not emphasize the right set of skills and knowledge students will need to continue the democratic spirit and leadership the US currently has. The term “21st century skills,” or variants thereof, are continually used by a variety of thinkers, but do all these thinkers and policy makers mean the same thing. Do their 21st century visions align?
The goal of this paper was to examine a small selection of visionaries and national organizations on their ideas and definitions of 21st century skills. What are these 21st century skills and why are they so important? How do these thinkers define these skills and how much overlap is there between conceptualizations? And finally, what methods and sources do their ideas rely on? Specifically, I examine the paradigm proposed by John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas in A New Culture of Learning, Sir Ken Robinson’s insights on education from his TED talk and articles, and selected publications the Assessment and Teaching of 21st century Skills (ATC21S) and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21). I’ve chosen to focus on 21st century skills because I think the intent to design learning and education around the needs of the future is an honorable goal, but almost impossible to accomplish because we don’t know what the world will be like 5-10 years from now.
One of the giants many of these thinkers and groups stand on is John Dewey. Dewey’s efforts to reform 20thcentury education help ground our understanding of the ideas and goals these 21st century visionaries have.The purpose of education, the emphasis on experience, and the need to design the whole educational experience toward the creation of skills and habits needed for the next generation to be successful are the principle ideas of Dewey’s philosophy of education. Instead of focusing on route facts and memorization, Dewey reframes the education around the student’s perspective and needs. It is the educator’s duty in this system to provide potential experiences for students that are both valuable and meaningful, not just ones that impart knowledge. Education in Dewey’s model is a not one-way process from teacher to student, rather it is produced through experiences in a social manner. As we will see, the futurists take up this redefinition of the relationship between teacher and student, the idea of reframing education around the student, and focus on experiences.
There is a large disconnect between the material and the environment in which it is learned and this is perhaps the reason why some of the 21st century skills miss the spirit they attempt to capture. Dewey’s educational philosophy explicitly argues for a strong connection between the two dimensions. The skills or habits educators want to instill into their students need to be modeled into the manner, style and environment in which the learning happens or they risk sacrificing the value and significance in the lesson. It seems then that one of the main problems in trying to reform education for the 21st century is that our standards and our teaching methods are not aligned. They are not systematically coordinated. The effort to specify and document the skills needed dilutes the spirit and significance of the larger vision. If this is true, our question is not “What are these skills?” but “What do you do with these large, powerful, inspiring new paradigms?” or “Can you create useful standards for actual implementation and if so what do they look like?” Even more interesting, is the fact that there are recurring themes between the visions that build from experience and those that start from skills. Both camps talk about communication, collaboration, creativity (or imagination), and some form of critical thought. Despite the age of Dewey’s educational philosophy, it seems we still have not yet been able to follow all of his advice.
Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills. (2010 Jan). Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills: Draft White Paper 1; Defining 21st Century Skills [White Paper]. Retrieved from http://atc21s.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/1-Defining-21st-Century-Skills.pdf.
Brown, J. Seely. (n.d.). New Learning Environments for the 21st Century. Retrieved fromhttp://www.johnseelybrown.com/newlearning.pdf.
Dewey, J. (1997). Experience and education. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Global Convergence Forum 2008—Leading a Culture of Innovation. (2008). Retrieved from:http://www.accenture.com/us-en/industry/global-convergence-forum/Pages/global-communications-forum-gcf-2008-culture-innovation.aspx.
Thomas, D., Brown, J. Seely. (2011). A new culture of learning: cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change. [Lexington, Ky.]: CreateSpace.
Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2011a). Our Mission. Retrieved from: http://www.p21.org/about-us/our-mission.
Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2011b). P21 Common Core ToolKit. Retrieved from:http://www.p21.org/storage/documents/P21CommonCoreToolkit.pdf.
Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2011c). Skills Framework. Retrieved from:http://www.p21.org/overview/skills-framework.
Robinson, Ken. theRSAorg (Producer). (2010, October 14). Changing education paradigms. Retrieved fromhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U.
Robinson, Ken. (2006 Oct 16). Schools Must Validate Artistic Expression. Retrieved fromhttp://www.edutopia.org/node/2829.
Photo Credit: ”Entering Hyperspace” by Eole