I have recently been introduced to an organization that is attempting to revolutionize schools across the country. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) was formed by the individuals and organizations to advocate for change in policy. The basis for these changes come down to “fusing the three Rs and four Cs (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation).” While many schools are attempting to follow this model, many others are not. The P21 is attempting to get policy passed at the state and federal level that require all schools to adopt this model. While I have not necessarily heard of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, I have heard of initiatives that the state of Ohio has supported in Gateway to Technology and Project Lead the Way. Both of these programs focus on the foundation of P21.
I believe that if you ask most teachers, they are attempting to cover the three Rs and the four Cs. Educators want their students to not only be able to read, write, and compute, but also to apply those skills to problem solve, communicate, and collaborate. While these are the wishes of teachers, I do not think it's necessarily the primary goal of most schools. I've been involved in two school systems, and both were more concerned with students passing state tests and graduation rates than with the quality of student they were graduating. After reading Characteristics of a Globally Competitive Workforce by Bates and Phelan, it was clear that focusing solely on the content of the three Rs sets students up for failure as they consider these only one part of three foundational skills (2002). According to the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS), the three Rs along with thinking skills and personal qualities are the foundational skills for today's workers (Bates & Phelan, 2002). If schools are focusing solely on reading, writing, arithmetic, and science, students are not even getting the full foundation for employability skills.
If schools are not setting for the foundation mentioned in the SCANS study, it is evident that something like P21 is a necessity for our country. With pressure coming from the federal and state government on school districts, teachers are getting more pressure to get students prepared. And what suffers? It's the critical thinking skills, the application projects, the collaboration, and the technology skills. A common phrase that is unfortunately uttered a lot, “We need to get them familiar with the testing scenario.” This actually contradicts what the research has said about 21st century skills. Students aren't collaborating, they aren't thinking critically, and they aren't engaged in technology. The latter has now become so essential that SCANS made it one of its five competencies every worker should have upon graduating high school (Bates & Phelan, 2002). If our students are to be technologically literate, we cannot have students spending “27 hours a week online at home and an average of 15 minutes a week at schools” (Miners & Pascopella, 2007). Obviously, we are failing these students.
What does this mean for us educators? We need to find a way to work within our school's expectations to revolutionize what we're doing in our classrooms. We do need to get students familiar with testing; however, we also need to prepare our students for the workplace. We need to teach the content, but then go on to challenge our students with problems and scenarios that require students to sharpen their critical thinking skills. We need to have students working together, communicating, and problem solving. While doing this, students need to be engaged in technology familiarizing themselves with different tools that may benefit them in future jobs. The P21 website contains a whole library of videos that educators can use as ideas of what they can include in their classroom to help develop these 21st century skills.
Bates, R., & Phelan, K. (2002). Characteristics of a globally competitive workforce. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 4(2), 121.
Miners, Z., & Pascopella, A. (2007). The new literacies. District Administration, 43(10), 26–34. Used by permission.