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21st Century Skills: Beyond the Buzzwords

Annie Condron

21st Century Skills: Beyond the BuzzwordsEducation is a field filled with buzzwords, from RTI to collaborative development to differentiated instruction to student-centered learning and beyond. The latest trend in this time of “change” is 21st century skills.

21st century skills encapsulate all that teachers have been begging for in the post-NCLB era: creativity, problem-solving and learning beyond fact recitation.

Like most ed buzz words, this one emanates from a genuine, intelligent approach to preparing kids for their future. This approach would free teachers from the stifling bonds of NCLB and it just makes sense.

After pleas from teachers, Obama has picked up the 21st century skills torch and is blazing it through policy, tackling the easiest aspect first. Technology in the classroom is a commonsense factor to 21st century learning since ours is the internet age. Obama plans to fund computer and broadband access in schools nationwide. But tackling tech is the easy part.

Implementing it on a nationwide policy level will be harder than installing computers. How do you give a standardized test on creativity? This murkiness led one Washington Post writer calls 21st century skills “a pipe dream whose literature should be tossed in the trash.”

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Personally, I’m reminded of an episode from The Office. The inept boss, Michael, asks the receptionist, Pam, to write down “everyone’s indefinable qualities. Just write down what people are doing all day in a way that is helpful.”

Later on, he asks about their scores from the day.

Pam: “I think they’re even. At various times, you gave Jim 10 points, Dwight a gold star and Stanley a thumbs up. I’m don’t really know how to compare those units."

Michael: "Check if there’s a conversion chart in the notebook."

Turns out, there isn't a conversion chart.

And so goes the problem with generically testing for “the kinds of research, scientific investigation, and problem solving that our children will need to compete in a 21st-century knowledge economy." (Obama)

Regardless of how difficult and complex it will be to make this shift, I agree with policy analyst Elena Silva:

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." Read more about 21st century skills

Are you a 21st century skills believer? Share your thoughts in the comments section!

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