21st Century Skills – Teaching, Learning, And Assessing In A Rapidly Changing World

The bell rings, the students sit at their desks anticipating the lesson of the day. The teacher stands at the head of the class, all eyes on him, ready to provide knowledge to the eager students like a sponge soaking up water. The students scribble furiously, making sure to jot down all of the important tidbits of knowledge being delivered, all the while laughing at the quips thrown in by the teacher to add amusement to the learning. The bell rings, the students gather their things and leave the room. Another great day.

To many this is the ideal teaching and learning environment. To me this is torture. There are several things missing from this scenario. There is no teaching, there is only talking. There is no learning, there is only memorization. There is no challenge, only orders.

In the 21st century teaching, learning, and assessing are meant to be dynamic and engaging activities that drive the teacher to guide the student to knowledge, drive the student to use that knowledge to to overcome a challenge, and drive everyone to assess whats going on.

In the short video below, Tony Wagner talks about “reinventing education”. “What the world cares about is not what you know, but what you can do with what you know” (1:43). I have shared this philosophy for many years and it has driven my teaching, my students learning activities, and my assessments in my Technology Education classes. Simply knowing facts and figures is just not enough anymore. The ability to locate relevant facts and figures, make them work for you, and develop a solution to a problem are the skills that we need to teach our students to be successful in the 21st century.

The way we teach our students, the way we let our students learn, and the way we challenge our students to prove their knowledge should all be reflective of the 21st century skills that have become such a large topic of discussion as of late. But what are these skills and what do they look like?

What 21st century skills are depends heavily on who you ask. In general, however, they can be broken down into three broad categories (these are by no means the definitive categories, merely generalities).

21st Century Thinking

  • Critical Thinking
  • Problem Solving
  • Creativity
  • Metacognition

21st Century Acting

  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Information Literacy
  • Technology Proficiency

21st Century Living

  • Civic Responsibility
  • Global Understanding
  • Leadership
  • Life and Career Skills

As you read through the list above, you will see skills that are familiar to you and you may ask yourself “What makes that a 21st century skill? We’ve been doing that for years!!!” And you would be right to make that connection. These skills are not new. Their interpretation and application, on the other hand, have taken entirely new forms that are far flung from those of their predecessors.

There is ample material available on what these skills look like today, so I will focus on what I believe are the top priorities from each section. From Thinking, problem solving has been a staple of education for a very long time. Unfortunately, many students today can’t figure out how to approach a problem on their own, let alone solve it. Teaching students to identify the criteria required to solve a problem and how to use the tools at their disposal should be a focus in every class, not just math and science. From Acting, collaboration would be my priority. We provide our students with endless assignments to try to see what they know in seclusion. We very rarely allow them to work together to generate meaningful knowledge. The tools and technology ( Skype, Google Hangouts, Wikis, Blogs, etc…) that are available to allow collaboration between students across the globe is tremendous and will provide unique learning experiences for them. Finally, from Living, global understanding is a major skill to focus on. Utilizing the technology and tools previously mentioned will bring our students outside of their own backyards and into a world that is getting smaller and smaller by the day.

All of these skills can and should be embedded into the way we teach our students. We should be expecting our students to demonstrate these skills in their learning. Now the challenge becomes how we assess these skills. In order to assess 21st century skills, in conjunction with content knowledge, we need to be willing to expand our views on what an assessment looks like. With the development of Web 2.0 technologies, our quietest student may now have the loudest voice when expressing an opinion.

In my Architecture class, my students are challenged to identify the critical design elements that a fictional customer might want in a home and then design a structure to meet their needs. Afterwards, they are required to develop a sales pitch to entice the customer to purchase their home. The students employ a majority of the 21st century thinking skills in the design process, utilizing (Google Sketchup) to design their structures. When the time comes for the sales pitch, the other skill sets shine through. Using tools such as Prezi or Narrable students are able to move beyond the standard presentation format and work on communication, collaboration, tech proficiency, and even global understanding skills.

An area that I am currently developing in all of my classes revolves around the metacognition skill. Developing ways for students to assess themselves and how they think and learn is a key factor in helping them work to their greatest potential. My plan is to begin using digital portfolios to allow students to showcase their learning efforts and provide a space for them to reflect on their learning and their work over time. Tools like Silk and Pathbrite are two ways that students can begin developing professional portfolios of their work and thoughts. Over time, these resources may also prove useful in their educational and career endeavors.

The bell rings, the students sit at their desks anticipating the lesson of the day. The teacher stands at the front of the class and reveals a question on the board about the topic of the day. The students spring into action. Individual students begin researching their new challenge. Conversations about interesting discoveries and information take place in all corners of the room. The teacher is moving between the students, monitoring progress and direction (correcting and guiding where needed). One group of students is developing an annotated song mashup to address the question. Another group is working on a wiki article that will be added to the departments wiki page. Yet another group is investigating how this question is addressed on an international front. Students are actively constructing their knowledge and demonstrating their learning in unique and diverse ways. The teacher warns them that the bell is about to ring and they grudgingly pack up and complete a hand written exit slip with an update on their work. Another great day.

Image Credit

Cell Phones in Schools