March 8, 2010
21st Century Skills for 21st Century Schools
“If you are not a school of the future, you risk being a school without a future. . .”
-Patrick F. Bassett, President, National Association of Independent Schools
In schools of every kind across the country, curriculum and delivery of curriculum are undergoing a quiet revolution. The strongest schools, and not just in our country, are striving to make their curricula reflect the needs of the 21st century. The enormous changes in information technology and the speed at which communication now easily takes place across once formidable boundaries have caused the U.S. Army War College to coin an acronym for our times. The world of the 21st century , they say, is VUCA, meaning that it is filled with Volatility, Uncertainty, Challenge, and Ambiguity.
How should today’s schools help our children prepare for the VUCA world they will enter? To answer this, many in education have turned to author Daniel Pink and his important book, A Whole New Mind. In Pink’s view, our new landscape has been shaped primarily by three game-changing factors: Abundance, Asia, and Automation.
We and our children in middle class 21st century America live amidst unprecedented plenty. From sophisticated material goods in countless varieties to the innumerable options we enjoy regarding where to live, what to buy, and even what to eat, we have unbelievable freedom to CHOOSE. Periodically, events like those in Haiti shake (or wake) us out of our preoccupation with our choices to tell us that others may not be so fortunate, but most of the time, we hone our competitive market-oriented skills toward the end of maximizing our purchasing power with efficiency AND STYLE. This comes from abundance, and gives rise to the essential question: Will what I am able to offer be in demand in an age of abundance?
A few well-known facts: China has 1.3 billion people. India has about a billion. The U.S. just hit 300 million. Put another way, there are over 3 people in India for every one in the U.S., and there are over 4 people in China for every one in the U.S. The top quarter of students in China and the top quarter of students in India EACH have more than the total number of students in the U.S. — and they all learn to speak English. And, depending on the particular business sector they are in, they will be happy with wages that are one-third to one-fifth of the price of a similarly talented U.S. worker.
How will our children compete?
To fully understand our situation today, we must have some understanding of the vector of history that has brought us here. (Please pardon the history lesson. It’s very brief and has a powerful point!) Up until the 18th century, humans were firmly entrenched in the Agricultural Age. Following that came the Industrial Age. In both of those eras, the worker who was most in demand was one who had physical strength and personal fortitude. In contrast, by the late 20th century, the workers who controlled, marshaled, and doled out information reaped the greatest rewards – we had progressed to the Information Age.
In the Information Age, the presence of computers has drastically changed certain kinds of routine information processing jobs. Basic accounting has been altered by programs like QuickBooks and TurboTax. Basic lawyering tasks can now be accomplished through the many computerized “do it yourself” programs that are widely available. Even doctors’ work in the process of diagnosis is based on decision-tree logic, and patients now find themselves able to access programs that allow them to answer a series of questions to arrive at a pretty strong preliminary diagnosis without a physician. Then there are the hundreds of websites and data bases on medicine and health that we all consult. Once upon a time, and not too long ago, doctors were in control of all of the information. Now, that is no longer true, and their role has changed to more of what Pink calls an “empathetic advisor on options.” Of course, we will always need doctors and lawyers and accountants, but their roles and the attributes that will bring success are changing. Even professionals will need to have a higher degree of sophistication and a different set of skills.
Because of the Information Age, many jobs are at risk, especially those that “depend on routines, that can be reduced to a set of rules, or broken down into a set of repeatable steps.” Many more jobs will be outsourced by the time our students enter their career years.
Pink believes that the key to unlocking our children’s future marketability lies in:
“The capacity to detect patterns and opportunities, to create artistic and emotional beauty, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to combine seemingly unrelated ideas into something new. The ability to empathize with others, to understand the subtleties of human interaction, to find joy in one’s self and to elicit it in others, and to stretch beyond the [commonplace] in pursuit of purpose and meaning.”
So what do we need to do to prepare our students for the 21st century?
Most of the jobs our children will have have not yet been envisioned or developed. The pace of the expansion of knowledge is so fast today that a high percentage of facts our children will learn in school and college will be out-of-date in a very short time. The older models of schooling will fall by the wayside, including perhaps the assembly-line system we all take somewhat for granted: grouping children by age and passing them through a series of workers (teachers) who add value to the “product” by working to apply the same process to each unit, then passing them along to the next worker until the finished product emerges at the end of the line. This system of education was developed during the Industrial Revolution as a means toward standardization and efficiency, but are those the most important elements of a 21st century education? Perhaps we need new systems that will be more focused on equipping students with skills that will allow them to adapt and create.
Here are some of the skills my school’s faculty feel will be necessary (in no particular order):
The world has gotten much smaller and “flatter,” as Thomas Friedman says.
Language proficiency, cultural sensitivity, openness to new and different ideas and perspectives, and ability to adapt to change will be essential.
Ability to Access and Assess Information
In addition to research skills, discrimination skills and interpretation skills – media literacy — will be key. Once upon a time, there were editors whose gauntlet needed to be run before information was widely available. Today, that’s no longer true, so we must help our children learn how to discriminate between bad information and good.
Ability to Collaborate, Communicate, and Present
According to popular author Malcolm Gladwell, the new model of genius is collective, not individual. In order for our children to truly exercise creativity and innovate, they must be able to do so in groups. Thus, they need relationship-building skills and the ability to function as a member of a team.
Financial, Economic, and Entrepreneurial Literacy
To help our graduates gain a leg up, and in addition to the Economics requirement, my school has instituted a Personal Finance course that is required before high school graduation.
Civic Literacy and Health Literacy
Building blocks for a healthy and strong nation.
These paramount characteristics are largely built through the next category.
Critical Thinking Skills and Problem-Solving Skills
(including conflict resolution skills)
Building Structures of Self-Direction, Accountability, and Resilience
One of the most key attributes for future success is “the ability to manage one’s own work, and to drive it to a successful conclusion.” [Bassett]
Crucial for citizenship.
Integrity, Compassion, Honesty — essential human values that ought never be cast aside.
If these things are going to be necessary, how do we re-form school to make it be a builder of these skills in our students?
I believe we must create environments that build these skills through curricular approaches and through extra-curricular activities. Some examples:
– Math team, robotics competitions, contraption-building lessons, problem-solving activities like Odyssey of the Mind, interactive simulations — virtual reality and other Web 3.0 applications;
– Place increased emphasis on the learning accomplished through wide and deep participation in fine arts and athletics; and
– Support teachers through strong professional development programs that help them develop even better skills as coaches, encouragers, collaborators, knowledge seekers, and modelers.
The authors of Tough Choices or Tough Times summed it up this way:
“The crucial new factor, the one that alone can justify higher wages in this country than in other countries with similar levels of cognitive skills, is creativity and innovation. . . . This capacity for out-of-the-box and breakthrough thinking will be decisive for large firms and small, for individuals as well as organizations, for not just a few but the vast majority – and therefore for the nation. . . . [O]ur schools emphasize memory and analytical abilities and therefore may not benefit creative students. This is not true of the best of our independent schools and suburban schools, but it is emphatically true of most of our schools. . . . People . . . who are comfortable in working in artistic, investigative, highly social or entrepreneurial environments are more likely to succeed. . . . Schools will have to learn to simulate those environments.”
[See: Tough Choices or Tough Times, Report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce (National Center on Education and the Economy) (2007) (pp. 29 - 31)]
A VUCA world will require VUCA skills, the ability to apply Vision, Understanding, Clarity, and Agility to the world of the future. It’s an exciting time to part of the revolution.