Wednesday, May 6, 2009

21st Century Learning

There has been a lot of talk in education circles these days about so-called 21st Century Skills. These skills have been described in various ways but common themes emerge: Promoting creativity, critical thinking and communication, developing social and emotional competence, supporting local and global awareness and citizenship, and increasing technological and media literacy. Although the tag “21st Century” suggests innovation, the reality is these skills and areas for learning and discovery have been around for a generation. Could it be, however, they are even more meaningful and essential today? As educators, we must consider a number of questions.

So what is forward thinking and new?

In 2009 we are more explicit and purposeful about what we believe is truly important for students to know and to be able to do. We are asking students to demonstrate proficiency rather than accumulate credit. When I attended high school in the 1970s it was sufficient to complete three years of a foreign language (in my case, German) and check that off the list of requirements. It did not matter as much that I had little facility for the language at the conclusion of my experience, despite the best efforts of Herr Grove.

In today’s classroom we recognize the importance of language fluency and that the development of linguistic, cultural, and social competence are critical skills for the language learner, especially in earlier grades when children are at the right developmental stage for acquiring these skills. And there seems to be an increasing awareness that having facility with different languages; understanding contemporary geo-politics, including religious traditions, economic issues, and security concerns; and learning about history, literature, music, and art from a variety of perspectives and cultures are as critical to the success of the individual learner as they are to our nation's future.

Additionally, educators today, including in the Needham Public Schools, are focused on ensuring all students, not just those in certain schools, classes, or on the honors track, can demonstrate their proficiency in these and other skills. It is crucial, for example, that all students learn how to write and communicate effectively and with purpose. In the good old days of the 20th Century it was not a given that we would prepare all children for continued and lifelong learning.

Skills or content: What is more important?

What has gotten confusing, at least to me, about the discussion around 21st Century Skills is whether or not skills or content are more important to a student’s success. Some argue that skills must be taught at the expense of deep academic content because the skills will endure and, besides, information is ever changing. Just google it if you need to know! Others worry that without rich curriculum students may appear engaged but have little understanding of the world around them. How can one be a critical thinker if one does not have some thing to think or talk about?

I believe skills without content (or content without skills) do little to inform, enrich, and enliven the educational experience of a young person and, in fact, put the student at a disadvantage in an ever-connected and global community where knowledge, information, and context are essential. For example, how could students studying wetlands ecosystems present a worthwhile written and oral report to a science class or the community’s Conservation Commission (skill) without knowing key biology concepts such as pH, acidic and basic compounds, and light sources (content)? In this case, content is the substance of the skills demonstrated, and the demonstration of these skills in this setting assists in the understanding and meaning of the content.

How can skills and content be balanced in a way that strengthens student learning?

Ensuring our students have multiple opportunities to learn about our country’s history, for example, through classroom discussion and readings is critical to their development of vocabulary and historical meaning. Then, asking students to interview veterans about their experience or great grandparents about the Depression promotes communication, listening, and social skills while it also fills in the blank spaces or enriches what could otherwise be a staid classroom learning experience. Indeed, the classroom/teacher talk/content supports the interview/conversation/probing in this learning paradigm. One complements the other and both enrich the learning of the student and (bonus here!) the senior citizen.

Even better: Student chronicles the interviews in a journal to be exhibited in the town’s library or broadcasts them online. The student even presents his research at a meeting of the Council on Aging. More skill building here and the learning is shared with the local and global community using 21st Century technology tools.

The Needham Public Schools are committed to working towards the development of 21st Century skills and content for all students. And we will base our work on the district’s four core values: Scholarship (Learning), Community (Working together), Citizenship (Contributing), and Personal Growth (Acting courageously). I welcome your comments and suggestions as we move forward together to provide an exceptional educational experience for the best students around.


  1. Go Dan!

    The skills v content question is silly. Of course you need both. "Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it." And skills will change perpetually. Too some extent, I think current skills are vastly over-emphasized. They will change over time. Who would have ever thought you would be blogging? The important thing about skills, I think,is one's willingness to learn new ones.

  2. First, many thanks to Dan for once again leading the way in promoting public dialogue on matters related to the education of our younger citizens. This blog should be of interest to everyone in our community, and hopefully we'll all learn from it. I, too, have been baffled that so many theorists and policy-makers feel compelled to emphasize skills acquisition over content knowledge, or vice versa. Isn't this a false dichotomy? The tendency to unnecessarily polarize has influenced the education of both teachers and students. Does an effective teacher not need to acquire deep content knowledge if they master the most modern techniques for classroom instruction?

    An illustrative example was discussed at length at a recent conference on the topic of mathematics education in public schools, hosted by Cambridge-based Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy. The expert panel presented a convincing case that content knowledge has been under-emphasized over the past decade (particularly at the pre-secondary levels) as the focus shifted to more sophisticated teaching techniques. The pendulum is now swinging back toward a renewed appreciation and respect for old-fashioned content mastery that ruled the day for those of us who went to high school in the 70s, or (gulp) the 60s. There is little doubt that advances in teaching techniques should be used to full benefit. But it's equally true that dizzying advances in technology and communications will require that teaching techniques continue to evolve and adapt. By comparison, content knowlege is changing far more slowly in traditional academic disciplines. Rather than relegating content mastery to the shelf as an educational anacronism, perhaps it is best viewed as anchor, rudder and ballast in the churning seas of education reform.

    In summary, I agree with Dan and the first commenter Marianne:both content knowledge and constantly improving techniques (for teaching or learning) are essential elements in a successful educational model.

  3. Absolutely wonderful to see the thoughtfulness behind this blog. Another important aspect of skills vs. content revolves around creativity. It is the creative application of skills using a wide variety of content that enables us to grow intellectually and maintain our excitement surrounding learning. However, without a strong knowledge of an agreed to content "foundation" (example: basic vocabulary) and the development of the skills needed to use this content (Ex: public speaking) the creative process will be greatly hampered. Another example would be a young violinist who hears a beautiful melody in his/her mind, but has not developed the physical skill, or the fundamental knowledge of melodic theory, to perform the creative melody on the instrument. Thus: Skills plus content enables increased creativity. In this increasingly complex and ever changing world, it is this creativity that will enable us to succeed.

  4. Hey Mr G. I actually speak at Verb In the morning. I speak of you quite often to my wife Teresa about how you inspired us the way Lawrence inspired Akella in the movie Akella and the Bee. You rock and so does Mrs. G. Tell her bonjour. Are you into Stephen Covey? He has some great books like The Eighth Habit. We have to get together soon in person sir..

  5. I see I made a typo but it's better than very, ain't and