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What Do They Need to Know?

Last week's post was about the lure of nostalgia. Think back . . . Previously, students needed to be expert in the 3 Rs: reading, writing and arithmetic. That was the standard expected outcome of a quality public educational experience during the bulk of the 20th century. As technologies and interests progressed, this expectation expanded to embrace exemplary performance in STEM (science, technology, science and mathematics.) The exact time in history, coupled with the economic, geographic and political realities of any given community (national or local) influenced the content students would be exposed to and would be expected to master. The catalogue of "stuff," what is essential to know, expanded rapidly to become "everything." The pressures placed on our educational system during these years was unprecedented and unsustainable. The focus shifted to a student's ability to recall discreet pieces of information on standardized assessments: which general won the battle of Gettysburg? "Learning" was as issue of knowing facts. Dates. Algorithms. Absolutes.

As the century turned, the very definition of "knowledge" shifted. Our prior pre-occupation with facts shifted with the advent of the Google empire, making information, those discreet pieces of knowledge, now but a click away. The ease of the internet offered students vast interpretations of "fact" within milliseconds. If it's now possible to simply look up the facts, what now? Somehow, the compliant memorization of dates, places and faces became less important: not just in the United States, but across the globe. As a focus on factual knowledge became less the standard, we faced a new wave of challenge, and opportunity, as the geo-political and economic realities shifted toward globalization. This new reality had the net effect of upending what was considered "educated" and a conversation about the re-definition of the skills required to successfully navigate a new world order became a central concern. Increasingly, the question became '"what are the characteristics of an educated 21st century learner?"

The World Economic Forum offered a blueprint. During their 2015 meeting, the WEF released a report titled “New Vision for Education - Unlocking the Potential of Technology.” This report outlines sixteen 21st century skills, breaking them into three categories:

Foundational Literacies: how students apply core skills to everyday tasks.

  • Language literacy

  • Numeracy literacy

  • Scientific literacy

  • Information technology literacy

  • Financial literacy

  • Cultural and civic literacy

Competencies: how students approach complex challenges.

  • Critical thinking/problem-solving

  • Creativity

  • Communication

  • Collaboration

Character Qualities: how students approach their changing environment.

  • Curiosity

  • Initiative

  • Persistence/grit

  • Adaptability

  • Leadership

  • Social and cultural awareness.

Please take a close look at this list of 21st century skills. Two things jump out at me immediately. Hopefully, they will for my readers, as well. First, historically and currently, we do a respectable job in the category of foundational literacies. They largely make up the focus and pre-occupation of our educational system, and have for the past 150 years. The study of language, history, mathematics and science have been, and remain, the corner-stones of our experience. In last week's post, The Good Old Days, I lament that our instructional approaches with these foundational literacies are largely unchanged, as well. (Given last week's observations I won't dwell on that here.) As adept as we are with the foundational skills listed, the areas of competencies and character qualities are far less than stellar. (I'm being kind.)

This brings me to my second observation. The World Economic Forum did not prescribe the above categories of competencies or character qualities as optional. I read their inclusion as fundamental and essential if students are to indeed have the skills required to find success in our increasingly complex and ever-changing world. Look back at the WEF's explanatory statement for each of the categories:

  • How students apply core skills to everyday tasks,

  • How students approach complex challenges,

  • How students approach their changing environment.

I firmly believe that, as a system of public education, we fail to afford the categories of skills, outside the core everyday tasks, the attention they require and that students deserve. We must honestly face the reality that unless we are deliberate in the instructional inclusion of critical thinking, creativity, curiosity, persistence, collaboration, cultural awareness, initiative, communication, leadership and adaptability, we will continue to short-change students as they sit in classrooms today, and disadvantage them as they attempt to compete in the new world order tomorrow.

Kids deserve better.

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