The Rush for '21st-Century Skills'

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 5, 2009

In a seventh-grade science class at Grace E. Metz Middle School in Manassas, 12-year-olds Chris Isaacson and Nathan McCallister were building a bridge out of 30 uncooked pieces of spaghetti. They had drawn several plans. After pushing down on the spaghetti from several angles, they decided that vertical struts were the best way to strengthen their bridge for the test: How many books could it hold before collapsing?

Which scientific principles were involved in their project? Nathan thought for a moment. "Gravity," he said. "It works against us."

It wasn't the weightiest observation, but it connected theory with the real world, which is exactly what "21st-century skills" -- this year's educational buzz phrase -- is all about, and why Manassas is trying to make it the core of its curriculum. President-elect Barack Obama (D) called for a "21st-century education system" in naming his new education secretary last month. The phrase "21st-century skills" gets 232,000 hits on Google. Problem is, not everyone is sure what the phrase means.

The Web site of the Tucson-based Partnership for 21st Century Skills says the skills include creativity, innovation, critical thinking, problem-solving, communication and collaboration. Gail Pope, the Manassas school superintendent who has made them a priority, said she was influenced by the high-tech companies that surround her city and wanted to teach her students what they need to get "a sustainable, fulfilling job and be able to stay in our community and contribute."

The phrase has inspired a flood of programs, including Lego engineering clubs for elementary schools, the National Geographic's science adventure Jason Project for middle schools and the High Technology model for high schools. But many teachers say it is just good teaching with a jazzy name. "The subject of 21st-century or, rather, current-century skills has been around ever since Socrates," said John M. Clement, a science teacher in Houston. Researchers are struggling to find ways to determine which schools are teaching it well and which are not, while educators wonder whether it will be just one more fad.

A Promising Idea

Elena Silva, senior policy analyst at the Washington think tank Education Sector, provided the most recent independent assessment of the 21st-century skills craze. Her paper "Measuring Skills for the 21st Century" acknowledges the doubts, but she concludes that the idea has promise:

The notion that basic and advanced skills are best learned together is one of the major findings of a recent report on mathematics education, funded and released by the U.S. Department of Education. The best learning happens, the report asserts, when students learn basic content and processes, such as the rules and procedures of arithmetic, at the same time that they learn how to think and solve problems.

The mathematics report also concluded that there is no set age or developmental stage when children are ready to gain complex thinking skills. This is in sharp contrast to the previously held notion that very young children are concrete and simplistic thinkers who cannot think abstractly or gain deep understanding of concepts. Thus, while there are building blocks of knowledge -- students must master addition and subtraction before they multiply or divide -- the idea that students should be taught facts and simple procedures before they get to problem-solving or critical thinking no longer makes sense. "The common idea that we can teach thinking without a solid foundation of knowledge must be abandoned. So must the idea that we can teach knowledge without engaging students in thinking. Knowledge and thinking must be intimately joined," says Lauren Resnick, a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and a leading expert on cognitive science.

Teaching children basic facts and simple procedures in a way that helps them also learn how to apply and use this knowledge and these skills mirrors the natural process of learning. So the integration of advanced thinking and analytical skills into teaching and learning makes it easier for students to acquire even the most basic skills and core knowledge.

Different Approaches in Area

Washington area school systems, asked about 21st-century skills programs, gave a variety of examples:

Charles County: The next new high school will include a digital classroom, described as "a multi-use dome theater that uses high-resolution, three-dimensional graphics and surround sound to enhance learning experiences."

Arlington County: It won a state grant to open the Governor's Career and Technical Academy, with students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

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