Monday, July 29, 2013

21st Century Skills: Require These Skills!

"We need to prepare kids for their future, not our pasts"
                 - Daniel Pink

21st century skills!!!

The emphasis that our national education system places on the memorization of content and facts (which are easily found using Google), is befuddling.  This year I had the opportunity to partner with many businesses in our community, and the same message kept coming through:  "We do not need these students to know many facts.  We need students who can communicate with customers and coworkers, who can collaborate with others, think critically and solve problems, etc...  In the education world, "21st Century Skills" has become the familiar term to describe these skills.  The education world seems to have an obsession with giving everything a name (usually an acronym) that the public cannot stand hearing, because they do not use these words.  In this case, I don't think these skills require a "name".  It seems like common sense that we should be teaching students how to communicate, collaborate, etc.... Despite the obvious need for helping students acquire these skills, we continue to place way too high of an emphasis on content & facts.

This year our family spent a lot of time in hospitals and it struck me as strange that over half of the doctors that we met, would have failed my 7th grade rubric for public speaking.  After reflecting on this, I remember a high number of professors I had with a similar problem.  In fact, many people who have "mastered" our education system have a phenomenal set of knowledge, but they have no clue how to talk with their customers.  I would imagine this has something to do with "playing the game of school", when that game is, unfortunately, broken.  I have so many friends and family members that complain about returning from the doctors office and not understanding what is wrong, or what they should do.  They do not ask questions, because they are left in a haze the first time the doctor drops a term such as "supraclavicular".

Around 30% of Americans graduate from college, yet we continue to prepare every student for two things:
*  Standardized Tests
*  College Exams

Please start preparing EVERYONE to be successful!!!  When are we going to wake up and prepare everyone for their future.  Not everyone is going to college, and that is okay.  Many of those 30% that graduate from college, struggle in the workplace anyways because they have been trained to be students not workers.

Where do we start?  I wish there would be a strong movement to require the teaching of 21st Century Skills and to back off on content.  If we teach students to "LEARN HOW TO LEARN" much of the content learning will take care of itself.  Which 21st Century Skills do we start with?  There are thousands of 21st Century Skills and "soft skills" that people need to succeed in the world, but we obviously do not have time to thoroughly teach all of them.  After reading (relentlessly) on this topic, I have arrived at the conclusion that the "Big Six" are:

*  Communication - this is a broad topic.  Students need to learn how to send an appropriate email, make a phone call, engage in small talk, learn how to speak about a specific topic to different audiences (explaining photosynthesis to a 1st grader, 7th grader, 12th grader, and a biology professor is hopefully done differently), answer questions in a job interview, clarify their stance on something, give a pitch on a project, speak in front of a group, etc....

*  Collaboration - Students need to learn how to work together with other people.  This may be small groups or big groups.  People with similar beliefs or with opposing beliefs.  Online, in person, or over the phone.  Use leadership skills.  Learn how to get the most out of everyone on your team.

*  Critical Thinking - learning how to diagnose a problem, evaluate options, make decisions based on information, analyze the quality of something, understand a new concept, etc...

*  Creativity - this is one major 21st century skill that our school systems seem to decrease in students.  By the time you have finished high school, college, or beyond, you have learned that there is a correct answer for everything (and it is at the back of the book) and that a paper clip is used to hold papers together.  We do not provide much room for creativity when we use standardized tests to assess students or worksheets to have them practice the content.  It is unfortunate that this skill is lacking in our society, but we need to do something to reverse this.

*  Inquiry - through many of the 20-time, project-based, and autonomous projects that I have implemented, I have come to realize that student inquiry skills are very poorly developed.  Our system rewards answering questions, but does not promote asking questions.  For this reason many students, and many of our "brightest" students have no clue how to ask good questions in order to help them solve problems or figure something out.  Many, when not given exact directions to execute, flounder because they do not know what to do, or what to ask.  I believe strongly that we need to place a higher emphasis on the ability to "ask questions" rather than just answer questions.  The reason we have not cured cancer or AIDS is because we have not yet asked the right question.  

*  Using Technology - If students are unprepared for technology, they are unprepared for the future.  Technology is not going anywhere.

There are a plethora of other skills that must be taught.  Many of them could fall within the broader topics listed above, while some deserve their own attention.  We need to start somewhere.  We need to start preparing our students to be successful in their future.....not our past.

Please share how you have implemented successful 21st Century Skills learning in your classroom.  I would love to learn more about this.  In the following weeks, I hope to share thoughts on some of these individual skills and include any resources or ideas that I have come across.  This past year was undoubtedly my best year at implementing these concepts and I have never felt so confident that I was preparing students to be successful in their future, whatever that may be.

Oliver Schinkten
Communities at Oshkosh North High School
Twitter:  @schink10


  1. Would love your permission to re-blog this! Brilliant. I want to share com-passion with staff I work with - let's see if it takes in NZ??

  2. Thank you for your kind words! You are definitely free to share these posts/information with anyone you want to. If you have any questions, or if there is anything I can help with, please let me know.

  3. Ollie,
    I love your posts. I just read through three of them. I am going to have to walk down to have a conversation with you because I would be interested in your response to a few issues I am currently struggling with with my own children and the choice between traditional vs. contemporary education.


Please engage in the discussion. I would love to hear what you have to say!