America’s public schools seek to provide all students with an education that is marked by excellence and equity. Many schools and districts across the country have made great strides in creating engaging learning environments that foster student achievement while meeting the needs of all students.Yet, despite significant efforts on the part of policymakers, administrators, and teachers, public education as a whole does not provide all students with the skills and competencies necessary for success in postsecondary education and employment. Instead of systemically responding to the social, economic, and political changes that mark the 21st century, education largely retains its 19th century design. As a result, the United States has not kept pace with the educational attainment and achievement levels of many other nations, and has in fact fallen behind (Harvard Graduate School of Education, February 2011). Whereas “thirty years ago, the United States ranked 1st in the quality of its high school graduates, today it is 18th among twenty-three industrialized nations” (National Center for Education and the Economy, 2006). Key to achieving excellence in our schools is a focus on 21st century teaching and learning.
Defining 21st Century Skills and Competencies
Ensuring students’ success requires that we define the skills and competencies reflective of quality in the 21st century. Twenty-fisrst century skills and competencies encompass core knowledge, the application of core knowledge, and the 4Cs (critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication).
The development of 21st century skills and competencies depends upon students acquiring core knowledge. The need for a solid foundation in reading, writing, and mathematics cannot be displaced. Content knowledge should be offered in multi-faceted ways so that our students simultaneously develop a broad set of skills and competencies. Craig Jerald advocates: “Applied skills and competencies can best be taught in the context of the academic curriculum, not as a replacement for it or ‘add on’ to it; in fact, cognitive research suggests that some competencies like critical thinking and problem solving are highly dependent on deep content knowledge and cannot be taught in isolation.” (July 2009)
Application of Core Knowledge
For the full benefits of core knowledge to be realized, students need to be able to demonstrate higher-order thinking skills and apply their learning. Since many of the challenges that our children will face in the 21st century do not have clearly defined answers, recall will not serve students well in the roles of student, employee, citizen, and consumer. Rather, success in any of these domains depends upon the ability to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate core knowledge when faced with a novel situation.
Critical Thinking, Creativity, Collaboration, and CommunicationEmployers have identified a set of broad competencies that are necessary to fully engage in work that demands analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. These include the 4 Cs developed by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.
- Critical thinking is essential as students are expected to both identify and confront problems that are local, national, and global in scale with neither a single nor a prescribed solution.
- The ability to relate well to others, cooperate, resolve conflicts, and acknowledge alternate viewpoints—all attributes of an effective collaborator—are indispensible in the world of work.
- Workers need to be able to communicate across corporations, sectors, time zones, nations, and cultures. Communication requires an individual to clearly articulate his/her viewpoint and help move conversations forward through effective and focused participation.
- Problem solving is an exercise in creativity that requires its participants to integrate knowledge across silos, combine existing patterns in unique ways, and originate new ideas.
While there is widespread agreement that 21st century skills and competencies are critical to success in today’s world, our graduates are far from highly skilled in these areas. As reported by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, “Increasingly, U.S. employers complain that today’s young adults are not equipped with the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century workforce” (February 2011). The report, Are They Ready to Work?, maintains that “far too many young people are inadequately prepared to be successful” (Conference Board, 2006). In particular, a majority of employers surveyed by the Conference Board point to oral and written communication skills as both highly important and significantly lacking, particularly-though not singularly-in high school graduates.College officials similarly hold that many of their incoming students do not have the required skills and do not attain success, as demonstrated by enrollment in development coursework and college completion rates High school graduates by and large do not disagree with these perceptions, as “40 to 45% of recent high school graduates report significant gaps in their skills, both in college and the workplace” (Achieve, Inc., 2008).
Characteristics of a 21st Century Teaching and Learning Environment
How can we create a teaching and learning system that fosters the development of these 21st century skills? Several areas of focus are critical for administrators, teachers, and researchers to consider as they seek to answer this question. They include personalized learning, the use of technology, an expanded definition of “educator,” the time and place of learning, structures for the delivery of learning, and the measurement of learning.Personalized Learning
Personalized learning is an important aspect of 21st century teaching and learning. Neurological research supports the development of a teaching and learning system that is tailored to the needs of individual students and reflective of multiple intelligences, Because each human brain is wired differently, students comprehend knowledge at different times and at different depths, a fact that is at odds with the uniformity of public education. Achieving educational excellence and equity requires a teaching and learning environment that addresses the needs of each student rather than treats them as a single unit. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills confirms the need for schools to “more effectively incorporate advances in learning science into instructional practice” and create a more student centered learning environment” (October 2007).Use of Technology
A student-centered approach demands a shift in the current use of technology. Technology will not in and of itself create a 21st century teaching and learning environment. If used intentionally to support learning, technology provides teachers with a tool to determine students’ needs and serve them accordingly, as well as to prepare students to be critical consumers of online information. It also enables teachers to draw upon the vast expertise of their students. As digital natives, students have vast knowledge of the capacity of technology to support learning. Tapping into their expertise both enhances the learning experience and empowers students by allowing them to take on a more active role in the classroom.Expanded Definition of “Educator”
Chen asserts: “The days of being the sole source of knowledge and authority in the classroom are over, way over” (2010). The 21st century calls for community experts, employers, and parents to share the role and responsibilities of educator. By bringing community experts into the classroom, students receive a more complete picture of the topic under discussion. McCain points to the benefits these experiences afford students: “Placing course content in the context of a real-world scenario helps a student remember specific details of a lesson because the context gives the information meaning” (2005).
Employers similarly support teaching and learning in the 21st century, both in helping set the standards of study and in providing expanded opportunities for learning to be linked to work. The public school system should “elevate the importance of relevant work experience in a successful transition from adolescence to adulthood” (Harvard Graduate School of Education, February 2011). Providing students with opportunities to engage in the world of work serves students and employers alike. Students are given a real world context for their learning and a forum to develop 21st century skills, whereas employers have the chance to prepare the next generation of workers. To fully advance learning in the school, community, and workplace, schools must partner with parents so that they are apprised of the teaching and learning process and support it accordingly.Time and Place of Learning
For community-based experiences to be possible, the learning environment needs to be altered. School is currently driven by a 50/6/5/180 schedule that is at odds with both the ubiquity of learning resources and research pointing to the summer learning loss. Fifty minute class periods create unnecessary road blocks to interdisciplinary study, team teaching, and experiential learning. The short episodes of instruction reinforce a teacher-centered classroom that artificially divides subjects and disconnects teachers from available expertise both within and outside of the building. To create a more student-centered learning environment, “the school day need[s] to be redesigned to include more learning time beyond the school day, including summers, but also a different kind of learning, anchored in high standards and authentic curricula and utilizing technology, the Internet, and community-based experiences” (Task Force on Time, Learning, and Afterschool, 2007).Structures for the Delivery of Learning
Effective learning delivery includes focusing on depth of content rather than breadth, as well as connecting disciplines rather than artificially dividing them into subject areas. Connecting disciplines enhances creative problem-solving skills by preparing students to use content from seemingly disparate areas. It also enables teachers to draw upon their colleagues’ expertise and facilitate deeper learning experiences for their students. Teacher collaboration simultaneously provides teachers with a richer professional experience, as educators are provided with a forum to showcase their knowledge and learn from their fellow educators. Educators become “pedagogical experts sharing their own pedagogical inventions with peers, subject to questioning, critique, and revision” (Darling-Hammond and Sykes, 1999). Ultimately, engagement in professional inquiry enables educators to share, reflect upon, and improve their practices.Measurement of Learning
Altering how learning is delivered also requires redefining how learning is measured. Authentic assessments need to be developed to measure student performance more deeply and assess the skills deemed critical in the 21st century. A range of stakeholders have articulated that “college students, workers, and citizens must be able to solve multifaceted problems by thinking creatively and generating original ideas from multiple sources of information—and tests must measure students’ capacity to do such work” (Silva, November 2008).
While altering practices, policies, and procedures to create a more student-centered learning environment is critical, doing so will not, in and of itself, create a 21st century teaching and learning system. To address the speed with which change transpires in today’s world, a 21st century teaching and learning system must have organizational structures in place that adapt and communicate with comparable speed. This requires a shift to a culture in which the organization’s participants are more flexible and receptive to innovation.Organizational Accountability
In order to attain the caliber of leadership, instruction, and collaboration necessary in the 21st century, an organization must also submit to standards of accountability. By holding itself accountable, an organization fosters the commitment and information-sharing that is necessary for continuous progress monitoring. Through regular individual and group reflection, the organization becomes better-equipped to pursue the modifications associated with exemplary performance. In coupling flexibility with accountability, an organization is well-positioned to adopt the characteristics of a 21st century teaching and learning environment.Conclusion
Deliberately creating a 21st century teaching and learning environment requires an organization to determine the skill and competencies required of today’s citizens, consumers, students, and employees. Upon the identification of these 21st century skills, practices, policies, and procedures must be examined and altered to facilitate development. In the process of pursuing these modifications, participants need to cultivate the structures necessary to promote a 21st century teaching and learning system that is open to future changes.