Pennsylvania’s K–12 program has added technology to high school classes, but more important, says technology teacher Colette Cairns, it has helped deepen students’ critical thinking skills.

Oct 30 2007

21st Century Skills

The new mandate for schools is simple: Be relevant to students while giving them the latest skills to compete globally. Here's who's doing this and how they are accomplishing it.

The new mandate for schools is simple: Be relevant to students while giving them the latest skills to compete globally. Here’s who’s doing this and how they are accomplishing it.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills is quite clear on what it considers the most important lesson for the next generation. The Tucson, Ariz.-based organization released its revamped framework in early August to emphasize that today’s students must not only master the core subjects but also be conversant in global awareness; financial, business and entrepreneurial literacy; civic literacy; and health literacy. Nor is it enough to spit out facts — tomorrow’s leaders need to apply creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, communication and collaboration skills to these tasks.

They need to demonstrate flexibility, initiative, social and cross-cultural skills, productivity, accountability, leadership and responsibility as part of the package.

“The first question that we as nation have been asking is ‘How do we identify underperforming kids?’” But now the second question is ‘How do our kids stack up in terms of skills that are necessary to compete in the new global economy?’” asks Ken Kay, president of Partnership for 21st Century Skills. To date, six states have officially joined his coalition to seek the answers: North Carolina, West Virginia, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Massachusetts and Maine. He anticipates adding as many as five more state partners by summer 2008.

Destination Obvious, Directions Foggy

Twenty-first century classrooms can take many forms. Philadelphia’s Chief Academic Officer Cassandra Jones built her district’s School of the Future in collaboration with Microsoft.

But while the objectives are becoming much clearer, the highway to get there is far from paved — and Kay has never claimed otherwise. Nor has he billed the future as a revolution. “One of the things we’ve said all along is that you don’t teach 21st-century skills on Friday afternoon at 2 p.m.,” he says. “You embed them in English, math, science and social studies.”

It leaves plenty of room for ideas, and technology is typically the star of the show. Take, for instance, Philadelphia School District’s School of the Future, a paperless high school that puts all instruction on notebooks PCs and whiteboards. This digital curriculum keeps information up to date and also gives students a head start on information literacy, such as deciding if an online textbook is a better source than Wikipedia. Both the city and state policy makers came to the table eager to support the possibilities, says Cassandra Jones, chief academic officer for the district.

The Denver School of Science and Technology impressed the Gates Foundation, which stepped up with a half-million-dollar check in January to expand its program. The small school makes 25 courses its priority and offers no remediation to students, instead mandating summer school and supplemental courses until they meet the school’s high standards. The school also works to make it clear to students how various courses work together. For instance, teachers show how physics helps math and how English can bolster a science lab report.

Yet such news headlines lead to the most important question of all: Are these various tools actually teaching 21st-century skills?

The Business Route

North Carolina was the first state to join Kay’s crusade. Economic conditions in the southern state took a nosedive after the textile, furniture and tobacco industries that formerly ruled fell into hard times.

The state had already established a Business Committee for Education nearly a quarter of a century earlier, so Gov. Mike Easley had a suitable platform to incubate his 21st-century skills push. This push was important to support Gov. Easley’s work to attract more knowledge-based jobs to North Carolina. And in 2004, he created the Learn and Earn statewide program that established high schools on college campuses in order to help students gain a high school diploma and an associate’s degree at the same time. Three years later, 42 of these schools are spread across the state. So it’s no wonder the state made such a good match for the Partnership for 21st Century Skills; both are looking to prepare students for the reality of today’s global marketplace. By giving students higher level courses earlier, North Carolina is meeting its goal. By adopting partnership goals statewide, North Carolina has given the nonprofit its first high profile test case to prove that these changes will improve what students learn.

Officials here have attacked the skills challenge from the inside out, rewriting the state board of education’s mission and goals, retooling school executive standards and teaching standards to reflect 21st- century goals, and announcing new evaluations to benchmark progress. This alignment of standards is unprecedented and will drive the change down into every classroom in North Carolina.

“We’ve used the first Learn and Earn schools as a Petri dish while we were creating and getting approved the new State Board 21st-century goals and later the new standards,” says Melissa Bartlett, who heads the Center for 21st Century Skills in North Carolina. Governor Easley’s Teacher Working Conditions Survey yielded a huge body of data that was analyzed by the Center for Teaching Quality showing that teachers are on board with the changes. According to the researchers, teachers in the Learn and Earn environments are significantly more positive about every working condition than their colleagues in the state are.

West Virginia, too, started by asking businesses and educators what they thought of the partnership’s goals. The business leaders agreed those are the traits they need from prospective employees. Teachers told state Superintendent of Schools Steven L. Paine the concept took them back to the days when they could be creative and innovative, teach higher level skill sets and measure progress other than via a standardized test.

What did these teachers say they needed to be successful? Why, just technology tools and training.

A Laptop for the Teacher

So Paine, like his colleagues in North Carolina, adjusted the content standards and objectives to reflect both No Child Left Behind demands and the cognitive skills he wants to hone, then started training principals in the necessary leadership skills to pull it off. Likewise, he established training institutes to teach the teachers on a voluntary basis. “As a small state, we are fairly centralized at the state level,” he says of his ability to corral a good number of principals plus teachers from all 55 school districts.

Because this is his first year to participate in 21st-century skills instruction, Paine doesn’t have hard data to share, but he recognizes enthusiasm when he sees it. The locals are thanking him “for giving us a message of hope for the future of education. We like it,” he says. One classroom instructor reported that even her students’ blogs have begun to reflect some of the higher level abilities the state is stressing, such as collaboration, problem solving and critical thinking.

Colette Cairns learned this lesson the hard way. This Manheim Township (Pa.) School District technology teacher originally mistook the main thrust of her state’s Classrooms for the Future project to mean more computers, period. It was an honest mistake. The program’s ultimate financial goal is to put a notebook computer on each desk and electronic whiteboards, cameras and scanners at the teacher’s disposal in every high school English, math, science and social studies classroom by 2009.

Cairns was tapped as the technology coach for her district, and she learned the multiyear state program “is really about getting our kids to use their critical thinking skills to synthesize and evaluate. It’s not learning how to use a software program,” Cairns says.

Now she’s watching high schoolers blossom as they collaborate on statistics assignments via Google spreadsheets, and join students in other schools via Skype to write a biography and then act out the character in a Webcast presentation. Two unmotivated boys she knew from business courses devoured an assignment to use Google Maps to design a trip and create a movie about this proposed jaunt. “They were staying after school, working through lunch. The real-life aspect really hit them — it was amazing,” she says.

Teachers, too, are just as excited. “I thought the hardest part would be to get them to really integrate the technology, not just use it as a word processor,” Cairns notes. “But because part of the grant allowed for a coach like myself to go into the classrooms and help devise the lesson plans, it has made the program a huge success.”

Philadelphia’s Jones has her own measurement system to determine if Microsoft’s School of the Future has been worth the city’s investment. The 90 percent attendance record, compared to a systemwide 84 percent rate, tells her it’s working. “Children will walk with their feet if the concept is not what they thought they were buying into,” she says. Furthermore, only 5 percent of the students failed to meet competency levels in the multidimensional requirements.

“In order to see real results in the classroom, it will take a long-term commitment,” Kay adds. “Right now I’m hopeful because people are beginning the conversation and realizing the skills we need to focus on. Once we have consensus, we can get down to the hard work on how we teach these skills most effectively.”

Creating Thinkers

It lacks technology’s pizzazz, but for institutions like Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, Mass., the answer to imparting 21st-century skills lies in a completely different model.

This private institution offers college courses and lifestyle in place of the usual 11th- and 12th-grade curriculum, similar to North Carolina’s Learn and Earn schools that replace the typical high school electives with college courses and which also use “dual enrollment” where students simultaneously receive high school and college credit for one course.

“Students hear about [our school] and think, ‘Excellent, it’s college! I have all the freedom in the world, I can do what I want.’ Parents hear ‘early’ and they think it’s a prep school environment,” says provost Mary Marcy.

Reality is somewhere in between. Yes, students live on 262 acres of campus, but they also have more structure in their curricular requirements than an older college student. Thanks to a nearly 90 percent retention rate among students between their first to second year, the 40-year-old institution has earned praise from the Gates Foundation and spun off a sister institution in New York City called Bard High School Early College.

So where do the 21st-century skills fit in? “We still have a fairly idealized notion of liberal arts education, but it teaches students to think. In almost the literal sense of the word, it liberates students, allows them to discover their own abilities and voice so they have a sense of their identity and what they can contribute to the world,” Marcy says. “In the process, they’re able to think critically and analytically, write well and then develop a set of skills within those abilities, whether it’s in computer science or biology or the arts. It translates very effectively for them in the working world.”

For example, Marcy is currently working to re-image her science curriculum for non-majors. The course will ask students to answer a question, such as “How will climate change affect our world?” Students will then have to explore the appropriate chemistry, biology, astronomy and physics as opposed to aimlessly working through an introduction to biology course before moving on to introduction to chemistry.

Sure, the 400 students fortunate enough to land here are selected by administrators, but it’s not cherry-picking, Marcy insists. “It’s very individualized. When we interview students, we talk to them about their motivation, their level of interest. That doesn’t mean they necessarily have top scores, but that they’re bright enough to be able to do college level work and they’re eager,” she says.

The model seems to be working. Bard’s College at Simon’s Rock alumni are inventing new uses for the Internet, building thriving businesses, conducting fusion research at MIT, saving lives through pediatric neurosurgery, trading on Wall Street, bringing health care to remote areas of Micronesia and leading organizations like the Rainforest Alliance and HBO, according to the school.