Thursday, October 8, 2009

Just Call Them Skills

Cross Posted Over At The Digital Learning Envrionments Blog.

Flash back to 1998, the year I graduated from from a small high school in coastal North Carolina. I can remember my senior year like it was yesterday. Everyone of my teachers was was using these new terms, "21st Century Learners," and "21st Century Skills." At the time I paid little attention to what it meant or was all about. I can remember a particular English Teacher who used one of those terms in just about every sentence to us. "I have to provide you '21st Century Skills' or else you won't be prepared for college or the 'real world." Being a Senior, close to graduation, I didn't really want to know or even care about, what she was talking about; I just wanted out!

Moving forward to college I would hear those two terms every now and then from my professors in my liberal arts classes, before I started by degree classes. However, then I got in to my degree; Middle Grades Education. Everything we did; lesson plans, research project, lecture, everything had to relate back demonstrating how we were integrating those "21st Century Skills." We were constantly judged on how well we did or lack there off. It was drilled into our heads, so much so, I began to think if we were on the right track.

After graduation I went to work in middle school teaching science. You would think by 2003 that word would have spread far and wide that we needed to be integrating these "21st Century Skills" into our teaching and we could really move on to the business at hand; educating our students. Sadly, I spent countless, wasted hours in workshops reviewing teaching methods, suggested lesson plans and watching unnecessary model lessons. What was bizarre to me was that every time we had one of these "workshops" the presenter had a different idea as to what exactly "21st Century Skills" actually were. I got the impression that there was no agreed upon list of skills.

Here we are in 2009 and we are still talking about and worried about "21st Century Skills." I hate to break it to some, but we are 9 years in to the 21st Century. The conversation has yet to move past the term "21st Century." It is upon us. At this point, these are just the skills students need to have. Its not about being "globally competitive" or "prepared for jobs that don't exist yet," its about the way these kids want to be and deserve to be taught.

In the U.S. the majority of these "21st Century" students are being taught with 18th Century methods. Students come in to the room, they sit down, do a worksheet and go home. They never had the opportunity to create something, or produce something or demonstrate their knowledge is any form other than a standardized test. The problem is, when they go home they get on their computer to "Facebook" a friend, while downloading music to their iPod and catching up on their favorite television show on Hulu all at the same time exploring new spots in Second Life.These are digital kids that, when they go to most of the schools in the U.S. are taught in non-digital ways.

So here is what I suggest. Lets drop the "21st Century" and just focus on skills. Using that term makes it sound like what we are doing is cutting edge, new and different. To be honest. there shouldn't be anything cutting edge with what we are doing in education. When a district gives all its students laptops they should be seen as behind the times and not "leading the charge to '21st Century Skills'". When a teacher uses social media in their classroom it should be seen as "it's about time." Rather than keep talking about what skills we are talking about we need to embrace the tools and applications that students are using outside of school and bring them into our classrooms. There isn't anything "21st Century" about that. Its just what we need to be doing!

The face of education is changing. It is time we as educators and a society change because it's about this kids anyway...isn't it?


  1. I clarified my thoughts a bit in the comments to a post by @MikeSansone regarding the term of 21st Century Skills.

  2. I am fortunate to have a Superintendent who gets thge bigger picture and he also refers to this with similar frustration sasying that we should not spend too much time giving ourselves credit for "the train leaving on time."

  3. I agree that the term 21st Century is over-used, but we still language differentiate the ever growing list of new skills our students need. Information Literacy? Critical Thinking? Media Literacy? In Florida we are rewriting our state standards as "Next Generation Standards"

  4. We ought to call it "get with it or become irrelevant". See also, Yet we must admit, lag time is a painful reality in tech. adoption within education. It may become our own undoing. People use this term, I believe, to signal a panic that many around them don't "get it", "use it" or "value it". There is not a sense that we are all on the same page.