Schools urged to teach ’21st-century’ skills

A new organization called the Partnership for 21st Century Skills has issued a report and a free planning guide to help educators incorporate specific “21st-century” skills—such as problem solving, critical thinking, and communication—into the core curriculum of schools to better prepare students for today’s technology-infused workplaces.

The report, “Learning for the 21st Century,” and its companion, “Milestones for Improving Learning and Education (MILE) Guide for 21st Century Skills,” were released June 30 at the National Education Computing Conference in Seattle.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills is a public-private organization whose members include the AOL Time Warner Foundation, Apple Computer, Cable in the Classroom, Cisco Systems, Dell, Microsoft, the National Education Association, and SAP. Its efforts are supported by the U.S. Department of Education (ED).

“The partnership’s leaders are calling on communities to take advantage of the window of opportunity provided by No Child Left Behind to put into place a long-term vision to better prepare students for the workplace and society of the 21st century,” said Terry Crane, partnership co-chair and vice president for education at America Online Inc.

“Our doctors don’t treat patients using 19th-century medicines, and our teachers shouldn’t educate students using 19th-century learning models,” Crane continued. “Today’s students need to demonstrate knowledge of core subjects such as reading, math, and science—but they also must learn additional skills, including critical thinking, decision making, problem solving and communication, and the ability to adapt to a changing world.”

A survey released June 25 by the AOL Time Warner Foundation underscores the need for schools to retool their existing curricula to incorporate the teaching of these new skills.

Ninety-two percent of respondents said they think young people need different skills today than they did 10 to 20 years ago, but only 42 percent said they think schools are doing a good job of teaching young people the 21st-century literacy skills they need.

Two-thirds of those surveyed said it is “realistic to expect schools to integrate these new literacy skills into learning even when so many young people don’t heave adequate basic skills.” And, less than a fifth of respondents said America’s youth are more prepared for the 21st century than are youth in other developed countries.

The survey of 1,000 adults was conducted by the national research firms Lake, Snell, Perry and Associates and Market Strategies.

The AOL Time Warner Foundation also announced that it is dedicating its resources to developing the 21st-century skills young people need to succeed in school, in work, and in their communities. To do this, the foundation will make $3 million in new grants in 2003.

Although states and school districts are facing constrained resources and tight budgets nationwide, “these are the times people have to innovate the most,” said Karen Bruett, K-12 marketing director for Dell Corp.

The report and the MILE Guide are the result of nine months of focus groups and outreach efforts with hundreds of educators, researchers, and employers. Their recommendations are based on a consensus of essential skills that people need to succeed in the 21st century.

The report “gives us a common nomenclature,” said John Bailey, director of ED’s Office of Educational Technology. Using different terms—such as “digital literacy,” “media literacy,” or “screen literacy”—for the same skills confuses policy makers at the local, state, and federal levels, Bailey said.

The report also “gives us a roadmap to get beyond the either-or debate,” Bailey said. Many educators have questioned how it is possible to teach information literacy skills when there is already limited time to address basic skills such as reading and math—but the MILE Guide shows educators how to integrate these two types of skills together, he said.

According to the report, educators should incorporate the following six key elements of a 21st-century education:

  • Stress core subjects;
  • Emphasize learning skills;
  • Use 21st-century tools to develop learning skills;
  • Teach in a 21st-century context;
  • Teach using new 21st-century content; and
  • Use 21st-century assessments that measure core subjects and 21st-century skills.

The report also outlines nine specific steps to incorporate 21st-century learning skills into education:

  • Embrace a powerful vision of public education that includes 21st-century skills;
  • Align leadership, management, and resources with educational goals;
  • Assess where schools are now;
  • Prioritize the 21st-century skills to focus on;
  • Develop a professional development plan for teaching 21st-century skills;
  • Ensure that students have equitable assess to a 21st-century education;
  • Begin developing assessments to measure student progress in 21st-century skills;
  • Collaborate with outside partners; and
  • Plan collectively and strategically for the future.

In addition, the report lists actions that parents, administrators, and policy makers can take to help integrate 21st-century skills into their communities.

The MILE Guide provides a roadmap for educators and administrators to measure the progress of their schools in defining, teaching, and assessing 21st-century skills. Educators and administrators can use the guide to determine where they are, what benchmarks and goals they should set, and what grants they can apply for to help make it happen. A color-coded matrix easily helps school administrators identify weaknesses and areas in need of improvement.

The guide is also available online. School leaders can assess how their schools are preparing students for a 21st-cewntury education at the partnership’s web site and can get a report of the results based on the MILE Guide.

The greatest challenge now is getting educators to voluntarily use the MILE guide in their planning, members of the partnership said. At the very least, its members hope educators will take the online survey to see where they are.

Bruett advises, “Go use it. Go test it out and see where you rank.” She also recommends having different stakeholders answer the survey’s 21 questions to get many perspectives on a school system’s readiness.


Partnership for 21st Century Skills

AOL Time Warner Foundation

eSchool News Staff

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