21st-Century Skills and Teaching

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 10, 2009 2 min read
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By now, I hope you’ve had a chance to check out this story on the 21st-century skills movement and a group of individuals who are raising questions about it. Ken Kay, the president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the main group that advocates the incorporation of these technological, communication, and analytical skills into the curriculum, offers a lengthier explanation of his group’s stance on the group’s Web site here.

The argument from naysayers with respect to teachers isn’t really so much one of content versus skills, it’s that “project-based” instruction is an incredibly difficult kind of teaching to do without losing sight of content, and requires excellent preparation.

When I went to West Virginia to check out how the state is instituting professional development on 21st-century skills, this was one tension that even teachers who were really good at doing project-based learning fully acknowledged..

I remember watching 4th grade teacher Rachel Hull, who was in the process of doing a project-based unit with her students. Kids were asked to create a toy for Santa Claus to deliver that had to meet certain specifications, and one element of the toy involved circuits. So the students were gathered around investigating why small lightbulbs lit up when the circuits were wired one way and not another and asked to test various hypotheses about why that might be.

The problem was that in allowing kids this type of freedom, a lot of questions came up that Ms. Hull didn’t know how to answer offhand. For example, she related to me that one of her students wanted to know if the circuit could power a Christmas-tree lightbulb, rather than the lighbulbs included in the project materials. Ms. Hull told me that she was going to have to look up the answer to that question and others on her own time.

Another teacher, Juanita Spinks, told me that making project-based learning relevant to kids’ lives was hard to do in English/language arts. Her solution was not to throw out classic literature but to use such works as the core texts for exploring other types of narratives.

But when you multiply these challenges by 30 kids, that’s a lot of extra work for a teacher. Some will be up to it; inevitably, some will not.

(I’ll also take this opportunity to point out that in West Virginia, teachers were tying their projects to state content standards.)

I’d argue this debate shares some similarities with the test-prep/No Child Left Behind debate. One of the complaints about NCLB, for instance, is that it forces teachers to focus too much on preparing for tests. But most teachers would prefer to give kids a rich curriculum that will get them over what by most accounts are basic-skills tests, rather than do straight test prep.

So, does this mean that many teachers are not equipped, either because of poor training or a lack of resources and time or a less-than-supportive administration, to deliver a really powerful curriculum for kids?

If so, what do you think the solution is?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.