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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Partnership for 21st Century Skills: An Interview with Tim Magner

By Peter DeWitt — July 06, 2012 8 min read
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In our present educational reform, there are organizations that fall into several categories; those who want to work with the public education system, those who want to make money off of the public school system and those who want to work at the governmental level to change policy. As a public school principal I see the benefits of working with those organizations who want to help us progress but I lack patience for those who want to work with us to make a quick buck.

As much as this is a very difficult time for education it is also an exciting time because of the innovative things that teachers and administrators are doing around the country. If you ever venture into social networking, there are millions of educators who are providing examples of what they are doing with students in schools across the globe. It is exciting to think that even during a time when we feel constrained there are those educators who are thinking outside the box.

I was recently approached by a PR organization representing Tim Magner, the Executive Director for the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. There are enormous benefits to 21st century skills, which all students should have, but I also feel that those skills have been taught for decades and was interested to know if P21 approaches them any differently and how they help schools. P21 has come under some criticism.

There is a position paper undersigned by many well-known educators titled A Challenge to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills which states that P21 does not allow for all students to receive a liberal education in the public school system because their ideas are too narrowly based and they ignore a broader approach to teaching.

“Skills are important and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) has identified skills that all children need such as critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving. But P21’s approach to teaching those skills marginalizes knowledge and therefore will deny students the liberal education they need. Cognitive science teaches us that skills and knowledge are interdependent and that possessing a base of knowledge is necessary to the acquisition not only of more knowledge, but also of skills. Skills can neither be taught nor applied effectively without prior knowledge of a wide array of subjects”. Finding common ground is about looking at both sides to an argument, and Tim agreed to answer questions about how P21 works with schools and also agreed to answer questions about the position paper.

Interview with Tim Magner
Mr. Magner has had many jobs in the field of education. He taught technology in some high schools both in the U.S. and abroad, was the director of technology for a school district and then served as the Director for the Office of Educational Technology for the U.S. Department of Education.

PD: How does the Partnership for 21st Century Skills work with schools?

TM: We primarily work with federal and state policy makers. Our role with schools is to provide them with tools and resources to help provide the context for conversations that we think are important for communities to have. A lot of the work we have done is to provide the Framework for 21st Century Learning. One of our resources is called MILE Guide, which is a tool that schools and communities can use to see where they are with a 21st century education.

Primarily we work with states to offer opportunities to expand 21st century learning and we offer resources at the local level to help make those kinds of changes.

PD: In what areas do schools need to improve on teaching students the important 21st century skills they need?

TM: It’s really about a change in focus and looking at the roles and the purpose of schools in our communities. What do we expect students to learn and be able to do after they spend time with us in school? There is clearly more content that students need to master like reading, writing, math, science etc. but how do we allow students to acquire that content. How do we allow them to apply what they know in meaningful ways is really our focus.

P21 has a series of themes in our framework. They are global awareness, environmental literacy, health literacy, civic literacy, financial, business and entrepreneurial literacy. Those themes are what our young people have to be prepared for when they go out into the real world and they help ensure the types of experiences we want our students to have. They help engage our students in the real world. We also think it helps teachers think collaboratively and creatively as well and as teachers create curriculum maps they are able to find engaging ways for students to be involved in the learning process.

The kind of system we created over one hundred years ago has fundamentally shifted. The economy is different, the world we live in is different, technology plays a role in that but there are things that we value about school. Socialization, democratization, the human capacity piece are things we value from our school experience. We really think it’s incumbent on each community to be able to have those kinds of conversations.

PD: Are Critical thinking and problem solving, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity really new concepts for educators? Haven’t they been teaching those skills for decades?

TM: They have been taught for centuries. What is different about them is that all students need to have these skills. There has always been an assumption in our system that most kids were going to go off and work in farms or work in manufacturing, or work in a low-skilled kind of job. There was about 20% of the population that would go off to be doctors, lawyers, captains of industry and all of those sorts of career paths and it was ok for those people to think big thoughts and be creative. I think what we recognize now is that these are the kinds of skills that all kids need.

We now live in the kind of economy where you will not have the same job for 40 years because the job will probably not be around, so things like creativity, adaptability, leadership and responsibility are the hallmark now of not only being economically successful but being able to participate in a democracy. We need the bright minds of all of our children to get through these hardships that we are seeing presently. All kids need these skills which make it 21st century.

PD: Does your organization give specific details on how schools can do that? From a practical standpoint it sounds great but what do you do to help schools achieve this goal?

TM: One of the resources I mentioned was the MILE Guide. It helps redefine the dialogue between schools and the community to see where they are now with 21st century skills. We do not provide curriculum but we do provide examples and ideas to help inspire people to be creative.

We have been doing this for ten years now, and we are now beginning to identify schools around the country where we think there is significant innovation happening. We want to share those examples with not just policymakers but also with practitioners so they can learn from them. What we see over and over again is that school leadership and community leadership make a huge difference. Schools need to work with communities to see the necessary tools that students need to have for the workforce. The dialogue between both can create a sense of urgency for everyone involved.

PD: There has been a position paper underwritten by many writers and educators that states your organization is ignoring the liberal education students deserve. How do you respond to that?

TM: I think what we are doing is just the opposite. In our view there is no difference between content and skills. You can’t think critically about nothing. We have a deep appreciation for content and we want kids to be engaged and energized with the world around them. Where I believe we go one further is that there are a set of skills we look at. If there are two sides on the same coin we may have focused too much on heads and not enough on tails and we need to balance it on its frame.

The idea that you can get by in this world with just knowledge I think misses the point entirely. In a pre-Google world I think you could make a case that acquisition of information had its own reward. Today it’s not only knowing stuff and whether it’s accurate or not, it’s about finding out things that you don’t know. It’s being presented with questions that you have never seen before and then going out and finding the answers. There is a foundation of content knowledge that students need to have but there is also a much richer cognitive process that students need to have to be able to analyze, synthesize, and to apply what they know in the real world. From our perspective that is a much more rigorous educational articulation. To us it’s not about what students know but what students can do with that knowledge (End of Interview).

It’s important that organizations are advocating for schools to the Federal Education Department and the government but educators should be able to lead that advocacy. Many organizations offer schools innovative ideas on how they can deliver a 21st century education to students. For educators, it is important that these organizations not only offer ideas but also offer practical (and real) examples of how they are helping schools. Being on the outside looking in may provide an opportunity for organizations to clearly see the direction that schools can go and the mistakes they may make, but being on the inside looking out gives educators a unique perspective as well.

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P21 is a national organization that advocates for 21st century readiness for every student. As the United States continues to compete in a global economy that demands innovation, P21 and its members provide tools and resources to help the U.S. education system keep up by fusing the 3Rs and 4Cs (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation). While leading districts and schools are already doing this, P21 advocates for local, state and federal policies that support this approach for every school.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.