Teaching Students 21st-Century Skills Takes Time. It's Worth It

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To the Editor:

There is a disconnect between how high schools are preparing students for their future lives and what those lives will ultimately look like. Are high schools preparing students for the colleges and careers of the 20th century, or those of the 21st century and beyond?

Because the future of work is unknown, educators are thinking hard about what exactly they should be teaching students that won't be mechanized within their lifetimes.

There are experts who suggest general, flexible, insight-bearing human learning. Others propose teaching teamwork and complex communication skills so that students will be able to solve problems we can't currently anticipate. Cognitive scientists stress concepts like "grit" and "mindset."

Indeed, a comparison of those adults holding General Educational Development diplomas with regular high school graduates has demonstrated that "noncognitive skills" have a large impact on earnings.

Fortunately, noncognitive skills and IQ have been shown to be malleable. Learning how to learn—and wanting to do so—is a gift that teachers can give to their students; like educating students about the power of teamwork, the skill can be taught.

This is what is needed for the 21st century, and it can take time to teach it.

Preparing students for an unknown future requires curricula, pedagogy, and assessment—in high schools and colleges—that prepare students to solve adult problems, reflect the changing needs of society and the workplace, and recognize that many of those who started school in 2015 will still be active in another 50 years.

Arnold Packer
La Jolla, Calif.

The author was an assistant U.S. secretary of labor in the Carter administration, the chief economist for the Budget Committee of the U.S. Senate, and the executive director of the U.S. Secretary of Labor’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills under President George H. W. Bush. He is retired from Johns Hopkins University.

Vol. 35, Issue 15, Page 27

Published in Print: January 6, 2016, as Teaching Students 21st-Century Skills Takes Time. It's Worth It
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