College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Researchers and Politicians Agree on 21st-Century Skills

By John Wilson — February 27, 2013 4 min read
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A few weeks ago, I attended a Congressional briefing on 21st Century Skills, and I talked with several Senators and members of their staff. These events were organized by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21), a catalytic coalition of education groups, businesses, and 19 state partners. In these times of gridlock and partisan divide, it was refreshing to see Democrats and Republicans working together for the good of our children and America’s future. It was also satisfying to know that their advocacy was based on solid research from the National Research Council.

For ten years, P21 has been beating the drum about the need for our students to be skilled in creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication. P21 supports using 21st Century technology integrated into the teaching of literacy, math, science, social studies, the arts, and other subjects listed in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). So you can imagine their and my surprise at entering a meeting room at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center and finding it packed with Congressional staff, education advocates, and business leaders from several of America’s premier companies. It seems that people really do get that these skills are an important partner with academic knowledge to prepare our students to be innovators and leaders.

Margaret Hilton of the National Research Council presented findings from the most comprehensive research conducted on 21st Century skills, or deeper learning, by some of America’s finest researchers led by James Pellegrino, Chair, Learning Sciences Research Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In the research report “Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century,” the writers define these sets of skills, describe how the skills relate to each other and the core curriculum, review research on the skills’ importance for adult work, discuss the teaching and assessing of these skills, and identify interventions that develop these competencies.

P21 has always described their framework for 21st Century learning by using a rainbow. I guess that was a little too simple for the researchers. Their description was three domains: Cogntive, Intrapersonal, and Interpersonal. The Cognitive Domain includes three clusters of competencies: cognitive process and strategies, knowledge, and creativity. In this domain, you will find the specific competencies of critical thinking, information literacy, reasoning and argumentation, and innovation. The Intrapersonal Domain also includes three clusters of competencies: intellectual openness, work ethic and conscientiousness, and positive core self-evaluation. Within this domain are the specific competencies of flexibility, initiative, appreciation for diversity, and metacognition which is defined as the ability to reflect on one’s learning and make adjustments accordingly. The Interpersonal Domain has two domains: teamwork and collaboration and leadership. The competencies you will find in this domain are communication, collaboration, responsibility, and conflict resolution. Dr. Hilton made it clear that a key finding of their research is that these skills can be taught and learned in ways that promote effective transfer.

Now after all that information, I bet you are thinking that this data from the National Research Council might overwhelm teachers with something more on their plate. What teachers have told me is that they know that their students need to learn these skills. They want to be freed from the current instructional straitjacket of scripted learning and test preps. They want to teach creatively with project-based learning, use new technology, and create lessons that teach the content and the skills together. Well, they might get that chance if it is left up to some Congressional leaders who attended the P21 briefing.

Representative Tom Petri (R-WI) and Representative Dave Loebsack (D-IA) have formed a bipartisan Congressional 21st Century Skills Caucus to provide a forum for members of Congress and their staff to learn and to advocate. You should encourage your member of Congress to join the caucus. A key piece of legislation titled the 21st Century Readiness Act (H.R.347) has been introduced, and I hope this legislation will be integrated into the re-authorization of ESEA---if that ever happens. If not, other legislation may be more appropriate. Encourage your representative to sign on to this legislation. Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) will introduce a companion bill in the Senate so talk to your Senator, too.

Those of us who desire a quality education for all children need to unite around what matters. 21st Century skills matter if we want our children to have the opportunity to succeed in the world in which they will live.

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