Teaching

Panel of Scholars Defines ‘21st-Century Skills’

By Sarah D. Sparks — July 17, 2012 3 min read
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The modern workplace and lifestyle demand that students balance cognitive, personal, and interpersonal abilities, but education policy discussions have not defined those skills well, says a report released last week by scholars from the National Research Council.

A “who’s who” team of experts from the National Academies of Sciences collaborated for more than a year on the report intended to define what researchers, educators, and policymakers mean when they talk about “deeper learning” and “21st-century skills.” (The report was sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which supports Education Week‘s coverage of “deeper learning” issues.)

“Staying in school and completing degrees clearly have very strong effects,” said James W. Pellegrino, a co-editor of the report and a co-director of the Interdisciplinary Learning Sciences Research Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Americans get about a 7 percent to 11 percent return in higher career earnings based on their years of schooling, he said, “and cognitive skills"—the kind most associated with academic aptitude—"don’t explain all the effects of schooling. Schooling is probably a proxy for some combination of different clusters of skills.”

The committee found the skills considered necessary for the 21st-century workplace generally fall into three categories: cognitive, such as critical thinking and analytic reasoning to learn “deeply"; interpersonal, such as teamwork and complex communication; and intrapersonal, such as resiliency and conscientiousness.

‘Back on the Table’

Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who was not part of the report committee, said developing common definitions of 21st-century skills is critical to current education policy discussions, such as those going on around the Common Core State Standards. She was pleased with the report’s recommendation to focus more research and resources on nonacademic skills. “Those are the things that determine whether you make it through college, as much as your GPA or your skill level when you start college,” she said. “We have tended to de-emphasize those skills in an era in which we are focusing almost exclusively on testing, and a narrow area of testing.”

The skill that may be the trickiest to teach and test may be the one that underlies and connects skills in all three areas: a student’s ability to transfer and apply existing knowledge to a problem in a new context. “Transfer is the sort of Holy Grail in this whole thing,” Mr. Pellegrino said. “We’d like to believe we can create Renaissance men who are experts in a wide array of disciplines and can blithely transfer skills from one to the other, but it just doesn’t happen that way.”

The committee found students develop the best ways to solve new problems by learning procedures and conceptual models within a specific subject area, and it notes that even experts often fail to apply their existing knowledge when a problem is presented in a totally new context.

“Transfer is deeply connected to your knowledge base and your skill in an area,” said Christine M. Massey, one of the NRC committee members and the education director for the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “It’s not the case that you can just practice up a set of generic skills and apply that in a certain area.”

The good news is that schools can teach students the ability to transfer knowledge within individual subject areas, said Ms. Darling-Hammond. “In mathematics, for example, we wouldn’t necessarily just give kids these problem sets but engage them in identifying, framing, and solving real-world problems that would use those problem sets,” she said.

The committee pointed to a five-year study from 2008 of 700 California students in three high schools: one urban, one rural, and a third with an overwhelmingly affluent and white enrollment.

At the start of the study, incoming 9th graders in the diverse urban school performed well below students in the other schools in math. After the school redesigned its algebra and geometry courses to foster “deeper learning,” those students caught up with their peers in algebra by the end of the first year. They outperformed students in the other schools the next year and later went on to take calculus at higher rates.

A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2012 edition of Education Week as Panel Parses Out Skills Needed for 21st-Century Workplace

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