Thursday, December 15, 2011

Rethinking Curriculum

Recently I was visiting some friends who are also teachers who got me thinking about the words "21st century skills".  It's interesting to question whether, at this point just 11 years into the 21st century, we really know what skills student will need to be successful in the future.  My friends asked me if 100 years ago, in 1911, teachers could have predicted the skills that their students would need to be successful at the end of the 20th century.  I thought that probably they could not have done this.  This year the oldest person in my family died at the age of 98.  She was born in 1913 and certainly wasn't given at school the skills that she developed in the last years of her life to use a computer or a smartphone.  Something else kept her going, however: curiosity, open-mindedness, adaptability and the courage to try new things.  These were the attributes she developed as a young person at school in the 1920s and these are  the same skills that nowadays we are labeling as "21st century"?

The first half of the 20th century was marked by a very fast pace of technological inventions.  People flew in the first airplanes and helicopters, they started to own their own cars.  Motion pictures, radio and television were invented.  New materials such as stainless steel, nylon, plastic and teflon became commonplace.  In the 1950s, just halfway through the century, televisions started to appear in many homes as the dominant media, which changed people's ideas of entertainment, and people started to go into space for the first time.  It's almost unbelievable to think that at the beginning of the century, when human flight was unthought of, anyone would have predicted that men would be able to walk on the moon or live in space.  In an age where many people's working lives were spent in local small businesses or factories, who could have predicted the rise of the multi-national corporation?

In the final chapter of Curriculum 21, Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick write:
Our students are in the 21st century and they are waiting for the teachers and the curriculum to catch up.
They refer to the changes that need to be made such as:
open-mindedness, flexibility, patience and courage.  Changing curriculum is about changing your mind first and then forming some new habits and routines as you abandon old ones.
21st century skills have been defined in many ways and include the following:

  • critical thinking
  • problem solving
  • collaboration
  • leadership
  • agility and adaptability
  • initiative and entrepreneurialism
  • effective oral and written communication
  • accessing and analyzing information
  • curiosity and imagination
As I looked over this list I asked myself, were not these also the skills employed by the Wright brothers as they designed and tested their first airplane, or by Albert Einstein when he published the theory of relativity, or by Thomas Edison, one of the most prolific inventors in history?

Costa and Kallick have defined 16 habits of mind necessary for success.  These are:
  • persistence and perseverance
  • managing impulsivity and thinking before acting
  • listening with understanding and empathy - being able to perceive another's point of view
  • thinking flexibly and being able to change perspectives
  • metacognition - being aware of your own thoughts and actions and how they affect others
  • striving for accuracy and precision
  • questioning and problem posing
  • applying past knowledge to novel situations - using what you have learnt
  • thinking and communicating with clarity and precision
  • gathering data through all the senses
  • creating, imagining and innovating
  • responding with wonderment and awe
  • taking responsible risks - living on the edge of your competence
  • humor - being able to laugh at yourself 
  • thinking independently and being able to learn from others and work together
  • learning from experience 
Costa and Kallick point out that these habits are never fully mastered, instead learners must continually practice, modify and refine them.

How does this impact on the 21st century curriculum?  Costa and Kallick write that today several mind shifts are needed:
  • from knowing the right answers, to knowing how to behave when the answers are not readily apparent.  In curriculum terms this involves changing from valuing knowledge acquisition to valuing knowledge production.
  • from transmitting meaning to constructing meaning.  Humans don't just get ideas, they make ideas, often collaborating with others to share knowledge.  The curriculum needs to change emphasis from having learners acquire our meanings to having their construct shared meanings which may not necessarily be the meanings we wanted them to construct.
  • from external evaluation to self-assessment - if we are focus on the process then we cannot just measure the product.  The new purpose of evaluation is to have students learn how to become self-evaluative.
21st century teachers need to let go more.  They need to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.  As Costa and Kallick write:
Growth and change are found in disequilibrium, not balance.

Photo Credit:  Worlds Afloat by Michael Feist AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike 

1 comment:

  1. Great thoughts! I am especially struck by this question as I have pointed this out myself to colleagues and friends:
    "As I looked over this list I asked myself, were not these also the skills employed by the Wright brothers as they designed and tested their first airplane, or by Albert Einstein when he published the theory of relativity, or by Thomas Edison, one of the most prolific inventors in history?"

    What is new is the tools teachers need to embrace. And administrators and politicians need to get out of the way and let us do it.