In the Foreword Ken Kay, the President of Partnership for 21st Century Skills gives a good overview of how we appear to be at an educational "tipping point". On the P21 website and in the Foreword of the book, is the following graphic which shows how all the elements of 21st century education come together: 21st century skills, the core academic subjects, the 21st century themes and the support systems that are needed to be in place to support the education that is necessary for students' futures.
Many people ask why we need a different model of education for the 21st century. Aren't the skills we are talking about, such as communication and collaboration, the ones that have been important throughout history as civilizations have moved forward? And do we, only 11 years into the century, really know what skills our students will need for their future? The answer to these questions is that the past few years have seen a very different world than before, especially in the area of globalization, which has been encouraged by advances in technology. We have moved from the industrial age to the service age. When I consider the students who have taken my IB DP Geography classes in the past few years and who are now at university, I would predict all of them will end up in the service sector, and it seems clear that most of them will have jobs in many different fields over the course of their working lives. While we don't know what new jobs will emerge, these students will need to be able to learn new things and adapt to new situations as the world continues to change. They will need to be innovative and creative and will need to be critical thinkers and problem solvers.
The big difference between 21st century education and education that went before it is the embedding of the skills into the curriculum. In my mother's day, for example, and even when I was at school, we didn't do much problem solving or decision making. Those skills weren't seen as important because when we left school and went to work most of us expected to be told what to do - if we had a problem or if a decision had to be made we were expected to take that to someone higher up rather than make it ourselves. In today's "flat" world there is more scope for autonomy and decision making at every level - we are all expected to be self-directed and responsible for our own work and as Daniel Pink said in a workshop I did with him a couple of years ago, autonomy, mastery and purpose are the factors that lead to more personal satisfaction with our work and therefore to more motivation and ultimately a better performance.
The 21st century themes that appear on the Partnership for 21st Century Skills Framework, such as global awareness, financial, economic, business, entrepreneurial, civic, health and environmental literacy are not ones that were covered at school in my day (I suppose the nearest I came to any of these was doing A'levels in geography and economics). In my day academic rigor was defined by the "3 R's" and the coverage of a large amount of content - and knowing this content was more important than understanding it. Today content is not so important, as information is changing constantly, so today's students need the skills to be able to apply previous experience to new situations and they need the ability to be lifelong learners because they will need to keep learning as the situations they find themselves in change.
The implications for teachers are huge: they need to be engaging students in more inquiry and project-based learning. They need to be encouraging students to develop higher-order thinking skills. Teachers themselves need professional development and support to be able to do this.
Does technology play a part in this? Obviously it can if the technology is used in such a way as to promote 21st century skills and to support 21st century themes. But just putting an interactive whiteboard into a classroom or giving a student a laptop is not automatically going to bring about the changes in learning that we so obviously need. We need to rethink how students learn and we need to rethink what they are learning. We need to ensure that 21st century skills are embedded into all curriculum areas, into all teaching, into all assessments and into the professional development of the teachers who are planning the new learning environments.
Graphic taken from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills website, used via Wikipedia with a Creative Commons license please follow this link for license.