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21st century or every century?


SmartBlog on Education this month is exploring 21st-century teaching and learning. Join us for original content in which experts explore the trends and highlight best practices that can help prepare students for their future worlds of work and living.

We hear a lot today about the importance of 21st-century skills, from proponents who say we need to make sure all learners showcase these characteristics, and from critics who say we need to worry less about 21st-century skills, since we’re already 15% into the century, and instead, we should extrapolate what the skills of the 22nd century might be.

I think both of these views are correct; there doesn’t have to be an either/or. Surely we need to make sure learners understand the digital space as much as live in it, and we need to emphasize “college and career readiness” as being more than just a catch-phrase.

As we continue moving from one century to the next, I can’t help but wonder if all our focus on skills of the century, misses the opportunity to go back to basics and focus on skills that are timeless. After all, one man’s (or woman’s) 21st-century skill is someone else's eternal one. Here are three examples:

21st-century skill: Critical thinking (aka Eternal skill: Inquiring)

This year, many in New York are contemplating changes to social studies and social studies instruction. Gone are the days of the “standard” document-based question. Instead, in its place, are social studies inquiries, experiences that are more than simply a response to a question, and that look to incorporate, more fully, critical thinking and the “new” practices of social studies education such as civic participation, chronological reasoning, and oh yeah, critical thinking. These moves towards inquiry will prove to be helpful in furthering social studies instruction in the direction that we know is best for students to go. And yet, it is worth wondering if the need for this inquiring spirit is newly realized, or if we simply haven’t been paying as much attention as we should have.

“Inquiry” has clearly become part of the educational buzzword landscape as much as “critical thinking” has. But dig a little deeper, and whatever your definition of “inquiry,” the fact remains that asking questions, rather than simply seeking answers, is a skill that the best leaders throughout history have promoted in the learners they worked with. Whether we consider the wondering nature of the Greek philosophers and their students, or Alan Turing’s ceaseless quest to break the code of the Enigma, the process of questioning, and using those questions to drive our learning (rather than relying on answers to spur us on) has been integral to engaging learning for centuries. And like learners of the past, today’s learners need to keep on questioning if they are going to turn our world into the place that we, and they, all hope it will one day become.

21st-century skill: Creating (aka Eternal skill: Making).

MakerSpaces and CreationSpaces are all the rage, and the Maker Movement has taken over before- and after-school programs, and any available space that schools can find (at least in the suburbs of New York City). Making is all about putting creation in the hands of learners, and encouraging the development of the human desire to ideate, design, build, and take apart. Making is something that we all do on a daily basis, whether it is around sense, meaning or “it” (whatever “it” is) happen. And, we’ve been creating, building, and learning from this process since our ancestors first gained the ability to consciously think, and use their minds, and bodies to make decisions. Our brains have always engaged in this process; our bodies, at least in schools, have done less and less over the last few decades.

In fact, for a while there, making in schools seemed on the way out. It was often relegated to “shop” class, which was in many ways, a “Maker Lite,” and which many students, particularly those who were taking the most challenging classes offered, missed out on entirely. As society has continued to shift into niche professions, and as our schools have continued to separate the disciplines further and further from each other, the average learner has actually “made” less and less. Today’s Maker Movement is successful for both the multitude of groups that have formed around the idea of making and creating, and also for the lack of truly tangible design experiences that have found their ways into school systems until recently. “Making” is certainly making a comeback, but it is a skill that should never have been lost. If we don’t physically create, how can we ever hope that our brains will be able to imagine? Whether considering the Pyramids of Giza, the Duomo of Florence, the space shuttle, or your smartphone, creating and making aren’t just skills for this century; they’re consistently timeless.

21st-century skill: Communicating (aka Eternal skill: Listening). Media and information literacy are hot topic items in education. We are rightly concerned with how learners will separate fact from fiction in a world that is never short on opinions, beliefs, and assorted sound bites. We are in an age where we are hearing more than we have ever heard before, and seeing more than we have ever seen. So, it goes without saying that listening, truly listening, is an incredibly important skill for students, so much so that information/media/digital literacy are constant topics of conversation. I know, you’re saying, “But wait, you can’t truly communicate with listening alone.” And you would be right. Despite this, the best leaders and learners tend to be as good at listening as they are speaking, if not better.

Consider, for instance, Abraham Lincoln’s practice of forcing himself to listen to the public at large, and just as importantly, surround himself with advisers who were not just there to say “yes.” This is important, because we tend to pay more attention to those who speak loudly and forcefully, and often pay less attention to those who are more likely to hold back, and listen (for what it is worth, communication is never one-sided; those who only speak, aren’t communicating either). And yet, throughout history, the art of being able to truly listen, and make decisions off someone else’s words, rather than just our own, has often been the difference between societies continuing to exist, or disappearing forever.

These are three small examples of why the emphasis on century skills may be a bit short-sighted. Sure, society and culture change in 100 years. And yes, our knowledge and skills need to change as the world around us does. But one of the best things we can do for those we learn and lead alongside is make sure that we provide access to foundational skills, skills that regardless of how many hundreds of years have passed, will always be present-tense and future-ready.

Fred Ende (@fredende) is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam Northern Westchester BOCES. Fred blogs at www.fredende.blogspot.com, Edutopia and ASCD EDge. His book, Professional Development That Sticks is available from ASCD.

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