Teaching 21st Century Skills: An Enviable Depth of Field

If you listen to great teachers, their answer about basic skills and thinking skills is always both/and not either/or. These effective teachers balance how and what they teach . . . These are the teachers who stay above the wars and reconcile the pendulum swings in daily practice.

Linda Darling-Hammond, “New Polices for 21st Century Demands”

Twenty first century learning is the most recent dialogue dominating education these days: from proposed mandates that promote project based learning focusing upon a respective student’s passion – to dire necessity – Daryl Goodrich’s new film, We Are The People We’ve Been Waiting For.

The danger, at least in my eyes, is that the term ‘21st Century Learning,’ if not understood and embraced at the school level, runs the risk of becoming a term as glib as latte.  This sentiment is echoed by the Directors of 21st Century Skills in their evolving essay, What is 21st Century Education?:

. . . in order to create change in education all stakeholders must be on board.  One of the main obstacles as I see it is the enormous resistance to change among educators, policy makers, industry leaders, parents, and even many students.  There have been many movements to create change in our educational system, all fraught with conflict.  Some of the current efforts are trying to create change without actually changing – they are trying to take attributes of the 21st century and force fit them into the 19th and 20th century ways of designing and delivering education.  It won’t work!

How can we focus on life and career skills, information, media and technology skills, learning and innovation skills and 21st century themes when our students struggle with understanding the content of their core subjects?  A fair question to ask here at John Oliver when the vulnerability index from the recent B.C. Atlas of Child Development places the children in our Sunset community in the bottom 12th percentile provincially in terms of physical health and well-being, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive development, communication skills ands general knowledge.  This data ‘plays out’ in our classrooms where, according to staff, students don’t want to volunteer answers or demonstrate knowledge in front of peers because they’re afraid to be wrong in front of others; they’re afraid to take chances, risks, try new things.

If this is the reality, how then are we going to impart not only the “3Rs” but also the 7Cs” that constitute 21st century foundation skills?  My belief, like that of Linda Darling-Hammond, is that we “stay above the wars.” We realize that we can address the prevalent issues around our children’s’ development by understanding that skills and content are not taught as an end in themselves; we believe that our students can construct knowledge through research and application, personal experience, interests, talents and passions; we accept Ken Kay’s assertion that a 21st century education is “a call for creativity and innovation, flexibility and adaptability, leadership and cross-cultural skills – for all students.”

Ken Kay – 21st Century Skills Why They Matter, What They Are, and How We Get There pdf

The fact is that our students want to succeed and want to be in school (witness our attendance rates: four years ago, 412 students with over 100 absences – last year, 72).  They want to do well but they don’t know how and in not knowing, frustration sets in.  What they need throughout the school day, as expressed by staff at out recent Pro-D day, are consistent and meaningful ‘routines.’ Perhaps not 21st century in inspiration but somewhat divine in origin in that the Dalai Lama singles out ‘routines’ as the secret to happiness and a meaningful life!

At our recent Pro-D day, when asked “What classroom practices and routines keep students motivated and engaged in your classroom throughout the period? Frame your responses in a ‘this works’ and ‘what if we tried this’ response,” the answers had the following consistency:

  • students like to talk – let them lead class discussions – social learning
  • students that have a vested interest in a topic are more likely to be engaged
  • start class with a discussion topic that students could connect with (not-curricular related but connected to school and/or community)
  • Student-ownership routine: i.e. students taking the first 10 minutes in small groups to go over homework and ensure everyone in your little group understands or students take turns correcting homework in front of the class
  • Staff initiative–Preferred Activity Time (have a tool kit of 5-7 activities that could be implemented at start, middle or end of class, regardless of course curriculum)
  • Having consistent routines between departments

Here’s my ‘What if we tried this’:  What if every class, every day, every block at John Oliver was initiated by a student lead activity?  What if Math homework was reviewed by student leaders?  What if Science class started with a wrong to right exercise where students lead their peers in ‘moving’ 3 wrong responses?  What if the 5 question quiz in Social Studies was written and delivered by a different student everyday?  What if we start English with a “what did you ‘YouTube’ yesterday?”  What if every student had to share their most recent blog entry?   What if classes began with project updates? What if, in doing this, we addressed not only the core curriculum but also the well-being, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive development, communication skills ands general knowledge that our students do not have?

We can address the data from the BC Atlas of Development by imparting 21st century skills – albeit ‘scaffolded’ with routines so that we can move our students forward as independent, ‘personalized’ learners.  Concomitantly, we enter the both/and paradigm that Darling-Hammond writes of.  It is a journey which comes naturally to us – an assertion given credence by borrowing a term from the visual arts (and which Lev Grossman used to define Jonathan Franzen’s writing – Time, August 2003):  teaching has an enviable depth of field – it keeps a great deal in focus simultaneously.

In addressing our students’ needs and the necessity of giving them 21st century foundation skills we are increasing their “depth of field”; however, in doing so, I do not believe that we are placing undue pressure on them nor in doing so are we increasing our own workload: we’re just being great teachers.