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21st Century Competencies

SXSWEdu is so full of amazing thinkers and educators, it is seriously difficult to decide which sessions to attend because attending one means not attending another.  I went to several fabulous, thought-provoking sessions today, but the one that left me with the most “hmmmm…” thoughts (as in, it raised questions that I’ll be pondering for some time) is “Becoming a 21st Century District.”  This was a three hour session, so it went deep into the whys and hows of what education is for, here in the mid-21st century. The work that the presenters were sharing is based on the work of two organizations –  Portrait of a Graduate and EdLeader 21.

Both organizations focus on the 4cs: creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication.  The speakers shared a striking comparison of two different types of student:

Student A who learns:

  • Math
  • Science
  • English
  • Social studies

Student B who learns:

  • Content Mastery
  • Critical thinking
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Creativity

Our educational systems still focus on Student A, while clearly our society, global economy and businesses need Student Bs.    In fact, when asked what the top skills in 2020 will be, HR managers at over 300 top businesses prioritize:

  1. Complex problem solving
  2. Critical thinking
  3. Creativity
  4. People management
  5. Coordinating with others
  6. Emotional intelligence
  7. Judgement and decision making
  8. Service orientation
  9. Negotiation
  10. Cognitive flexibility

We find pockets of these competencies in education, but it’s rare that it is systematic, across all grade levels and in all classrooms, in all schools.  We had a good conversation about how ALL kids need these competencies.

EdLeader 21 and Portrait of a Graduate have some great tools to help districts look at where they are in developing and supporting these 21st century competencies, including a “Portrait Sketch Tool” which allows teams (schools staffs, curriculum groups, the  technology committee, etc) to assess where they are in terms of 21st century competencies, and where they hope to go.   They also have rubrics for each of the 4Cs:

rubric sample

This session made me really think about how we teach content AND 21st century competencies, and how we can do both better.  The speakers reiterated that there is a widespread false narrative that says that you must teach content first, and then move on to critical thinking and problem solving.  They provided us with some specific examples of ways to assess student content knowledge by asking them to apply it to real life solution-finding.

The questions that were raised for me in this session reminded me of a short (but obviously memorable) conversation I had with Wayne Dorr at a Learning and the Brain Conference years ago.  I was all hyped up and trying to figure out how to move forward with some ideas and I said to Wayne “I am at the same time  so inspired and so frustrated!” and he laughed and said, “Laura, that tension is what has kept me engaged in education for the past 40 years.”

So, the tension between what should be and what is in education is not new… but the society and world that we live in, and that we are tasked with preparing our students for, is.

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