If we expect to develop “21st Century Skills” amongst our students, we should be applying them amongst our faculties and in school management.
A very popular term in education at present is "21st Century Skills". Teachers, administrators and curriculum designers all talk about the concept as something very important for students in the world today, and on this point we certainly agree.
However, I am frequently disappointed by the implementation of this vision on all of those levels: Curriculum designers tend to base their work on whatever has been in place for the preceding decades of curriculum design; administrators tend to be too interested in measuring things; and teachers tend not to know how to actually develop these skills in the classroom in any practical way—for which they get no support from the curriculum designers or administrators, of course.
An Absence of Essential Skills
One flaw that I think underlies those problems is that the same skills—Collaboration, Communication, Creativity and Critical Thinking—are often not apparent in the management and implementation of the schools and curricula.
If we really want to be developing these skills in our students, then shouldn’t we at least be using them in our approach to education?
If we want our students to improve their collaboration and communication skills, then it would be a good idea to model strong collaboration and communication amongst teachers, between teachers and their administrators and between schools and the policy makers. As it is, each of these elements often seems to function in a vaccum. Teachers within a faculty rarely talk to one another, other than to gossip or complain. And these complaints are rarely voiced to the administration, and when they are, it is even rarer to hear suggestions along with the complaints. And at the higher level, time and again it seems that policy and curriuculum updates are made with almost no regard to what is actually happening in schools.
This is not a description of an effective network; and yet, we want our students to be effective networkers, developing meaningful and valuable social and professional connections and communities that they can benefit from and contribute to for both their own success and the success of the community at large. Educators are very quick to point out that in the professional world today, a person who cannot collaborate well with others is likely to struggle as the average workplace becomes more and more interconnected and reliant on teamwork. But we do not see teamwork or interconnectedness in the way our schools are run or how our teachers teach.
The same goes for creativity and critical thinking. We cannot expect our students to develop creativity and creative thinking if we are not creative in our teaching. If we teach the same way every day, year after year, boring and demotivating our students, there is no way for our students to develop their own creativity. And if we as teachers, administrators, curriculum designers, etc. cannot deploy our critical thinking skills enough to look at the state of learning and find creative and smart solutions to improve the education system and our students’ learning experiences, then how can we expect our students to ever think critically?
We hear talk all the time of the benefits of "learning by doing", but educators rarely talk about "teaching by doing".
Another platitude that is touted by educators but not very well implemented in schools is the idea that we should “fail early and fail often” as a part of the learning process or as steps on the pathway to success. I will say that this particular aphorism has a certain element of hype to it, and it certainly should be considered within context. There are times and places where certain failures can be catastrophic of course, and that truth should not be ignored or undermined. However, teaching students that failure is something to fear or something to be ashamed of is terribly counterproductive in a learning environment. If there were ever a context where failure should be valued, it is in a classroom.
The best classroom environment possible is one that allows students to interact with real world ideas but safe from real world consequences. And many teachers do tell their students that they shouldn’t be ashamed of failure—that failure is part of learning. I hear time and time again the old trope of Edison’s 1,000 ways not to invent a lightbulb. And this is all very well and good, but as a learning opportunity, it falls at the first hurdle when those same students are told that if they fail their exams at the end of the year, they won’t be able to graduate, or they won’t get into college, or whatever other terrifying consequences are held over students’ heads from the moment they enter the school system.
If we are holding our students to these pass/fail conditions, then it is we who are failing them.
Students should be encouraged to experiment, to fail, to learn from failure, to make apparent progress only later to realise their mistakes, to return to square one and try it all again with new ideas. This, actually, is what we mean by learning when we use the term in any context other than school. For some reason, the learning that is supposed to happen in school is unique alongside any other learning that students will experience anywhere else at any other time in their lives.
None of this is to say that there are not great teachers out there. I like to think, for example, that I do not fit the description that I have laid out above, and I have worked alongside dozens of other teachers about whom I could not say those things. There are websites and global communities dedicated to being better teachers than that, to developing materials, approaches, methodologies and more together to provide the best learning possible for students.
What is worst of all though, is that these teachers are often placing their careers on the line every time they go into the classroom and teach their students in ways that they know will be effective, that they know the students will enjoy and find valuable, but that do not accord with the policy put in place by their administrators or policy makers. These are teachers who know, for example, the benefits of allowing their students to use smartphones in the classroom but who work in schools that ban them; teachers who know that grades and standardised testing are weak, ineffectual ways of monitoring students’ real progress but who are stuck in systems that mandate them.
Along with the skills and strategies described so far, another thing that we supposedly want our students to learn is the value of taking calculated risks and being able to consider those risk in order to make sensible decisions for their own futures. But how can this concept be endorsed when teachers are losing their jobs for trying out new things in the classroom and for paying attention to what actually works and doesn’t work and then attempting practically to use that information for the benefit of their students?
Whatever your role in education is, whether you’re a teacher, an administrator, a policy maker or any other education influencer, consider very carefully how you apply these 21st century skills in your approach to education before you expect your students magically to develop them in your schools and classrooms.