Watch young people at home today, and you’re likely to see them managing technology with an ease that can inspire awe and envy. They text and they IM; they Google and they design their own Web pages; they download music and burn CDs—all in service of their friendships, romances, interests, and hobbies.
But watch young people at school, and you’re more likely to find them seated at desks, listening to lectures, reading from textbooks, and penciling in little oval bubbles on standardized tests.
This gap between how America’s young people live and how they learn has been troubling many influential leaders in business and education who are concerned that the knowledge, skills, and habits of mind necessary for life and work are not being taught or fostered in most classrooms today. And they fear that, as currently configured, our schools are simply not up to the job of producing the next generation of workers, thinkers, and creators able to compete successfully in a global, technology-driven marketplace.
The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the country’s leading policy advocacy group, convenes businesspeople and educators who are working to identify what American children need to know and be able to do in order to succeed in today’s world. The Partnership, toward its goal of serving as a catalyst for change, has developed an ambitious vision for the future of American schooling, and has outlined a program for getting our schools from here to there.
EDC research scientist Shelley Pasnik has been involved with the Partnership for a number of years. Her group, the Center for Children and Technology, based in EDC’s New York office, serves as the research arm of the Partnership, lending its knowledge of schools and technology to the effort. Pasnik recently shared her thoughts about what it will take to create dynamic, tech-savvy schools.
Can you describe what you mean by 21st century skills?
We’re talking about things like problem solving, critical thinking, analysis, interpretation, collaboration, and communication supported by the use of information and communication technologies.
These skills don’t sound all that new. How do they differ from those of a generation ago?
What’s different is the way that new technologies necessitate these skills. If you think of the world we live in as characterized by information abundance, then skills of critical analysis, synthesis, and interpretation become even more essential in this day and age than they were 30 years ago. I think of them as skills of discernment.
Does the Partnership also recommend changes in what children learn?
Yes. They recommend a continued focus on core subjects, as well as work above and beyond that— in global awareness, civic literacy, financial literacy and entrepreneurship, and health awareness.
How is this vision of schooling different?
While there’s no doubt that young people need foundational and fundamental skills, when we teach these skills in isolation we’re doing children a huge disservice. The Partnership believes that all children should be learning 21st century skills and that [these skills] should be incorporated more broadly and effectively into subjects across the curriculum and across the grades. These skills are not optional, they’re not just for gifted students—they are an essential component of how all children should learn.
What’s the biggest barrier to making this vision a reality in districts across the country?
There are huge challenges in redesigning teacher education and professional development programs. We need to step back and think about the skills and competencies we want our teachers to possess in a global world. In the next phase of work, we will be helping the Partnership build a set of resources for educators that will include practical examples of how to take traditional content and rework it to embody 21st century skills.
What makes you hopeful that this ambitious vision can be realized when schools already face so many challenges?
We have no choice. If we want young people to be successful as learners, workers, and citizens, then we have to offer them learning opportunities that resonate with their lives. I’m optimistic because I’ve seen this happen. For the last few years I’ve had the privilege of working with the Global Action Project, an after-school media arts organization in New York City. This group brings young people together with media educators and professional filmmakers to create documentaries on social justice and other issues relevant to teens. Through this work, young people acquire skills—but more, they learn to marshal these skills in service of something important.
Can you single out the most important factor in improving schools?
Absolutely. It takes a sustained commitment to every child’s right to learn.
Originally published on January 1, 2007