Look What Time Lets Happen II: 21st Century Skills

Thanks to another workshop the 10th grade team — and the entire department if they would like it — now has a document that clearly outlines Wagner’s Seven Survival Skills for the 21st Century.

The purpose of our workshop was, as my colleague, Barb, said, “to get a grip on what ’21st Century Skills’ actually means so it’s not just a meaningless buzz word.” To do this, we looked at the extended definitions that Wagner’s book, The Global Achievement Gap, provides and whittled them down to blunt, articulate statements we feel are now easily understandable and usable. (See below for these definitions.)

What became evident as we worked to articulate the definition of each skill is that much of what we do in the classroom now is actually in line with Wagner’s Survival Skills. This begged the question of “what actually is new about the 21st Century in terms of the skills our students need to master?” To quote my colleague, Kim from our document:

“The 21st Century is marked by access to and the usage of technology; however, technology is a means to an end. These contemporary tools should be used to reach the goals established through Wagner’s Seven Survival Skills. Therefore, technology can be used as a tool during a student’s creation process or his product, but it is not a necessity in thinking and learning. It is important for schools to provide access to these tools and the associated professional development in order for them to be effectively integrated into the 21st Century classroom.” 

While technology is a main , constantly evolving, component of the 21st Century, it is not the “end all, be all” of it; instead, this Century is much more about learning for the sake of creating. A much larger portion of the workforce is required to have the creative and entrepreneurial skills that only a select few were required to have in the past. This means that there is a necessity for teaching risk-taking and leadership to all students, whereas in the past it was more about learning how to be a competent worker who could follow directions and be “smart” enough to perform the tasks he was assigned by a superior.

Many of the skills identified, like “Accessing and Analyzing Information” and “Communicating Efficiently and Effectively” do not feel all that new to me. How did anyone really do his job well in previous centuries without mastering those skills (if he was in a position to use them)?

Most importantly, we realized that we have quite a bit of discussion to do within the department if we are to figure out how to honor risk in our assessments and teach students how to take risks. It is not fair or encouraging to a student if we instruct him to “take a risk in his thinking” but then penalize him through a low grade if the risk-taking does not prove effective. A series of checkpoints within the creation process should help a student realize when his risk-taking is not going to prove effective and a change of direction is in order, but that too requires a shift in teaching.

All good things to keep thinking about.

21st Century Skills Defined

1. Critical thinking and problem solving involves:

  • the ability to ask the right questions in order to continuously improve students’ processes and products.
  • the ability to rethink and think anew since, “Yesterday’s answers won’t solve today’s problems.”
  • re-envisioning a problem from a new angle

2. Collaboration and leadership involves:

  • the ability to engage in teamwork
  • collaborating with a virtual team within and beyond the classroom.
  • leadership skills
  • demonstrating the ability to influence others
  • using technology to create a wider audience

3. Agility and adaptability involves:

  • situation changes and the thinker needs to adapt accordingly and apply critical thinking skills to the changed situation.
  • the ability to think, be flexible, change, and use a variety of tools to solve new problems.  
  • change with the problems because a particular problem may not exist in the future since our culture moves so quickly.

Emerged Essential Question: How do we meaningfully change the situation for students and teach them to be flexible and adaptable within it?

4. Initiative and Entrepreneurialism involves:

  • honoring risk taking even if it doesn’t yield success
  • using the failures in order to improve upon solving the initiative. Get back up after you fail.
  • redefining what it means to fail: failure is necessary on the road to success.

How do we create opportunities to honor risk? This seems to be an area of weakness for our department.

What is an intellectual risk?

  • is it a personal challenge?
  • is it “simply” not taking “the easy way out”?
  • student centered risk taking; being out of one’s “comfort zone”
  • being OK with the discomfort that comes with risk and new situations.
  • perseverence

What is entrepreneurialism?

  • owning an idea in order to develop it

What is initiative?

  • intrinsic motivation


5. Effective Oral and Written Communication involves:

  • verbal skills, written skills, presentation skills.
  • the ability to be clear and concise in purpose and argument when communicating
  • the ability to  create focus, energy, and passion around the points students want to make.
  • the ability to write with a real voice.
  • the ability to avoid ambiguity when communicating one’s ideas

6. Accessing and Analyzing Information involves

  • effectively processing the information
  • search for information
  • find information
  • evaluate information
  • analyze information

7. Curiosity and Imagination involves

  • learning to be inquisitive to solve the biggest problems and impact innovation.
  • Results are “beautiful*, unique, and meaningful.”
  • people’s capacities for imagination, creativity, and empathy will be increasingly important for maintaining their own competitive advantage in the future.

Emerging Essential Question: *What is “beauty”, and who defines it?

One thought on “Look What Time Lets Happen II: 21st Century Skills

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  1. I read your post back when you wrote it, but I'm vacationing with my sister's family and some friends, and as we were talking about college and careers, I realized that one of the “cutting edge” realizations that's echoing through our field has actually been true for years.We keep talking about the fact that we shouldn't be training kids for specific careers because we don't know what careers might be out there in five or eight years when the kids are actually on the market.Well, among the thirty-somethings I was talking to, I'm the only person whose degree and job are remotely related. One majored in American history and now manages web content for a major pharmacy retailer. One majored in health and human services and works in retail management. One majored in English and now runs part of an institute that works with severely autistic children. What do these people have in common? Not that they knew their careers by the end of high school or even in college, and not that they were prepared with the specific skills of those jobs. What they do have in common is that they learned how to teach themselves academic and practical knowledge, and that skill allowed them to adapt to career changes (both desired and undesired).They're successful because they learned Microsoft Word in 1995. That skill was obsolete by 1998. Their common traits are adaptability, creativity, and the confidence to hammer away at a skill until they've acquired it.OK – this obviously needs its own post, so I'll stop there, but thanks for springboarding my thinking.


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