The unfortunate predicament about implementing the best practices in 21st Century education theories is that they are theory. We are still too young within the 21st century to see the effects. Each generation, experts in pedagogy present new theories which improve upon or rework the education system in the United States. In the 1950's they called it the "Life Adjustment Movement" and in the 1980's it was coined "Outcome-Based Education" and today we call it "21st Century Education." Each movement after another "devalued academic subject matter while making schooling relevant, hands-on, and attuned to the real interests and needs of young people." (Ravitch, 2009) Today's progressive education movement focuses on instating critical thinking skills and media literacy from kindergarten through graduate school.
Our era is filled with paradoxes. 21st century learning demands critical thinking and proficiency on standardized assessments. Kids have to learn how to be independent. 21st Century teachers must teach content and skills. Unfortunately, 21st century skills and technology cause as many problems as they solve.
One topic not addressed in 21st Century commentaries is the necessity of students to have knowledge of the past, but also knowledge of the present. In a not-so-recent study conducted by the National Geographic Society (1988), school-age students were asked to find their country on a map and students from the United States ranked in the bottom third. (Hunter, 2004.) How can we entertain the idea that we are preparing our students to compete academically on a global scale, when they can't even find their own country on a map?
The paradox of 21st century learning is that we cannot teach students to think critically without teaching them the content they need to think about. Diane Ravitch, in an editorial to the Boston Globe stated, "We have neglected to teach them that one cannot think critically without quite a lot of knowledge to think about. Thinking critically involves comparing and contrasting and synthesizing what one has learned. And a great deal of knowledge is necessary before one can begin to reflect on its meaning and look for alternative explanations." (Ravitch, 2009)
Innovations in education swing like a pendulum. Core knowledge is necessary for a good education, yet "our kids need world-class skills and world-class content." (Toppo, 2009) Successful 21st Century teachers must teach content and skills. In order for students to succeed in today's job market, they need to not only be able to problem solve, but also need to be knowledgeable of the past, present and future. "Kay notes that virtually all of the industrialized countries the USA is competing with "are pursuing both content and skills." (Toppo, 2009)
But how do we teach students to think critically? According to Toppo, “research shows that many teachers find it difficult to actually teach children to think creatively or collaborate. In the end, they rarely get better at the very skills that P21 advocates.” (Toppo, 2009)
The Longfield School in the UK, featured by the Learning Alliance is a success story where 21st century skills have been incorporated and have thus enhanced the learning experience of students and positively affected their abilities. Once failing, the school morphed by fostering dialogue between students, teachers and administration about how to improve the school and student learning, which “led to a curriculum that meets the needs of more learners more of the time and with measurable consequences for improved behavior, increased engagement in lessons and a significant reduction in exclusion.” (Learning Alliance) The school has online learning spaces, a school year that begins in June and the school is open late, so students can be found staying to study or doing extra-curricular activities. There is a strong emphasis on managing time effectively and
“flexibility is inbuilt to enable any variety of teaching and learning opportunities whether it’s external visits, catch-up sessions, activities for gifted and talented students, extension work, enrichment activities, or teaching and learning for additional qualifications.” (Learning Alliance)
The question facing 21st century educators is: "Do kids learn to think by reading great literature, doing difficult math and learning history, philosophy and science or can they tackle those subjects on their own if schools simply teach them to problem-solve, communicate, use technology and think creatively?" (Toppo, 2009) The goal of 21st century teaching is to prepare the students with skills that will help them compete in today's job market and world. The most important lesson to instill in students is to be lifelong learners. Students need skills and content. They need to be independent thinkers, yet work well with others. They must think critically while being assessed standardly. The role of a 21st century students is not easy because they encounter many academic demands, but with a delicate balance of content from both the past and present, coupled with experiences which cultivate skills like problem solving and media literacy, they can be prepared for the 21st century market.
Hunter, William D. “Got Global Competency?” International Educator Spring 2004 p.6-12
“Learning Journey: Longfield School” The 21st Century Learning Alliance
Ravitch, Diane. “Critical thinking? You need knowledge” Boston Globe September 15, 2009. A. 15
Toppo, Greg. “What to learn: 'core knowledge' or '21st-century skills'?” USA Today Updated 3/5/2009 12:06 PM