21st Century Skills

Many educators advocate for schools to focus on 21st century skills. They argue that we need to teach students to be creative, critical thinkers, collaborators, and effective communicators. At the same time, many argue that other skills have become obsolete. Computers can do math for us, the internet has made all of the world’s knowledge available at our fingertips, and procedures are increasingly done by robots rather than humans.

I often feel like the old boring traditionalist in the room when these arguments are made. Research in cognitive science suggests that critical thinking is not a general skill, but needs to be taught in context. A student’s ability to think critically depends more on the depth and breadth of content knowledge than on experience learning generic critical thinking skills. I’m not familiar with research on creativity, collaboration or communication, but I would conjecture that these must also be taught in context.

I’m also skeptical that the 21st century has made very many skills obsolete. Sure, calculators can multiply for us. But a fluency with multiplication and familiarity with its structure builds essential knowledge that students need to engage in more challenging problem solving. It’s easy for those with knowledge to underestimate the extent to which that knowledge makes higher-order reasoning possible, called the “curse of knowledge” by psychologists. I’m a big believer in content. The more people know, the better they are able to reason about new situations in the future. This isn’t an indiscriminate argument for a rote curriculum. How students know things is just as important as what they know, and students need to move beyond shallow knowledge and have opportunities to probe for deeper structure, apply what they know, and transfer their knowledge to new contexts. Elon Musk presents a fascinating case study, explored in this article, which to my reading reinforces the need for both a broad base of content knowledge and learning that content in a way that facilitates transfer. This type of knowledge is how I want to incorporate critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication into my classroom.

At the same time, the learning landscape has changed in the last several decades. To be successful citizens, students absolutely will need new skills. Digital literacy, statistics, spreadsheets, research skills, and more. I’m excited about expanding my pedagogy to a broader view of what students need to know and be able to do, and to incorporate these skills into my class.

This leaves me with a few questions:

  • In an ideal world (without pressures from standards and tradition), what are the skills that should be cut from the math curriculum?
  • What strategies will help students learn content in meaningful ways?
  • What are the essential new, teachable skills that students need?
  • How can I find the time to balance these competing demands?

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