I’ve been thinking a lot about “21st Century Skills” lately. Mostly because the publisher of our high school biology program wants my coauthor and I to add a section to the front-end of the textbook on the topic. Seems a bit ironic to put such content into a print medium, but that’s ok. People will at least read about it and, maybe, they will want to dig further.
Since that’s a phrase I’ve heard a lot lately, but wasn’t sure I completely understood, I asked our editor what exactly they meant by “21st Century Skills”? She sent me to a web site called Partnership for 21st Century Skills, citing it as the definitive resource on precisely what these 21st century skills are all about. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills is an advocacy group with the intention of rallying federal resources (Department of Education), businesses (publishers, network providers, hardware/software manufacturers), administrators, and educators around the idea of bringing 21st century skills to schools. Here’s a quote from their mission statement:
There is a profound gap between the knowledge and skills most students learn in school and the knowledge and skills they need in typical 21st century communities and workplaces.
To successfully face rigorous higher education coursework, career challenges and a globally competitive workforce, U.S. schools must align classroom environments with real world environments by infusing 21st century skills.
Sounds good. And when you read their materials there’s not much there to disagree with…creativity and innovation, problem solving, critical thinking, flexibility, self-direction, social awareness. Those all sounds good. But I thought that this “21st century skills” thang was about technology skills, social networking, and participatory media?
Well, there are technology skills listed on the web site too – information literacy, using technology tools to access, manage, and evaluate information – but they feel awfully general and, to my eye, they get lost in a sea of impossibly wide-ranging, “achieving-world-peace” kind of goals. It sort of reminds me of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegone where “all the children are above average”. How can a school administrator or a classroom teacher be expected to apply this? So many (many!) hoped-for skills here and not a lot of specifics. I worry about the mandatory media skills for future survival getting lost in the ocean of other goals that one might want to have for our students – a sort of unfortunate dilution effect.
So what to put in this front section of our book? What would I want to put forward as fundamentally important media literacy skills, from my perspective? Let’s make it real by making it personal. My kids. When I think about the media literacy skills that I would like for my children (and I attempt to be precise and reasonable about it). Here’s what comes to the top:
How to distinguish between dependable and undependable information. In a networked world where everyone is participating, the commentators number in the hundreds of thousands, and its all happening at lightening speed, I want my kids to be able to readily distinguish good information from less good.
How to read (really read) in linked environments. Reading linked text calls for a different set of skills. There are new neural pathways to be laid down in order to keep track, make sense, remember, and connect. I want my kids to be able to read with focus and attention but also to be able to skim, parse, suss, and then dig in when they need to.
How to search, tag, and organize. My kids will need to know how to find information on line, yes – but beyond that, they will need to understand folksonomy and learn how to tag their information for later retrieval and sharing. They will need to know how to use tools to organize, store, and manipulate information.
How to find teachers and mentors. For any problem with which you might be struggling, there is an expert out there somewhere who will be able and willing to help you. Our networked world is a perfect way to map solution to need. But getting the word out there about your need (framing the question), finding the right coach/mentor/teacher, and then making the most of the connection (in whatever form it takes) all require unique and nuanced skills.
How to edit in shared knowledge environments. Whether its Google Docs, a classroom wiki, an Elluminate session or wikipedia, citizens of the world will need to be able to edit, contribute, constructively critique, and collaborate in these shared environments.
How to create a digital footprint. I want my kids to understand how indelible the web is and that photos and videos uploaded, stories told, or blog entries posted will not only be around forever but might be shared, linked to, mashed up, amplified, and viewed by many. But my hope here is not just to avoid the pitfalls and dangers. I want them to be safe – yes – but I want them to go beyond that and learn how to build a lasting digital profile of which they are proud. One where a future employer will type their name into the search engine of tomorrow and say, “nice.”
To understand the network effect. I want my kids to fundamentally grasp what a network effect is – how to create it, leverage it, and ride it. To understand, down in their bones, how much more valuable something is the more people know about it and use it.
I didn’t find any of these specifics on the Partnership web site. Maybe they are there, in some form or in one of the many downloadable pdfs, but I gave up after swimming in a sea of generalities. Or maybe it’s the name given to this idea — 21st Century Skills — it just seems so, well, HUGE. And in its hugeness, ineffective. I’m sure my list is not complete (and would love to hear your suggestions on what to add) but it’s a start – and its specific. I think I know what I want to include in that textbook section. I think I know what I need to talk to my kids about this afternoon.