Based on many different sectors requests to have schools integrate skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, and problem solving into academic subjects, the term of 21st century skills surfaced several years ago and has been promoted throughout the educational, political, and business arenas in recent years. Usually the mantra goes something like –we need to prepare our students to use 21st century skills before they enter college or the workforce. For many years, the question has been “what is a 21st century skill” usually followed up by “do we all mean the same thing when we say 21st century skill?”
Recently a report titled “Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century” was released by the National Academies Press and was jointly coauthored by the Board on Testing and Assessment, Board on Science Education and the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education which attempted to do just what the different stakeholders but predominantly the educators have been asking – define 21st century skills or as the report refers to them – 21st century competencies (already a new word to define).
This report groups 21st century skills into three broad domains – cognitive, interpersonal and intrapersonal skills. The domains cover the following:
- the cognitive domain, which includes thinking, reasoning, and related skills;
- the intrapersonal domain, which involves self-management, including the ability to regulate one’s behavior and emotions to reach goals; and
- the interpersonal domain, which involves expressing information to others, as well as interpreting others’ messages and responding appropriately.
Interestingly enough one of the answers to a definition of a 21st century skill is to define “deeper learning.” According to the report brief, “Deeper learning is the process through which a person becomes capable of taking what was learned in one situation and applying it to new situations – in other words, learning for “transfer.” Through deeper learning, students develop expertise in a particular discipline or subject area. This in itself is an interesting aspect to the proverbial pendulum in the educational world – defining 21st century skills terms with 20th century definition in that the concept of transfer of learning is not new – it has been around since the beginnings of educational psychology and has had various terms associated with it such expert versus novice learner in How People Learn.
However, one of the foci that the committee focused on and specifically reported on was that “deeper learning develops 21st century competencies, but also that the relationship flows both ways: 21st century competencies can aid the process of deeper learning in a discipline or subject area.” While this may not seem earth shattering, it is an interesting aspect that it has finally been summarized as a key point in this field of education and that the report begins to identify strategies that support the transfer of knowledge such as:
- Use multiple and varied representations
- of concepts and tasks,
- Encourage elaboration, questioning,
- and explanation
- Engage learners in challenging tasks,
- Teach with examples and cases
- Prime student motivation
- Use “formative” assessments,
The report does summarize the overall domain areas which were defined, the list of competencies which fall within those areas generated, as well as strategies examined that aid in the transfer of learning; however one thing was noted which still will need work before we are all on the same sheet of music, the actual agreed upon definitions of those competencies. For one of the final recommendations for further study included “establishing agreed-upon definitions of 21st century competencies and ways to measure and assess them.” So, while we have moved forward some, we still have many undefined ideas.
So to generate some conversation, what one competency (skill) would you want defined first and why do you think it is important?