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Why We Need to Teach 21st Century SkillsAnd How to Do It [Available Full Text,Free]

By Bob Regan Posted Jul 1, 2008

"TTYL, mom," I heard an 8yearold call out as she headed off with a friend. Even though she
doesnt own a cell phone and has never texted anyone, technology is her first language. Most
American adults, however, are technological immigrants to the 21st century, and we know it. In
a 2007poll( conducted on
behalf of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (, an overwhelming
80% of voters say that the kinds of skills students need to learn today are different from what
they needed 20 years ago. And a virtually unanimous 99% of voters say that teaching students
21stcentury skills is important to our countrys economic success. As educators, we need to
clarify what these skills areand figure out how to teach them. According to the Partnership for
21st Century Skills, the skills we need to be teaching include the following:
-Information, media literacy, and communication skills
Thinking and problemsolving
Interpersonal, collaborative, and selfdirection skills
Global awareness
Economic and business literacy, including entrepreneurial skills
Civic literacy
While the context in which our schools operate today has changed, the goals have not. We can
look at these 21stcentury skills as an extension of efforts that date as far back as John Dewey
at the turn of the previous century. The key difference is that today we have a new set of tools to
apply to the tasks. Moreover, the changing economy makes it more of a necessity that our
students can use technology to solve problems, collaborate, and create.
Learning by doing was a core theme of John Deweys work. It is as important today as it was in
hi day. We dont want to teach our students about science, we want them to become
scientists.Textbooks alone can only get us part of the way there. With the varied resources
available today,students can get closer to the source of information than they could before. They
can collect data themselves, analyze the results using sophisticated techniques, present their

results, and discuss these results with experts from around the worldall within the confines of
their desks.
Deweys emphasis on problem solving and critical thinking are particularly important today.

now are awash with unvetted "information" they find on the web. Group work and

social skills, vital to the functioning of a globalized economy, need to be honed through
collaborative learning projects. Social responsibility and integrating communitybased projects
into the daily curriculum enhance student awareness of life beyond school. And the fundamental
principle of progressive education holds true: 21stcentury skills must be an integral part of
teaching and learning of all academic subjects, not addons to the curriculum.
Teaching 21stCentury Skills
Todays technology provides the ability for students with diverse learning styles to engage with
ideas in ways not previously possible. Students can be exposed to rich visuals and audio to
supplement concepts on printed pages. At the same time, students are increasingly expected to
express their understanding using images, video, and animation in addition to plain text. This
means that multimedia applicationsonce reserved for a few students taking video or design
classesare increasingly a part of all classrooms. Educators must find ways to incorporate
multimedia technologies into everyday activities, and help students explore and master new
ways to communicate what they are learning.
"Visual memory is strong, so the more you can involve the student in creating or recreating a
visual,the more youre imprinting that information in their minds," explains Colette Stemple, an
arts and technology instructor at Coral Gables High School in Miami. "Weve been using arts
classes to raise standard test scores in math, reading, and writing." When students take a
picture and have to describe it, theyre learning how to verbalize the essential meaning. When
they read a story and illustrate it, theyre showing reading comprehension, but they are also
engaging at the level of synthesis. They are choosing what element to focus on and creating a
visual representation.
Students are ready for this shift to multimediaeven enthusiastic. "Students are more
comfortable experimenting with technology and visual images because these things are often a
regular part of their lives outside of school," says Sara Martin, technology coordinator at
HartRansom Union School District in Modesto, Calif. A recent study by the Pew Internet &
American Life Project ( found that students
make strong distinctions between the kind of writing done in and out of school. Surprisingly, the

study found that students enjoy writing and that many write quite often outside of school. Within
school, students were most likely to engage in work that was relevant to their own context. With
digital media, teachers have new ways to create situations where writing is tied to student
"Multimedia software provides a bridge to reach students who otherwise might give up on
certain subjects," says Stemple. "In my classes, students can use software to become active
learners and explore a subject at their own pace. This is where they can take all of the things
they are learning and bring them together. For example, if theyre studying the digestive system,
they can create images with the scanner or draw their own using imaging software and then
present the concepts to their science class."
For some students, especially those with learning disabilities, digital media provides a means to
engage with and express ideas. For many students, text can present real hurdles to learning.
While still working through issues with text, students can supplement core ideas through the use
ofinteractive digital experiences.
Media Literacy Enhances Language Arts
In language arts classes at Crestwood Junior and Senior High School in Cresco, Iowa, students
use the same multimedia software that professionals use to illustrate scenes from books and
deepen their understanding of plots and characters. In one assignment, students develop a
playbill for their favorite Shakespeare play: incorporating images of action, characters, plot
summaries, and other details to entice someone to read or see the play. Using Adobe
Photoshop CS, students experiment with ideas and create new images by reworking scanned
pictures, combining them with their own drawings, adding colors or shadows, and distorting
images. Students add text and complete their layouts in Adobe InDesign CS software.
"The world of a play opens up for the students," explains Mark Johnson, a teacher at
Crestwood. "With multimedia software, they can discover the movement, shapes, and other
images essential to the storyand ultimately find better ways to express ideas and explore
subjects." He also finds that posting student work online has improved the quality and
professionalism of final projects. "Its one thing to have a term paper read only by a teacher and
quite another to have an interactive project with text and images posted on the web for
everyone to see," he says. Johnson likes the fact that students have the opportunity to view and
learn from the work of students not just in their class, but worldwide, cultivating a 21stcentury

skill of global awareness. "Posting work online enables students to share ideas and opens
dialog between students with different backgrounds and experiences," he says.
ProblemSolving and Curiosity Expand Understanding of the Sciences
Since the sciences often describe phenomena, items, and life forms that we see and hear,
multimediais a perfect way for students to express what theyve learned and observed. For
example, students become more engaged when they can incorporate images and sounds into
their reports of experiences from field trips. As they rework captured images and make
decisions about interpretation, theyre exploring the material in ways that go far beyond the
limitations of a written report.
Physics students struggling to grasp the inner workings of an atom can "get it" by designing and
defining images on their computers. Chemistry students can play with chemical bonds and
create images of molecules that are more readily shared and reconfigured than oldfashioned
stickandball models. They can also create practice experimentsengaging with the concepts,
constructing the formulas to be tested, and predicting the outcomes, so that when they conduct
the experiment itself, they have a richer understanding of what theyre observing.
And in all the branches of science, budding scientists can learn what professional scientists
know: that discovery is just the first step, and that you have to be able to communicate
effectively. Just like professional scientists, they can use multimedia tools to collaborate, present
their findings, and publish them for review and comment.
Collaborative Skills Set the Stage for Success
No matter what field students go into, their skills in collaborating will be significant factors in their
success. Multimedia tools can help: when students work with each other to pull together
multimedia presentations, they learn about sharing responsibility across a project, about stylistic
consistency, coherence, and the vital give and take skill of constructive criticism.
Collaborative technologies also contribute to students experience of working with people
outside their school. A growing number of states have established virtual schools where
students and faculty participate in virtual study groups that may include people from anywhere
in the world. These techniques and technologies also have value for traditional brickandmortar
K12 schools: For example, teachers can set up virtual study groups so that schoolchildren in
the U.S. can create reports on France and then discuss them with French schoolchildren, and
vice versa.

In addition to helping students build skills in communicating and working with people from
different cultures, collaboration tools can enable "virtual field trips" that enrich the curriculum
with "visits," for example, to engineers at a power plant across the state, to researchers studying
great apes in Africa, or to an author at her home in rural New York. This helps build global
awarenesswithout adding to a schools carbon footprint.
Addressing Community Concerns
The impact of students technology skills reaches beyond the classroom and into communities.
At Crestwood Junior and Senior High School, students use design and web development
software to create websites and marketing materials for local organizations. "The ability to
communicate visually is in high demand," says Crestwoods Johnson. "With easytouse software,
students can produce digital images and websites that, in many cases, rival that of
At Coral Gables High School, students take their photography projects into nursing homes and
pediatric cancer wards, teaching residents and recreating their stories. "Most of the kids get
business cards right away," says arts and technology instructor Stemple, "because they start
volunteering or selling their graphic design services."
Not only does this give students the opportunity to "give back," but it also builds confidence that
the skills theyre learning have value beyond the classroom. This gives them deeper respect for
the importance of their education and more incentive to exceland continuein their studies.

Assessing 21stCentury Skills

Assessment of 21stcentury skills can be challenging and is too multifaceted to be captured by a
simple multiple choice test. As student work becomes more varied and sophisticated, so too
does the effort required to evaluate it. In many parts of the world, portfolio assessment has
become a popular strategy for evaluating student work. In a portfoliobased assessment,
students collect examples that best illustrate their progress over a term. These might include
written, recorded, animated, and visual materials. For each item, the student writes a brief
description of the why it was selected for inclusion in their portfolio. The portfolios are then
reviewed using a consistent set of standards.
The challenge is designing an effective portfolio assessment program. It needs to support the
full range of media with which students work. Twenty years ago, portfoliobased assessment

programs often crumbled under the logistics of collecting, reviewing, and maintaining large
numbers of student portfolios. Today, readily available tools such as Adobe Acrobat 9 Pro have
removed the barriers to these programs. It is now far easier for students to gather a diverse set
of materials and share them across geographies and technical platforms.
A Foundation for Success Inside and Outside the Classroom
"Were giving students valuable skills to use today and tomorrowand just as important,
theyrelearning to look critically at the quality and content of images they see daily," says Martin
at HartRansom. By seeing through the eyes of someone who creates content rather than just
viewing it, students develop a clearer understanding of where these images come from and
what they mean. As they learn to interpret stories and create their own images using the same
software that professionals use, students transform from passive consumers to more critical and
creative individuals. Not only do they become better students, but mastery of todays media can
help make them more confident, thoughtful, and successful citizens.
"Students begin to see themselves and their abilities differently," says Stemple. "By activating
the creative side of the brain, students improve their learning and thought processes." And, she
adds, "While theyre developing their critical thinking skills, theyre also developing marketable
technology skills."
To succeed in school and on the job todaywhere a visual cacophony and information overload
are the normstudents need to learn how to assemble data in a meaningful way that expresses
the possibilities, interpretations, and implications that arise from the facts. Think of Al Gore
winning the Nobel Prize. He did not conduct the basic research his unique contribution was to
package, present, and explain the facts in a way that made abstract predictions fresh and
viscerally meaningful to a 21stcentury audience.
"What we need in industry is more creative thinkers," says Stemple. "What were creating with
visual and multimedia technology programs is students who can see an issue from all angles
and present it in meaningful, compelling ways. These are the skills students need to thrive in the
21st century."