21st Century Learning for a Purpose

Image created by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills
If you aren't involved with education in any way, you may never have heard the term "21st century skills." These are skills which the US Government (and many others) believe will be critical for success in an increasingly interconnected and technological world.

Google the term, and you'll quickly learn that the United States Department of Education, along with countless partners in the US and around the world, are working hard to prepare "teachers for a 21st century classroom that not only incorporates, but demands, more focus on critical thinking, STEM, foreign language, collaborative problem-solving, and technology literacy."

Of course, these are all terrific skills to learn, though many (such as critical thinking, foreign languages, and collaborative problem solving) were already centuries old when they were espoused by folks like Socrates.  And other skills listed in the graphic above -- life and career skills, for example -- are pretty much essential in order to survive in a modern society, so they're not really new either.

In fact, it's only the technology that's new.  And what's -- at least in theory -- cutting edge is the idea that students should not only know how to access information online but should also know how to participate in the creation of online content.  In an ideal world, of course, students would be using their newfound thinking and reasoning skills to create that online content, which would then generate intelligent conversation and collaboration.

But here's the rub: we seem to be conflating the technical ability to make a video and put it on YouTube with the intellectual ability to have an idea, think it through, develop an artistic vision to present that idea to others, develop a structure in which to present the idea, draft a creative presentation, edit it, and THEN present it to the world.  In other words, we're rarely combining the thinking process with the technical ability to present content.

As a result, YouTube and other online venues are fast filling up with thousands upon thousands of "21st Century" presentations containing nothing more than whatever happened to be said or done when a student turned on a camera.  Similarly, SlideShare is full of two-image PowerPoints with nothing to say...  Flickr is loaded with photoshopped images created to please the "digital technology" teacher's aesthetic.

In short, for the most part, our kids are learning to make "stuff" and post it online.

Every now and then, though, a project comes along that actually pulls together critical thinking, collaboration, technology, and engagement in a way that has real significance both to the learners and to the larger world.  In the process of doing some research for a client, I came upon a few such projects.  All are project-based, technology-rich, and focused on real world problems -- either in the area of service learning or civics. 

Perhaps most signficantly, not all such projects are actually school based: most are run by non-profits or corporations.  Microsoft, for example, offers a World Citizenship award for a technological innovation designed to make a positive difference in the world.  Museums, civics organizations, and even non-governmental organizations are jumping in, with a focus on real engagement, action, and outcomes.

As I delve more deeply into projects related to 21st century skills, I'll be writing occasional blogs on what I've learned.  Here and there, I'm finding the real deal...  when I do, I'll share it!