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Are Your Kids '21st Century Ready'?

There is a growing movement in education to marry traditional curriculum with skills like critical thinking, financial literacy, wellness, and global awareness to help our kids compete in the 21st century.

“What do you think is important for our children to learn if they are to be considered truly literate in the 21st century?” 

This question was asked in a talk I went to at my daughters’ featuring first grade teacher Shivani Burrows-Goodwill, a master Waldorf teacher with a doctorate in education from UCSD and runner-up for San Diego Unified School District Teacher of the Year in 2009-10. She was discussing how our school’s early education program prepares students for academics later. She began the event by asking the parents and educators in the audience to write down and then discuss answers to this question of modern literacy.

After jotting down some ideas, the crowd called out topics like innovation, communication and creative thinking. They also repeatedly brought up the idea of discernment: not just being able to take in all the world’s knowledge, but also being able to decide what’s important, truly meaningful and useful in a given situation. Overall, there was a sense in the group that perhaps US education has failed to keep current with the actual skills and types of thinking that will be needed for success in the modern world.

These thoughts led right in to the first topic of Burrows-Goodwill's talk: a growing national movement in American education aiming at getting our students to be “21st century ready”. This means, according to the website for the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21), “...fusing the 3Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic) and 4Cs (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation),” in an effort to help the US compete globally.

Many leading school districts are already working toward these goals, according P21, a national organization that advocates policies that will help every school in America also reach those goals. They posit that, “a profound gap exists between the knowledge and skills most students learn in school and the knowledge and skills they need for success in their 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.”

To this end, they advocate that classrooms incorporate the following six priorities:

  • core subjects — traditional academics like history, language, science and math
  • 21st century content like global and civic awareness, financial health, environmental literacy, and business / entrepreneurial skills
  • learning and thinking skills such as critical thinking, contextual learning, creativity, and collaboration
  • ICT literacy — the ability to use technology and media to develop 21st century skills and knowledge
  • life skills such as leadership, ethics, personal responsibility and  people skills
  • a balance of assessments which include, but are by no means limited to, high-quality standardized testing

Burrows-Goodwill went on to illuminate the ways in which our school tries to incorporate these kinds of skills. They do this right from the start in order to, as she says, “educate children to think independently and creatively in an empowered way.”

She then divided us up into groups to engage in four of the classroom activities common to our early childhood classes: setting up and giving a puppet show, circle time and hand-play, setting the table for snack, and cleaning up from free-play. Afterward, we discussed how the collaborative work of cleaning promotes life skills, how problem solving in free play sows the seeds for critical thinking and how the 'one for one' counting out of napkins and spoons is the foundation for learning math skills.

When the presentation was through, many of us stuck around to chat, enthusiastic about what we’d just heard and experienced. According to P21, at least 16 state educational systems have incorporated 21st century readiness. So far, California is not among them — however, judging by the positive opinions of the small but committed group of people who gathered to hear Burrows-Goodwill's talk, something tells me it soon might.

Anne Doan February 15, 2012 at 06:02 AM
The 21st Century also needs artistic students and schools must have programs to motivate the musical, kinesthetic, spatial/visual, naturalist student who does not fit into the mathematical/logic and linguistic blocks of the academic setting.
Abi Cotler O'Roarty February 16, 2012 at 09:24 PM
I totally agree Analizabeth and believe P21's emphasis on critical thinking and creativity is in line with this. I really appreciate that my kids' early childhood education is all play-based (of course they work at life's chores of cooking, cleaning, gardening, handwork, etc) and am confident that this can help preserve the natural imaginitive creativity of childhood as much as possible for my kids. To me, a creative who problem-solves outside the box and uses their imagination daily is someone destined for innovation and leadership in any field.

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