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September 2009 | Volume 67 | Number 1
Teaching for the 21st Century
This morning I read about how the big blue mailboxes in my neighborhood are systematically being slotted for removal. I felt a little pang—no more mailboxes? How will that change the neighborhood? Then I read that the Postal Service was targeting only those boxes that averaged 25 or fewer letters deposited a day. Ah, the removal made sense. The neighborhood has already changed.
Almost 10 years into the 21st century, institutions from the post office to the auto industry, from newspapers to health care, are grappling with how they should adapt to major changes brought on by the global economy, consumer needs, government mandates, and, most assuredly, the technology revolution. Blamed by the general public for not changing fast enough, these institutions are also maligned for many specific changes they
do make. "Everyone wants reform, but few like to change," is a frequent refrain.
Many of the questions about how schools should change are the ones educators have asked for years. Are the proposed changes needed reforms or frivolous fads? Will the new practices take into account what we know about how students learn? Will they lead to higher achievement for more students, or will they leave more students—and educators—behind? Will they better prepare our students to become adults capable of effecting wise change? These questions are essential and timeless.
Other questions about teaching for the 21st century are new. One of these questions is, How can we respond to new technology and our students' engagement with it? For example, how can teachers deal with what Cheryl Lemke and Ed Coughlin (p.54) call "the democratization of knowledge"? What should happen, for example, when a teacher introducing Newton's laws of motion to her class finds that one of her students has viewed college lectures on physics on TED (p. 57), another has explored the motion of skateboarding online, still another hasn't even heard of Newton, and a few students cannot even read well? Today, more information than ever is at students' fingertips, but it takes skill to understand and connect it to prior learning. Familiar with technology and expecting to have a voice in their own learning, students are more than ever in need of the problem-solving, critical-thinking, and communication skills highlighted by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) (p. 11).
Emphasis on these 21st century skills—skills that are not new but more in demand today—immediately alarms some educators, however. They fear that just as the focus on testing has marginalized some subjects—for example history, literature, the arts—focusing on skills will lead to an approach that discourages the teaching and learning of foundational knowledge.
At a recent forum on 21st century skills, educators Diane Ravitch and E. D. Hirsch argued convincingly that creativity and critical-thinking skills don't transfer across domains. Does anyone really think Steven Spielberg could manage the Yankees? Hirsch asked. Skills and domain knowledge are intertwined—there are no shortcuts, these educators noted.
Science educators James Trefil and Wanda O'Brien-Trefil (p. 28) make another point about the preeminence of content. Students need critical-thinking skills to consider the viability and ethics of stem cell research, these authors write, but first they need to know what a stem cell is.
Authors Andrew J. Rotherham and Daniel Willingham (p. 16) outline several more challenges facing schools—primarily the need to have a clear plan that addresses curriculum, teacher expertise, and assessment.
Without better curriculum, better teaching, and better tests, the emphasis on "21st century skills" will be a superficial one that will sacrifice long-term gains for the appearance of short-term progress.
In this issue of Educational Leadership, educators describe what 21st century curriculum and instruction should look like. They also show that schools are indeed integrating the teaching of both content and skills. For example, Terrence Clark (p. 66) describes Bethpage's 21st century scholars program, which offers rich learning to students after school. Sandy Cutshall (p. 40) details how students are connecting with peers internationally as they learn new languages and cultures. And Debra Gerdes and Ellen Jo Ljung (p. 71) demonstrate how business/school partnerships can involve students in solving real problems.
Change is in the air here at Educational Leadership, too. Check out our new look—perfect binding and a new logo—better to serve readers who wish to save their beautiful print ELs. We also are pleased to offer you a new digital issue (see page 96 for details). It will let you search and share selected articles with friends as well as link to Web sites and multimedia content. In our coming issues,
EL will tackle more themes of change. It's all about valuing what we know is good while reaching for something even better.
Copyright © 2009 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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