| Volume 67 | Number 1
Teaching for the 21st Century
EL Study Guide
The 21st century already presents new dilemmas and demands that confronted few of us in the century just past. The question is whether schools are helping students understand those dilemmas and reach for the skills they will need—or, instead, standing in the way of essential learning.
Schools and Creativity
Read the interview with creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson ("Why Creativity Now? A Conversation with Sir Ken Robinson") on p. 22 of this issue—or listen to the interview on the Educational Leadership
Web site or in the new digital edition of Educational Leadership (available to members and subscribers). Consider Robinson's words on how our current system squelches students' creative spirits. Robinson claims that too often schools are systematically alienating people from their own talents and, therefore, from the whole process of education. … We know this because human culture is so diverse and rich—and our education system is becoming increasingly dreary and monotonous. … It's no surprise to me that so many kids are pulling out of it. (p.25)
- Imagine a visitor from outer space dropped into your school on a typical day, and judged human culture only from observing in various classrooms for a few hours. How much of the richness and diversity of human culture would this visitor see? What rich elements of human life might not be displayed?
- What do you think of Robinson's suggestion that many students drop out because they find their interests and imagination aren't welcome in the typical school environment? Think of a former student who dropped out of school, consider how that student interacted in your class, and try to imagine what caused that student to leave school early (you might even contact a former student to ask why, if possible). Do you think this learner perceived that only a narrow set of talents or way of learning was accepted?
What Should We Teach?
Many people believe that one hallmark of the 21st century is that the knowledge being discovered in most fields is increasing faster than was the case in past centuries. But Andrew Rotherham and Daniel Willingham ("21st Century Skills: The Challenges Ahead," p. 16) assert that in teaching thinking skills, teachers need to
connect thinking to content that is central to a discipline, rather than just infusing lessons with randomly chosen engaging content.
This raises a question: Who should decide what knowledge is central and cutting-edge in such fields as physics, health, or geography? How can teachers strictly follow curriculum guidelines when, as thinkers like Ken Robinson point out, knowledge changing at lightning speed? Some argue that it doesn't make sense to steep students in content knowledge that may be outdated even by the time they graduate.
What position do you take? Is it important for students to leave high school knowing certain content? Or is it wiser to coach students in how to discover knowledge themselves and analyze it as it evolves?
James and Wanda O'Brien Trefil ("The Science Students Need to Know," p. 28) weigh in on what well-educated 21st century citizens should know in the field of science. Rather than being trained to do what professional scientists do, but in a much shallower way, students should get a basic understanding of 18 scientific laws that, the Trefils believe, govern how the universe works.
Look over the list of 18 "Great Ideas of Science" the authors provide (pp. 30–31). Trefil and Trefil believe that any scientific issues that surface in public debate in the coming decades "will fit into the intellectual matrix provided by these great ideas." Do you agree?
- Pick any two of the ideas on this list to think about in more depth. Discuss how a grasp of these particular scientific concepts might help a person come to an informed position on a contentious science-related question now being talked about in your community.
Project-Based Learning: Impossible Dream?
Suzie Boss's online article ("Managing Messy Learning") describes how student projects can enhance 21st century skills. Yet Rotherham and Willingham's article make the point that although many teachers support the idea of project-based learning, few teachers make projects central to their curriculum:
Even advocates of student-centered methods acknowledge that these methods pose classroom management problems for teachers. When students collaborate, one expects a certain amount of hubbub in the room, which could devolve into chaos in less-than-expert hands. These methods also demand that teachers be knowledgeable about a broad range of topics and are prepared to make in-the-moment decisions as the lesson plan progresses. … What teachers need is much more robust training and support than they receive today, including specific lesson plans that deal with the high cognitive demands and potential classroom management problems of using student-centered methods. (pp. 19–20)
Talk over in your group: How often do you assign projects to your students and let students take off with them? If project-based learning is a rare treat in your classroom, why do you think you use it so seldomly? What supports could your school provide that would help?
Copyright © 2009 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development