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Education, Leadership, Teaching, Technology

Five Skills for 21st Century Learners

First day of school

flickr photo by nomanson

If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow. ~ John Dewey

Recently, I have had the good fortune of being involved in the planning stages of a new school.  Our district is in the process of developing a hybrid/blended learning environment and they have chosen our school to pilot the program.  This is both a tremendous honor, as well as an overwhelming task.  So far, we have been given a great deal of latitude in designing a school that we feel will best meet the learning needs of our students.  As an active participant in educational reform discussions–through blogs, Twitter and the virtual universe–you might imagine my excitement at the prospect of creating a dynamic learning environment for our seventh and eighth grade students.

As part of this process, we recently presented an extremely preliminary plan to our school board.  This went well, but I have been mulling over one of the questions asked by a board member at the conclusion of the presentation.

As the students who participate in this program move into high school, what skills do you want them to possess that might be different from those that can be achieved in a traditional learning environment?

Certainly a valid question, but difficult to give a concise answer.  After rambling a bit about “educational maturity” and using a few educational buzz words, I moved on to the next question.  However, after giving this considerable thought, I have arrived at a five-point skill set that I would like to see our students develop during their experience at the Virtual Learning and Leadership Academy.

1.  Engagement
Student engagement is perhaps the most misunderstood, and overused terms in education.  Unfortunately, it brings to mind visions of students, sitting attentively at their desks, nodding their heads in understanding as the teacher reviews the day’s PowerPoint presentation.  However, true engagement means getting students involved, active and participating.  The hamster is running, the wheel is turning, and the light bulb is on.  Engagement is not about paying attention, it is about being an active participant in one’s education.

2.  Self-Advocacy
Students need to understand that they have control over their educational destiny.  This is what I refer to as “educational maturity” – the ability to take charge of their learning, ask questions, search for answers and, perhaps most importantly, seek help when needed.  Take control.

3.  Creativity – Innovation
Pursuit of personal interests and development of creative solutions to problems is a critical skill for our students to possess.  It is unfortunate that the current educational model’s focus on standardized testing has dampened student creativity and pursuit of innovative solutions to challenging problems.  Students should not be so concerned with failure that they are afraid to stretch their thinking and test their ideas.

4.  Collaboration
In a shrinking world, effective communication and the ability to work well with others will be essential  to student success.  Students must be able to respect differences and efficiently collaborate with diverse personalities.  This skill is also essential for the full realization of innovation–as students work together to solve problems.  Technology affords many avenues of communication and collaboration and as educators we have an obligation to assist students in the appropriate use of these tools to enhance these skills.

5.  Empathy
An awareness, and concern, for the plight and challenges of others is a uniquely human characteristic–one that we should take care, as educators, to foster in our students.  In order to do this effectively, our kids need to possess knowledge of other cultures, possess the ability to speak multiple languages and develop a sensitivity to the traditions and customs of other nations.

This is certainly not intended to be a conclusive list – there are many other skills that are important for 21st century learners.  I recently shared a Google spreadsheet, via Twitter, asking educators to share their ideas.  If you would like view the ideas of others, or contribute your own, please feel free to view or contribute to the Google spreadsheet or add a blog comment.

About azjd

Junior high principal by day, aspiring difference maker, and Jedi in my own mind. Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly.


18 thoughts on “Five Skills for 21st Century Learners

  1. I’m glad I came across this post on Twitter.

    How many times have I thought I’d love to be involved in planning a school from scratch. I’m sure it’s overwhelming but I love the five skills you’ve come up with. I think this is a great start!

    I’m looking forward to hearing how the planning goes.

    Good luck!


    Posted by Kathleen Morris | March 19, 2011, 1:06 am
  2. This is an exciting endeavor! Your list is strong. All of those skills are critical for the 21st century student. I would add two more:

    1. Developing Adaptive Expertise: Encouraging students to “play” with information and develop strategies for approaching, processing and making sense of information they encounter. Students develop a flexibility and confidence when encountering new information that allows them to be successful beyond the walls (literal and metaphorical) of the classroom.

    2. Respectful Dialogue: To achieve quality, meaningful learning students must feel that their online community is a safe and supportive one. This requires teachers to create a safe space with intention and lay a solid foundation for future interactions. This goes hand in hand with empathy and collaboration, but without this expectation for communication true empathy and collaboration cannot happen.

    I am currently working on a book for secondary teachers that supports individual teachers in adopting a blended learning environment that integrates dynamic online discussions into their curriculum. I have designed a great deal of “foundation” resources that guide teachers in deciding on a facilitation role, creating and maintaining a safe space online, fostering relationship building online, and effectively weaving online work back into the classroom. If your group in the planning stages is interested in any of the resources I have developed, I would be happy to pass them along. I can imagine planning an entire school is quite an undertaking!

    What learning platform are you using? Have you designed a schedule yet?

    Catlin Tucker

    Posted by Catlin Tucker | March 19, 2011, 8:24 am
    • Catlin…I would be very interested in getting your input, as well as any resources you have. We are about 1 month into the planning process and will be visiting other schools over the next month to see blended learning in action. We are still in the process of choosing a learning platform and building a schedule. Any advice, or suggestions would be appreciated.

      Thanks for your comment!

      Posted by azjd | March 19, 2011, 8:30 pm
  3. Great list! I especially like the 5th skill. With so much exposure to the awful things that can happen to people, be done by people, and be created by people, empathy is “faded.” Helping students increase and improve their empathy is a necessary skill so that the atrocities can be stopped. It will also generate new ideas in terms of how we can all unite and help everyone. Thanks for sharing this great list.

    Posted by Peg Gillard | March 19, 2011, 8:42 am
  4. Great minds think alike: I just published a post on the importance of teachers cultivating resourcefulness in students, which your comments under Self-advocacy and Creativity-Innovation speak to as well. http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/coach_gs_teaching_tips/

    And the rest of your list is right on too–though to me these aren’t just 21st century skills but all-century skills, since they’ve been hallmarks of successful people for generations. Sure the resources have changed, but the need to use them has always been there.

    Posted by David Ginsburg | March 20, 2011, 7:01 am
  5. I like the concise way you listed the skills. All administrators should have this for a handy reference to share with staff at all levels.

    Posted by Susan Thyden | March 25, 2011, 3:56 pm
  6. Forget about teaching and concentrate on learning!!

    Posted by Norman Constantine | April 16, 2011, 9:00 am
  7. I love this list. I would add Critical Thinking to it as well. Students must be able to establish a way judge, assess and evaluate their ideas and resources. They will need this skill to be successful in the work world of the 21st Century.

    Posted by Paul Pickard | April 17, 2011, 5:47 pm
  8. Jeff:

    Thanks for sharing your insights into the five. i do agree these five are central to teaching in the 21st Century. I have written some posts on this as well. See what you think. Does my thinking in some way inform your’s. I think the challenge is often how to make these real in the classroom, modeling them for teacher. I would hope we can find ways to make them real and provide the exemplars that help move teachers past their fears of change.

    See my posts at http://rryshke.wordpress.com under the tag 21st Century teaching and learning. I write about problem-solving, teaching for understanding, and some others.

    Let me know what you think. Maybe we can share and continue our conversation.

    Bob Ryshke
    Center for Teaching

    Posted by Bob Ryshke | April 23, 2011, 8:04 am
  9. I love this list. You have articulated the very things I try to foster in my school presentations ‘How are you smart’ http://www.screencast.com/t/cl15kh9B and ‘The Expertise Mindset’ http://youtu.be/XRgDTTQSp0U

    Metacognition is the key!

    Posted by Michael Griffin | May 27, 2011, 11:06 pm


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Jeff Delp

Junior high principal by day, sports enthusiast, technology fanatic and jedi in my own mind. Striving to be a difference maker!
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