Questions for 21st-Century Education

Originally written as a letter to parents on January 20, 2012

I want to take you through a mental exercise that may help you better understand the types of conversations we are having as a faculty as we refine our curriculum. Specifically, I want to pose four questions devised by Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel, authors of 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times.

You see, some aspects of education are timeless; learning how to read critically, construct a clear argument, and act with respect and integrity will never go out of style.  But the skills necessary to interact with the world are constantly changing.  When I reflect upon my own journey, I can recall once-vital skills that I no longer use. Here’s my personal “Top Ten Nearly-Obsolete Skills” list:

  1. Planning a trip using paper street map
  2. Using white-out tape on a typewriter
  3. Operating the microfiche machine
  4. Making a carbon copy
  5. Finding information in the White & Yellow Pages
  6. Reading a non-digital clock
  7. Changing a roll of film in a camera
  8. Remembering telephone numbers
  9. Using the library card catalogue
  10. Making a mix tape

I’m sure you could add to this list – just think about some of the skills you needed as a student that your own children would now consider “old-fashioned”!

What does this mean for our curriculum? How do we refine our curriculum to better prepare our students to compete in a rapidly changing world? The middle school faculty recently spent time discussing Trilling and Fadel’s “Four Question” exercise.

How would you respond to each of these questions?

1.  What will the world be like 20 or so years from now when your child has left school and is out in the world? Think about what life was like 20 years ago and all the changes you have seen happen.  Then imagine what will happen in the next 20 years.

2.  What skills will your child need to be successful in this world you have imagined 20 years from now?

3. Now think about your own life and the times when you were really learning, so much and so deeply, that you would call these the “peak learning experiences” of your life.  What were the conditions that made your high-performance learning experiences so powerful?

Before we move on to question #4, think about your answers to the first three questions and then think about how most students currently spend their time in school. Now ask yourself:

4. What would learning be like if it was designed around your answers to the first three questions?

Several themes emerged from our faculty conversations:

First, the world of tomorrow will be smaller and more connected, offering access to enormous amounts of information at lightning speed.  This will alter the world of jobs and job training.

What skills might our students need in such a world?  Flexibility and adaptability were the two ideas that resonated most strongly, followed by self-discipline, preventative problem-solving, and information management.

What did our wonderful faculty remember about their own peak learning experiences? They talked about teachers who believed in them, and a sense personal passion.  They recalled the pride they felt in figuring things out by themselves and struggling to “get it right.”  They remembered the value that came from having the time to delve and focus on a single topic and to allow ideas to simmer.

Given these observations, where do we want to take our middle school?  We are exploring ways to add more dynamic, interactive, problem-solving opportunities, including opportunities that allow students to collaborate, use technology strategically, and follow their interests. This means we will need to look at how we use our time, how we provide feedback, and how we collaborate as departments and grade-level teams.   These are not short-term goals – rather, they form a vision for our ongoing curriculum development.

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