Ken Kay, President of the Partnership for 21st century skills, (hq’d right here in Tucson), offers this month a clarion call for “a social imperative” in the Southeast Education Network, SEEN.      It is a helpful primer and overview; it provides a history of the partnership and its research, and it underscores the importance of this change:

This blinding rate of change has, largely, pushed aside the 20th century social contract, under which possessing a great understanding of core subjects guaranteed ascent on the economic ladder. Now, the 21st century social contract states, in addition to deep content knowledge, all citizens need a broad range of skills to be productive and prosperous. Knowledge, while a cornerstone of success, is no longer enough — 21st century skills — which ensure people can adapt to circumstances, work in teams, innovate, and communicate — are a requisite of a successful life.

Important to note Kay’s recognition that knowledge is a cornerstone, and that we in this movement are not appropriately caricatured for dismissing the importance of knowledge.   But as this blog regularly argues, knowledge is best mastered in an educational environment that integrates a skills approach. P-21 recognizes this too, and I am especially appreciative of Kay not just arguing for skills, but for a pedagogical approach that is integrative:

A rigorous education in today’s world lies in the nexus of core subjects, 21st century themes, and 21st century skills — this combination redefines what a rigorous education must be. [From Bransford, author of How People Learn}… in the United States, we tell students the same thing 100 times. On the 101st time, we ask them if they remember what we told them the first 100 times.This simply doesn’t build the knowledge and skills and forge the connections that are necessary for today’s rapidly changing environments. Now, a rigorous education trains students to be able to look at material they’ve never seen before and know what to do with it.

As noted by Bransford, rote memorization places a low level of cognitive demand on students, while being required to demonstrate a deep understanding of a subject through planning, using evidence, and abstract reasoning, is more demanding. Consequently, combining 21st century skills with core subjects ratchets up rigor and the requirements of students, and, therein, prepares them for a challenging and rapidly evolving world.

We certainly need our students to learn a great deal of content, but we need to do in a way that ups the “cognitive demand;” we need our students to engage with and tackle core subjects with skills ablazing, knowing that the result will be more skills acquired, and more content memorized.