Really impressed with the recent (Summer 2009) publication from the Center for Public education, a 70 page document (free download!) entitled Defining a 21st century education,  by Craig Jerald, a noted educational researcher.  So impressed with this am I that I have written a posting (below) which is much too long! (Apologies)

Jay Matthews, the Washington Post educational columnist, turned me on to it, and he praised it highly:

Jerald’s paper, by contrast, carefully describes the corporate, economic, political, cultural and demographic trends that have put our children at a disadvantage, and explains how our teachers can adapt what they already teach, the content knowledge and literary and math skills that everyone needs, to help students think critically, collaborate with others, solve new problems and adapt to change.)

This is progress in itself, seeing Matthews becoming ever more accommodating of the 21st century educational movement; he also recently offered praise, belated I must point out, to Tony Wagner and global Achievement Gap, and it was fascinating to see the two of them dialogue, Wagner and Matthews, in an extended conversation.

But back to “Defining” this is a very fine work, offering extensive research based evidence for the significance of students learning 21st century skills, complete with many charts, graphs, and tables (34!).  Where others have often drawn upon anecdote or generalization (accurate generalization, but nonetheless), this report does the heavy lifting and provides the compelling evidence that careers are really changing, job skills demanded are really different, and education really needs to change, but incrementally, building new layers on top of old.

Jerald is strongly arguing that students must learn knowledge at the core of the competencies they are building, something I both agree with and also worry about the extent of the emphasis–I would hate for some readers to take away the idea that his recommendation is that we spend K-11 years teaching knowledge, saving competencies to be layered on only at the very end of K-12 learning.

He also calls for skills and “competencies” to be taught very much within the fold of a traditional academic curriculum context, something I think he is right about (critical thinking is best learned in excellent English, Social Studies, History, and Science classrooms) but also offers the potential to be misconstrued– that “traditional academic context” simply will not serve if some readers take it to mean traditional or conventional lecture/textbook/workbook learning environments, what I sometimes refer to as “Bueller” classrooms.

Jerald establishes over the first twenty pages the way the workplace is changing, and it is a very useful overview, complete with nearly a dozen charts and graphs:

Any school curriculum that emphasizes following directions to find a single correct answer is by definition preparing students for jobs that probably will not exist by the times those students graduates.

People are increasingly called on to perform more complex thinking tasks that computers still cannot perform such as those that involve complex interactions with other humans or that require solving unexpected problems using expert thinking.

In response to technological change, globalization, and other competitive forces, American companies have radically restructured how work takes place and how jobs are defined and performed.

Work is no longer defined by your specialty, it is defined by the task or problem you and your team are trying to solve or the end goal you want to accomplish…. To succeed, employees need to be able to act independently to identify opportunities and solve problems on their own.

Having established so effectively how greatly the world has changed, and the new demands the workplace puts on our graduates, he goes on to explain the implications for teaching and learning.  The entire list of five is pasted in at bottom, but they keys can be summarized as this: college and graduate school is more important than ever; you still need, as much as ever, your core academic knowledge; you have to, much more than before, apply learning to real world challenges, rather than reproduce (regurgitate!) what you have learned; mastering 21st c. skills or better “competencies” such as critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving will make a huge difference; and these things are best taught and learned inside of the conventional academic program rather than as an add-on.

The model, which the key graphic icon displays, puts a continued emphasis (something I too believe is essential) on knowledge mastery at the core, “the subjects matter.”  Indeed, the evidence he presents for the value of mathematical knowledge is very compelling, and makes me regret not having more knowledge of it myself:

Students who take Math beyond Algebra II double their chances of earning a bachelor’s degree, Just taking advanced math has a direct impact on future earnings, apart from any other factors; students who take advanced math have higher incomes ten years after graduating– regardless of family background, grades, and college degrees.

But it is not just having knowledge of reading and mathematics, it is critical to apply them, which is what Jerald calls “literacies,” a “term that has begun to mean someone who not only knows a lot about a topic but who can also apply that knowledge outside the classroom to successfully tackle real-world challenges.”   The PISA testing is praised for its ability to to evaluate this– I really want to do more to explore PISA testing.   Jerald identifies six literacies: reading, mathematical, scientific, civic, and technology, and I appreciate his endorsement for digital literacy, pointing out that digital natives already use technology widely, and are highly creative with it, (“they create media with the same avidity previous generations consumed it”), but schools can “help students link their use of technology to what they are learning in school.” Nice.

But having established the importance of knowledge and literacies, Jerald takes us to the crown jewels, the “broader competencies.”  Myself, I work inside a school context where I am just about perfectly confident we deliver educational excellence in knowledge, and I think we do a very fine job with literacies– and indeed, surely we need to continue to do both.  But we need to work hard to ever-better build atop these the additional critical competencies our students require.

One of Jerald’s central pieces of evidence is provided on a useful chart: Skills most employers expect to become more important.  This is from research from the Conference Board, 2006, and reports the following

  • Critical Thinking/Problem Solving: 78%
  • Information technology application: 77%
  • Teamwork/Collaboration: 74%
  • Creativity/Innovation: 74%
  • Handling Diversity: 67%
  • Leadership: 67%

Of course I am glad to see innovation and leadership so high on this list; and I am going to do two new postings, soon, specifically on Jerald’s discussion of each.  For now, I will only say that I appreciate the emphasis placed on critical thinking (and also endorse this fine piece in the Times on critical thinking education in business schools), and also report my enthusiasm for the very excellent Collegiate Learning Assessment/College and Work Readiness Assessment, which Jerald describes as the most prominent “serious attempt [that has] been made to assess critical thinking in an educational context.”


Jerald’s Five Major Lessons are below; these could easily stand along above many an educational leader’s desk, or reviewed carefully by boards and faculties as simple and essential guidelines to Defining 21st century education:

  1. Students who obtain more education will be at a great advantage; increasingly, some postsecondary education or technical training is essential for an opportunity to support a family or secure a middle-class lifestyle.
  2. The need for traditional knowledge and skills in school subjects like math, language arts, and science is not being “displaced” by a new set of skills; in fact, students who take more advanced math courses and master higher math skills, for example, will have a distinct advantage over their peers.
  3. At the same time, for success both on the job and in their personal lives, students must also better learn how to apply what they learn in those subjects to deal with real world challenges, rather than simply “reproduce” the information on tests.
  4. Students who develop an even broader set of in-demand competencies—the ability to think critically about information, solve novel problems, communicate and collaborate, create new products and processes, and adapt to change—will be at an even greater advantage in work and life.
  5. Applied skills and competencies can best be taught in the context of the academic curriculum, not as a replacement for it or “add on” to it; in fact, cognitive research suggests that some competencies like critical thinking and problem solving are highly dependent on deep content knowledge and cannot be taught in isolation.