nrc report coverI made reference to this excellent National Research Council report just last week, explaining how I drew upon it for my “explorations of the 21st century learning landscape” presentation.  But that was just a glancing reference to it, really; now, in a short series of posts over the next few days, I want to pull out and share some key pieces of this report.

As valuable as this 204 page report it, it is not entirely easy reading, and surely some who are reading this are not likely to get to it anytime soon.   Its value is multi-faceted; first, because of its comprehensively broad survey of the educational priorities and methods required for successfully preparing students for the coming decades, and second, because its imprimatur from the National Research Council, part of the National Academy of Sciences, makes it impossible to dismiss as the wild-eyed ideas of a partisan progressive radical.

Among its priorities are establishing the critical competencies– defining them by citing a 2005 OECD PISA report, which defines competencies as being

…more than just knowledge and skills. It involves the ability to meet complex demands, by drawing on and mobilizing psychosocial resources (including skills and attitudes) in a particular context.

This report reviews the many which came before it, citing one which reviewed 59 in total, finding that the most commonly cited 21st century skills were “collaboration, communication, information and communications technology (ICT) literacy, and social or cultural competencies.”

Taking a slight tangent, the authors here very usefully surface a never-ending issue around the identification, listing and taxonomy of such 21st century skills: how do we separate these out from each other, when so many overlap so greatly.   They call this the Jangle fallacy— a term previously unfamiliar to me but which I’m so glad to have in my vocabulary.  It is when “investigators sometimes used different measures—with different names–to study a single psychological construct or competency.”  Examples abound, such as collaboration and teamwork, or flexibility and adaptability: are these different competencies, or are we jangling here?  The problem is more important when you get to this issue: perhaps “separate measures of self-esteem, neuroticism, locus of control, and generalized self-efficacy were in fact focusing on a single core construct?”

Hence, the NRC report creates separate tiers for their taxonomy of the essential competencies, beginning with a big three set of bubble which are certainly distinguishable, dropping down to a second tier of critical components of each of the big three bubbles, and then sprinkling the bubbles with a dozen or more individual terms which are increasingly hard to distinguish altogether.

NRC report bubbles

If you’re curious about which of the many non-cog competencies is singularly most important, by their research, here is your answer:

Among intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies, conscientiousness (a tendency to be organized, responsible, and hardworking) is most highly correlated with desirable outcomes in education and the workplace. Anti-social behavior, which has both intrapersonal and interpersonal dimensions, is negatively correlated with these outcomes.

Hardly surprising–and not too terribly illuminating, because in and of itself, it doesn’t seem to easy to teach or develop directly.  (But see the Chicago report, “Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners” for more guidance on this.

So what is the point of educating for these competencies, anyway?  Why are they so important, if we are educating for life and work?

The committee views the broad call for  “21st century skills” as reflecting a long-standing issue in education and training – the desire that individuals develop transferable knowledge and skills.

Associated with this is the challenge of creating learning environments that support development of the cognitive, interpersonal, and intrapersonal competencies that enable learners to transfer what they have learned to new situations and new problems. These competencies include both knowledge in a domain and knowledge of how, why, and when to apply this knowledge to answer questions and solve problems—integrated forms of knowledge that we refer to as “21st century competencies” and discuss further below.

Now, if our students will have little need to “transfer what they have learned to new situations and new problems,” then there is no need to develop these capacities.   But, as we know, routine work is no longer routine.

work routines

So for nonroutine work, these competencies are more essential. 

When the goal is to prepare students to be able to be successful in solving new problems and adapting to new situations, then deeper learning is called for.

Calls for such “21st century skills” as innovation, creativity, and creative problem-solving can also be seen as calls for deeper learning—helping students develop transferable knowledge that can be applied to solve new
problems or respond effectively to new situations.

Here and in the subsequent pages of Chapter 4,  the report authors take what is to me an interesting step, consolidating what had been for me previously separate concepts into a more unified construct: deeper learning equated as 21st century skills mastered for transfer.

In the committee’s view, the link between deeper learning and 21st century competencies lies in the classic concept of transfer—the ability to use prior learning to support new learning or problem solving in culturally relevant contexts.

We define “deeper learning” not as a “product” but as processing—both within individual minds and through social interactions in a community—and “21st century competencies” as the learning outcomes of this processing in the form of transferable knowledge and skills that result.

The transferable knowledge and skills encompass all three domains of competency: cognitive, interpersonal and intrapersonal, in part reflecting the socio-cultural perspective of learning as a process grounded in social relationships.

21st century competencies are the outcomes of deeper learning; they are what students are able to do and demonstrate by leveraging their previous learning to transfer to real world problem solving and life long learning.

Without these competencies, the ability to practice continuous learning, to succeed in nonroutine work, and to solve complex problems, is sharply limited; deeper learning is what learners do to develop mastery of these essential competencies.

Transfer is the key to the definition of 21st century competencies.

Transfer isn’t new to us of course: Wiggins places it as paramount in his Understanding by Design, and hence the report here underscores the value of adopting UbD philosophies and practices in 21st century learning.

Marc Chun, formerly of CLA/CWRA and now of Hewlett Foundation’s Deeper Learning initiative, captures the core importance of transfer too in his TEDx talk.

I’ve shared Marc’s talk before, but allow me to repeat: Marc charmingly illustrates the difference between educating for routine application and “deeper learning,” by contrasting James Bond and MacGyver.  Bond is taught to use an exploding pen when he needs to surprise a bad guy, and, a few scenes later, he confronts a bad guy and what do you know, he uses the exploding pen!  MacGyver finds himself in entirely unanticipated situations, and crafts solutions to escape them, solutions nobody has taught him but which his previous experiences, general knowledge, and highly attuned skills enable him to address.

Teaching for transfer isn’t easy.

Although using the senses to attend to relevant information may be all that is required for success on retention tasks, success on transfer tasks requires deeper processing that includes organizing new information and integrating it with prior knowledge in one’s mind (see Figure 4- 1).

This deeper cognitive process develops 21st century skills—knowledge in a learner’s longterm memory that can be used in new situations.

Taking it further, they lay one breakdown of what deeper learning entails:

deeper learning involves developing an interconnected network of five types of knowledge:

  •  Facts—statements about the characteristics or relationships of elements in the universe;
  •  Concepts, which are categories, schemas, models, or principals;
  •  Procedures, or step-by-step processes;
  •  Strategies (general methods); and
  •  Beliefs about one’s own learning.

There is still a role for facts, for core knowledge and basic understandings, but we need to embed them into the fuller picture which is deeper learning.