‘21st Century Skills’ or ‘21st Century Competencies’ refer to the knowledge, skills and dispositions citizens require in order to meet the demands of a changing society. A variety of international, organisational ‘Skills Frameworks’ have provided the impetus for countries around the world to include more complex mental activities, such as critical and creative thinking, interpersonal, cultural and social skills into their approaches to curriculum design and instruction. These include:
P 21 (Partnership 21, USA)
ATC21S (Assessment and Teaching 21C Skills, USA)
C21 (Canada 21, Canada)
DeSeCo (Definition and Selection of Key Competencies, Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development)
Key Competencies for Lifelong Learning (Europe)
Melbourne Declaration of Education (Australia)
For the most part, the frameworks agree on a common set of 21st century skills that include collaboration, communication, digital literacy, and social and/or cultural competencies that include citizenship. Most of the frameworks also outline the need for creativity, critical thinking and problem solving. ‘Learning to learn’ is specified within the European Key Competencies for Life Long Learning framework, the ATC21 framework and less overtly, in the DeSeCo framework, which identified the learner’s need to ‘develop his ability to form and conduct life plans and personal projects’. I mention the ‘Learning to Learn’ competency, as I believe it is the one competency most neglected in schools and classrooms but the one competency that has the power to seamlessly unite all of the others.
I’ve been fortunate to work alongside teachers and leaders in 16 countries across 5 continents and in the vast majority of those countries a focus on collaboration, communication, digital literacy, social and cultural competencies, critical and creative thinking was clearly evident. Assessment expectations don’t often reflect the 21C skills; and the professional learning required to aid teachers in the development of new associated knowledge and skills is all too often less than it should be – still, most of the teachers I am privileged to work with, recognise the need to address these competencies and do so to the best of their ability. There’s more work that can be done in regard to the rigorous and authentic integration of these competencies into classroom practice but most education systems are on their way and this is certainly ground for recognition and celebration!
Let’s now consider the ‘learning to learn’ competency…
Many schools around the world indicate that they value the importance of teaching their learners ‘how to learn’ and most even believe that they are addressing this vital competency. In reality, though, most are simply teaching ‘learning skills’ or even ‘study skills’. Whilst both skillsets are a part of ‘learning how to learn’, they are only parts of a much bigger whole.
Learners will never ‘learn HOW to learn’ until they are first aware that learning is a process – and by definition, has stages. If a learner is to ‘learn how to learn’ he must deliberately and explicitly learn the stages within the learning process so that he can one day, independently, navigate the stages and lead his own learning. The ‘process of learning’ must become visible and must be used as the vehicle for teaching and learning. When this happens, curriculum content and skills, including 21C skills, will be seamlessly addressed…
THE REAL LEARNING PROCESS
Real learning occurs through a process. It is driven by purpose, a reason, a challenge or problem to solve – it involves the learner making decisions with regard to what he needs to find out and how. He must identify and clarify his own questions and design his own learning tasks; choose if and when he uses digital and/or non-digital tools; he must evaluate sources and information, plan time lines, sequence learning tasks, manage information and integrate new learning into old. At times he must work independently, and at other times, interdependently.
When a learner is responsible for his own learning, he must set his own goals, and often, generate his own criteria. He must critically examine his own work, his ideas and the work and ideas of others; decide for him self when or if he is confused; when or if he is lacking information or required skills. The learner must decide when to move forward and take the next learning step or when to move back. Knowledge construction, metacognition, self-evaluation, problem solving and decision-making are all natural realities when a learner owns and directs his learning.
Eventually, in real learning, a learner will USE the knowledge and skills he has acquired throughout his learning process. In the real world of learning, learners don’t find out so they can tell or show someone what they learned…they find out so that they can make a difference in their life and in the lives of others™. If communication is necessary – and it may not be required in every circumstance – the communication is authentic. Learners communicate formally, but sometimes informally, to a real audience, for a real purpose. Finally, and critically, in a real learning experience, driven by purpose and the desire to make a difference, data is collected to evidence whether in fact the intended difference was achieved. Lessons are learned and new learning goals and directions set.
Presently, teachers are addressing many of the above mentioned skills including collaboration, communication, digital literacy, social and cultural competencies, critical and creative thinking within the context of lessons they design and teach. Instead, I am proposing that each of these 21C skills be contextualised within real life challenges or problems that learners address by consciously engaging in ‘the learning process’. Teaching would shift from a focus on content and skills (including 21C skills) to one that also focuses explicitly on process. Greater visibility would be brought to the learning process itself and learning would be characterised by learners who are enabled and empowered to navigate the stages of the learning process and lead their own learning; the exploration of information and ideas for the purpose of knowledge construction; and as critically, the USE of knowledge and skills to make a difference in their own lives and in the lives of others™. Relevance, authenticity, significance and purpose would drive the need for required curriculum content and skills, and the address of 21C skills and dispositions.
While domain specific content knowledge and skills would continue to hold importance in terms of assessment practices, so too would the learners ability to lead his own learning, employ 21C skills and dispositions that enable him to construct new knowledge, develop new skills and USE both to make a difference in his life and the lives of others™.
As I explore the possibility of this pedagogic approach for the address of both traditional curriculum and 21C skills and dispositions, let’s briefly consider, specifically, the critical and creative thinking competency. While each of the 21C skills are important, the infusion of ‘critical and creative thinking’ into classroom practice is paramount if deep learning is to truly become a reality. Simply put, deep learning requires deep thinking. If learners ‘learn how to learn’ but neglect to think deeply and broadly during each stage of the learning process, their learning will most certainly be reduced to ‘independent, self-directed, fluffing about’!
Deep thinking doesn’t just happen…
Don’t misunderstand…thinking just happens…kids think – from the moment they get up in the morning, until the moment they go to sleep – they’re thinking. This doesn’t, however, mean that they are thinking skillfully, rigorously, comprehensively or deeply!
Things that make you go hmmmm…
REAL THINKING AND THINKING TOOLS
When teachers want to aid a learner in writing, they provide tools – a pencil and eraser, a computer and software program, a dictionary or thesaurus; when they want to assist a learner with his maths skill development, they provide a calculator, a multiplication or addition chart, a ruler or manipulatives. If teachers wish to effectively support their learners in their thinking development, they must also provide them with tools – thinking tools that will direct them, deliberately and strategically, to think deeply, broadly, critically and creatively.
Thinking tools come in many shapes and sizes. Graphic organisers, planners, thinking routines, thinking and learning strategies, evaluation tools such as deBono’s 6 Thinking Hats® and success criteria, can all be considered ‘thinking tools’. Anything that deliberately directs the learner’s thinking is in fact, a ‘thinking tool’. Admittedly, teachers are now more readily infusing thinking tools in the design of learning opportunities with kids, even if they have not characterised these as ‘thinking tools’. But how do they make these decisions? Are tools randomly or strategically selected? How often, and at what points, are they incorporated into the learning? How deeply do teachers actually understand thinking, the infusion of thinking skills; and critically, the selection of thinking tools to legitimately advance deep thinking and deep learning?
It’s not just about infusing thinking tools into our practice…it’s about the strategic selection of the right tool (or tools) at the right time; it’s about sequencing or layering thinking tools so that learning is advanced only because of their use. It’s about understanding tools that facilitate the same learning job; and recognising those that address the job in a way that could not be accomplished with any other tool. It’s about understanding what it means to develop breadth of knowledge and understanding versus depth; and then selecting, sequencing and framing thinking tools in accordance to a learner’s individual cognitive capacity and in accordance to where he is within the process of learning itself. Finally, and most importantly, it’s about transferring this knowledge and these skills from the teacher’s realm of control to that of the learner – so that one day, the learner can select the right tool, at the right time; the learner can sequence his tools and frame them for depth and breadth as the learner independently advances through the learning process that the learner is navigating.
It is plausible and viable for our learners to truly ‘learn how to learn’ through a visible, explicit learning process that deliberately guides deep thinking through the use of strategically selected, framed and placed thinking tools…
It is plausible and viable for our learners to truly ‘learn how to learn’ through a visible, explicit learning process that contextualises mandated curriculum content and skills AND new 21C skills, within authentic, real world problems or challenges…
It is plausible and viable for our learners to truly ‘learn how to learn’ through a visible, explicit learning process that ultimately enables and empowers learners to USE constructed knowledge and skills to make a difference in their lives and the lives of others.
Learning relevance can be realised; active citizenship can become a natural and ongoing occurrence; and performance based assessment, the most authentic means of measuring learning, can become a consistent reality. Without compromise – all of this is possible.
Now that we are addressing so many of the parts…it’s time to get started on the whole!