21st Century Skills at Risk

What should schools be teaching? What is fundamental to the skill set of an educated person? According to the Framework for 21st Century Learning, created by The Partnership for 21st Century Skills with the encouragement of the U.S. Department of Education, among skills at the center of the curriculum should be : Critical thinking. Communication. Collaboration. Creativity. I think of these skills as the ‘Four C’s.’

The current focus on standardization in education, as evidenced by high-stakes testing mandates and state-issued grading of schools and teachers, is wreaking havoc with the ability of teachers to spend time in the classroom developing just those 21st century skills we say we want.

The development of the ‘Four C’s’ needs to begin in kindergarten. Block play. Painting. Clay. Water tables. Song and dance. Lots of time outside playing with other students. Dress-up play. At the kindergarten and first grade levels these are the developmentally-appropriate tools schools can use that most effectively help students develop the ‘Four C’s’. Yet these are the exact areas of the curriculum that have been practically wiped out of the classrooms of public schools in the last decade in the interest of raising scores on standardized tests.

As Valerie Strauss wrote in the Washington Post today, Play is the primary way that young children make sense of the world around them, learn new ideas and skills, develop creative thinking and problem-solving skills, and deal with stress.

What happens in school in the early years sets the stage for a student’s entire educational experience. Most children who do not start school in classrooms geared to developing 21st century skills – which, coincidentally, are also classrooms that are developmentally-appropriate beginning with kindergarten –  will actively dislike school by the time they are asked to hunker down and study linear equations, Chinese, and expository writing.

China. Finland. Canada. What do these very high-achieving nations have in common in the realm of educational policy? In the past decades they have moved far away from high-stakes standardized testing. We need to follow suit. The challenges of the 21st century will not be solved by those who best fill in boxes on tests. We need a nation of people who have mastered the ‘Four C’s.’

Kathreen Harrison

About Kathreen Harrison

Kathreen Harrison is a public school teacher in Maine. She has a master’s degree from Bank Street College of Education and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. She has worked in a variety of schools in New York and Maine in a number of capacities – French teacher, gifted and talented teacher, elementary school teacher, and curriculum coordinator for island schools. She has lived in Maine for 20 years and has a particular interest in school reform.