Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Evaluating Skills for the 21st Century in a 19th Century Learning Environment

Partnership for 21st Century Skills
I had the opportunity to visit the Partnership for 21st Century Skills website (, which is a national organization, sponsored by many of today's cutting-edge companies, to promote skills not being adequately addressed in our classrooms. In additional to the traditional curriculum subjects, the website seeks to promote three additional areas that are recognized for improvement in today's technology-driven world. These are life and career skills, learning and intervention skills, and information, media, and technology skills. I spent a good deal of time visiting the various areas of the website, and I had various reactions to the different areas.
The site is very well organized, with a good organization and direction to the various parts of the site. Being from New Jersey, I also spent some time at the break-out site for the New Jersey state initiative. I was a bit disappointed that there are only 16 states with initiatives. The New Jersey site basically repeated the initiatives from the main site, and there was nothing specific to the state of New Jersey. It had not been updated since 2007.
The main Partnership for 21st Century Skills website was restricted to the resources it offered, and it required a registration to access much of the content. However, there was another site, which was called Route 21, found at which had many links to websites. These sites, contributed by the registered users, varied greatly. Some linked to excellent resources, like the PBS TeacherLine. Many others did not link to active sites. None of the contributed websites I saw were newer than September of 2010. This was very disappointing as this initial views of the main website led me to believe this was a cutting edge resource. I sincerely believe that the time I would spend refining and eliminating the inactive links would be frustrating enough to limit the value of the resource pages.
I agree wholeheartedly with the message of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and I have strived to incorporate it into my classroom. We may be learning mathematics, but with every lesson comes the question of "How can we use this in the real world", or "Why do we have to learn this?". Sometimes the answer to those questions is a revelation to my students, and they are disappointed to find out that unless you are going to be a chemist, there may not be a reason to learn about Platonic Solids other than the state test. But they do respect that answer. I try to use appropriate examples of mathematics to show the rationale behind the learning. An example of this change is when the textbook has a problem about taxicabs. My students do not know about taxicabs because they do not live in a setting where there are taxis, so I adapt the problem to cell phone usage, which they all have. The students now have a connection to the problem, so they know the value in the solution. They also see a real-world application. We change many other lessons as well, like using recipes to teach fractions.
While the message of Partnership for 21st Century Skills was great, implementation of these skills is a challenge. In New Jersey, and more specifically my district, the pressure to pass the state standardized tests is immense. Teachers are constantly pressured to get the students to pass, and there have been no less than three new programs in three years specifically aimed at passing the test. There have not been any programs or initiatives in our district to these 21st Century Skills. In fact, computer classes have been eliminated, computer resources downsized, and computer labs are in a state of disarray. I was envious when I read the case study of Henrico County, Virginia purchasing a laptop for each student, but did not address the issues related to student use. As a result, Henrico county wound up selling the laptops to the public for $50, creating what was called an "iRiot" because of the public stampede to buys the laptops (Stager, 2005). Many states used Henrico county as justification not to move forward spending valuable tax dollars on technology. A district more close to my home, Lower Merion, is a very affluent district. They provided state of art Apple laptops to their students, but did not address the brave new world of regulating the technology. As a result, they are embroiled in a lawsuit over the improper use of a webcam, which was part each and every laptop. One would think that administrators and lawyers would get in front of this curve before they get destroyed. However, it seems like these anecdotes will prohibit many districts from progressing forward with technology.
Therein lies the challenge. In 2001 when Henrico County bought the 20,000 laptops, the economy was very different than today. Our district is strapped for every penny it spends, and under immense pressure to pass state tests that do not address 21st Century Learning. In an article about the importance of the new skills, there was an example of two students, one who memorized the date of the defeat of the Spanish Armada but did not understand the significance and effect. The second student did not know the exact date, but understood the effects of colonization of the New World because of Spain's defeat. So the student who obviously understood the overall history of the time would have scored worse on a standardized test, and therefore, continued the vicious circle of standardized testing. I absolutely agree that we need to be teaching additional, worldly skill to our students, but with an environment of administrators and politicians that cannot see the forest due to their focus on the tree immediately in front of them, it is a daunting task.
Another challenge is the inconsistency of our students due to the wide range of economic backgrounds, from very well financed to extremely needy. While most of my students, and students in the district, have access to the Internet at home, about 10% do not. These students will need access to the Internet, whether it is at a local library, or time at school. Since my school just decreased the number of computers in each classroom to one-third of the prior number, access will be more difficult. However, with some advance planning, perhaps some creative recycling efforts, and up-front discussions with parents, the projects that are planned this year will happen. I have cleared space in the decade-old curriculum to allow for two major projects that use Microsoft Excel and Power Point. I plan on getting a wiki started for my classes to share ideas and issues, and of course, keep teaching in ways that provide my students with problem solving skills and life lessons.  With all of this in place, I believe my students can achieve success on the antiquated standardized testing that we are forced to comply to, and they will achieve future success by developing their skills as 21st century learners.

Stager, Gary. Laptop Woes - Bungling the World's Easiest Sale (October, 2005)


  1. Hi Todd

    You gave a perfect example of how necessary it is to adapt problems so they are relevant to students in your classroom. Teachers need to know their students and the community in which they live. This reminds of a conversation with my sister-in-law who has spent over 30 years in education most of which has been in Alaska. You changed a problem from taxis to cell phones because students are not all that familiar with taxis, in Alaska students are not familiar with curbs because there are no curbs in Alaska! When answering a question about the direction the sun rises everyone in the lower 48 will answer east, while students in Alaska will have various answers depending on where they live and the time of the year. Where she lived the sun rises and sets in the north.

    Answering the question, "When am I ever going to use this in real life?" is often frustrating. Sometimes the only answer I can give is you will use it on the test at the end of the semester, or you will need it for the next course. However, if a teachers spends time establishing a relationship with students they will accept this answer. I believe using social medias like blogs and wikis will encourage students to learn the "stuff" they believe is irrelevant and typically do no learn in a lecture setting.

    You are to be commended for continuing forward with your goal to prepare students to be successful on standardized tests as well as acquiring the skills necessary to be successful in the 21st Century. Most teachers are committed to providing students with what they need no matter how many obstacles are in the way.


  2. Todd,

    Your comment that the website has not been updated made me laugh. After four years they FINALLY updated the Department of Education website for my state. If you notice that any of the links are inactive, you may want to notify the webmaster, so that they can take it down. This is a problem I have noticed on many state education websites, people add information and then leave it there to stagnate, within a year or two, the links are dead or the information is out of date. Good for you for adapting the taxi cab problem to something relevant! One way I have noticed that teachers can overcome the silliness of district mandated upgrades is for individual teachers to contact companies like Apple to find out if there are any grants for technology. We used this in our school and as a result we have four teachers who are able to loan ITouches to their classes. The ONLY reason this works is because the teachers set up and followed a plan for their use. As a result, the students know why they are using this device and there is likelyhood of it being viewed as a toy.