While students have to master core subjects, unless they also excel in areas such as problem solving, critical thinking and communication, their education won’t necessarily prepare them for the modern world – that’s the conclusion reached by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences.
In 2011, the Academy asked a group of leaders in education, business and psychology to identify 21st century competencies and to clarify what is meant by “deeper learning.” The team released its findings in July in a report titled “Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century.” The report describes the important set of key skills that increase deeper learning, college and career readiness, student-centered learning, and higher order thinking.
Deeper learning, explains the report’s co-author, James Pelligrino of the University of Chicago, “is the process through which a person becomes capable of taking what was learned and applying it to new situations” – in other words, transferring knowledge.
An expert, Pelligrino says, isn’t someone who simply has a strong handle on data and facts. Rather, he or she has a level of understanding that enables them to transfer that knowledge to actually solve problems.
“They can engage in a mathematical argument, a historical argument, or arguing a scientific solution.”
The team identified three broad categories of 21st-century competencies that can develop these deeper learning skills: the cognitive domain, which includes thinking and reasoning skills; the intrapersonal domain, which involves managing one’s behavior and emotions; and the interpersonal domain, which involves expressing ideas and communicating appropriately with others.
Teaching can foster transfer skills when it emphasizes not only content knowledge, but also sets clear markers for students on when and how to apply this knowledge.
Curricula and instructional programs should be designed with a focus on clear learning goals along with assessments to measure students’ progress toward and attainment of the goals, the report says. These programs should feature research-based teaching methods such as using multiple and varied representations of concepts, encouraging elaboration and questioning, engaging learners in challenging tasks while also providing guidance and feedback, teaching with examples and cases, connecting topics to students’ lives and interests, and using assessments that monitor students’ progress and provide feedback for adjusting teaching and learning strategies.
New approaches to teacher preparation and professional development are obviously critical – a role requiring strong leadership from the states and the federal government. New programs must be developed to help teachers and administrators understand the role of 21st century competencies in mastering core subjects and create a learning environment that supports students learning of these skills.
No easy task, but, despite the challenges, says Stanford Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, these findings are important because they help open up the conversation about what students should be taught and how.
Communication and teamwork skills are “the things that determine whether you make it through college, as much as your GPA or your skill level when you start college,” Darling-Hammond told Education Week. “Putting that back on the table is a particularly useful thing; we have tended to de-emphasize those skills in an era in which we are focusing almost exclusively on testing, and a narrow area of testing.”