21st Century Skills from the World Economic Forum

The World Economic Forum has published a new white paper called New Vision for Education: Unlocking the Potential of Technology; the link for the full report is included at the end of this article.  The World Economic Forum is a not-for-profit international institution headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.  Although the focus of this report is worldwide, the gaps in identified twenty-first century skills are very applicable to schools in the USA.  In a powerful statement, the report says: “By the time students enter college and the labour market, deficiencies that have not been addressed earlier can be far more difficult and costly to remedy.” (p 8-9).

The report differentiates 21st century skills among foundational literacies, competencies, and character qualities. It sees foundational skills as what schools and systems traditionally teach and measure: literacy, numeracy, scientific literacy, instructional-communication technology literacy, financial literacy, and cultural and civic literacy.  Competencies sited include critical thinking/problem solving, creativity, communication and collaboration. While curiosity, initiative, persistence/grit, adaptability, leadership, and social and cultural awareness are included in a category called character qualities.  Appendix 1 includes definitions of 21st century skills.

The instructional cycle is referred to as a “closed loop” in this report. Beginning with clear learning objectives through the development of curriculum and instructional strategies to instructional delivery, ongoing assessment, interventions and the tracking of learning outcomes in a repeating complex system.  The report looks at ways that technology can be embedded into each step of the instructional loop to improve student learning outcomes and eliminate the skill gap, providing some resources that might be used at different phases of the cycle.

The report cites differences in the use of technology tools to close the skill gap, looking at different income levels among countries which create different contexts and stating that there are fundamental social and economic problems, such as poverty, that impede learning and underlie the skills gap. Although the deficiencies in many undeveloped countries far surpass those found in the United States, it is my perspective that there are different contexts within the United States itself that must be acknowledged and addressed.

The importance of creativity, problem solving and innovation to the economic well-being of our nation and therefore, the employability of our workforce cannot be stressed enough. The pressure of standardized testing can lead to a standardized curriculum and instruction model that does not allow  the classroom time for these skills to develop. Teachers caught in this dilemma are often driven to insure success on state tests at the cost of providing time for experimentation, reflection, and collaborative feedback. The report does suggest using technology for some of the foundational skills in order to free teacher time to provide instruction on competency and character skills.

In two of the examples from low income countries, technology was used to provide scripted lessons that were created centrally  to under-trained teachers. My preference would be to  more fully train teachers or provide a mentor/coach rather than a “turn the page” curriculum model.

One of the tenants of the article is the need to define and find a metric to assess each of these 21st century skills in order to compare countries skill level. Although I agree with the need to define the skills needed and provide training and resources to teachers so these skills can be embedded into the curriculum and instruction, the idea of an assessment to measure creativity or persistence fills me with dread. Paul Torrance developed a well-used test for creativity used to screen students for school gifted and talented programs.  It is not a test that can be administered and interpreted without training. The idea of administering a standardized test which by definition is convergent in thinking to measure a thinking skill that is divergent by definition seems inappropriate and a major shortcoming of this report.


School Culture is the Foundation for School Improvement

As a new middle school principal, I learned a hard lesson.  After two years of working on all the pedagogical elements of the school, I discovered that school culture is where ultimately the ability to sustain improvement rests.

Many educational leadership books highlight the need for an articulated school vision, a safe learning environment, and  strong instructional strategies that include formative assessment, feedback, data analysis and intervention. We look at change within the structure of school as we know it.  Most of the improvement advice targets what teachers do in the classroom with curriculum, instruction, and assessment.  The changes most authors recommend are “high leverage” or “research based” strategies rather than a more foundational change in the school as a whole.

As we seek to improve struggling schools, we must consider that what we are currently doing in the school system is NOT working for the school’s students. We cannot continue to tweak curriculum, instruction, and assessment methods and hope to get any drastic improvement. We must go deeper into the change effort.

In reading S. Gruenert and T. Whitaker’s School Culture Rewired (ASCD, 2015), I found their insights reinforced the lessons I learned as a building leader of a Title One middle school.  The authors differentiate between culture, climate, morale and how beliefs, behaviors, and values contribute to the overall culture.  As a building principal, this differentiation is subtle but helps frame everyday practice.  They caution that changing a culture will take time, and they also state that changing a culture may upset the status quo. A leader has three choices when dealing with a culture that is not positively supporting student achievement: “they can ignore it, fight it, or use it.” (p27).  As a building principal, I did not know how to use the underlying elements of the culture to change it.  I did some things correctly, like building a system of shared leadership with my teachers and giving them time and a structure for collaborative discussions about their professional practice. Our teachers worked collaboratively to create a school mission and vision statement; these were revisited and revised every year as a building leadership team to make sure they still reflected our work.  We also referred to these statements during meetings as a guide for our efforts. But, there was so much more I could have done!

I know whenever we challenge the status quo the reaction is often fight or flight. School Culture Rewired offers several tools to help facilitate the foundational cultural change that will be necessary, if struggling schools are to improve.  The School Culture Typology Tool and the activities that accompany it can give a leader seeking to improve a school a means to start on the journey.  Their advice on building structures and procedures to change a culture gives hope in their caution that “culture will take many years to reflect new beliefs that guide behaviors…” (p16)

The hidden message schools send poverty students and students of color

Although recent twitter posts by Arnie Duncan laud a rise in graduation rates for American students, a recent report published by the Dana Point – U.S. Department of Education shows much work remains to be done. Report demographics of students who entered high school in 2009 and dropped out before the junior year (2012) show 4.3% are Black and 3.5 are Hispanic in contrast to 2.1 White and .3 Asian.  Additionally, the report shows students from families in the lowest socioeconomic status group drop out at a rate of 4.7% while those in the highest group drop out at .6%.  It would appear that students of color are at risk…and if they are Hispanic or Black AND poor…while they are REALLY at risk.

This is really not new.  Any one who has worked in a poverty school could tell you this. The calls for school reform have echoed for years. There are pockets of success – where students rise above and gain a foothold on their way to a better life.  But it is not enough.

When I would visit elementary schools, I would ask the students how many planned to go to college.  The arms of the students rose in the air and voices excitedly would call out, they wanted to be doctors, teachers, even the President.  These were poor children and most were Hispanic or Black. These are the same children who as freshmen, sophomores, or juniors are quitting school.  What happened to their hope for a bright future?

During those critical middle school years, we need to do things differently.  The traditional policies and structure have failed our poorer students, especially those “minority” students.  We need to show them in words, actions, and policies that we believe they can succeed. With parents working hard at multiple jobs and still struggling to make ends meet, our students need to see the possibilities for their future.  Media highlights stories of minorities as criminals– shot by police, marching against brutality — our students need images and stories that create an alternative for the future.

By middle school, students become aware of their family situation, the neighborhood condition, and the way the “world works” for “people like them”.  It can be hard to hold on to that young dream of going to college and  living the American dream.  Too many of our schools, contribute to the killing of student dreams with punitive grading, labeling struggling students, and reactive, traditional discipline policies — often in spite of individual teacher attempts to build meaningful relationships.

When a school assigns zeros, penalizes students for not learning as quickly as peers through late work deductions and lack of re-testing opportunities, or allows failing grades to be assigned without requiring reteaching/retesting, they allow some students to move through the systems without learning the required content and skills for success.  Setting them up for future academic struggles that will manifest in poor attendance, acting out, and gaps in their learning.

When a school creates lists of students, labeling them as “lagging” or “low” and assigns prescribed interventions for the group, including remedial classes that remove students from electives and mainstream classes, they lessen the student’s self-efficacy and self-concept.

When a school follows a policy that assigns suspensions — in school and out of school — that remove a student from the educational environment for a period of time, they contribute to the academic gap.  This practice also contributes to a student seeing them selves as a “bad” person.  Often in hopes of hiding their suspension rates, schools use different codes or words for classroom removal.  Even policies where students walk silently in the halls or are escorted out of the building at the end of the day send messages to students about how they are viewed by the school. This is especially harmful for our poor minority students who are finding their self-image in a world filled with negative media stereotypes.

If we want to get serious about solving the achievement gap for our poverty students and students of color, we need to take a long look at the message our policies send students about their ability to succeed. One of my favorite sayings came from the Negro College Fund:  “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”  Too many minds are being wasted still!

New Hampshire’s Journey Toward Competency-Based Education: State lifts barriers to innovation : Education Next

Our lockstep education system based upon the Carneige unit is outdated and serves neither the gifted student nor the one who struggles.  The gifted students often sits and waits for the rest of the class to learn content or are given extra work to keep them busy.  The struggling student often gets left with gaps in their learning as the curriculum marches to the pace of the calendar.

it is time to consider that our Industrial Based education system needs to undergo radical changes.  Our society is becoming economically polarized with a shrinking middle class.  Consideration of a competency based system and the accompanying grading system that will accompany it is a good place to start!

New Hampshire’s Journey Toward Competency-Based Education: State lifts barriers to innovation : Education Next.

The Heart of Teaching: What It Means to be a Great Teacher | Edutopia

We write often about the attributes desired of teachers who work with our students.  How teachers approach and work with our students is critically important as they shape the future of our communities and nation.  Where the students come from homes of poverty or the students could be called “tough to teach”, these attributes become as important as the content taught.

Although teachers bear so much of the burden for educating our students, we must also charge our administrators–both building and central office–to model these attributes in their dealing with teachers and students. If being kind, compassionate, empathetic, positive and a builder are important for teachers, they are also important qualities for administrators.  A great administrator will set the tone for the building, showing their heart in their interactions with teachers…and students.


The Heart of Teaching: What It Means to be a Great Teacher | Edutopia


Teaching America’s children is critical to the future of our communities, nation, and world. The complex demands on today’s educators range from integrating technology and tracking data to meeting social-emotional needs of diverse student populations. Research continues to flood teachers with ideas for curriculum, instruction, and assessment to further their craft.  This site offers the lens of extensive  classroom experience to help support our dedicated teaching staff as they seek to help students learn and achieve.

For these are all our children, and we will profit by or pay for whatever they become. – J. Baldwin

Technology for the Whole Child

Many of today’s teachers seem to integrate technology seamlessly into their classroom instruction, creating lessons that engage students with content in ways that stimulate higher order thinking and collaboration.  Other teachers feel overwhelmed with the demands to use technology in their classrooms or are dismissive of technology strategies that appear to be just an electronic pencil.  Dr. Gerstein has an interesting twist on implementing technology by linking it to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  She proposes ways that technology can be used beyond meeting the cognitive or academic needs of students alone and aligns several suggestions and accompanying resource links to other social-emotional needs of students. Although Maslow designed his hierarchy with ascending levels of needs and premised that lower needs must be met in order to become eventually a self-actualized person, the technology suggestions do not rest upon each other in such a hierarchy.  The premise of her article of using technology in the classroom to meet not only academic but social and emotional needs is a great resource for teachers looking for a way and a reason to expand their technology implementation in the classroom.


Addressing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs with Technology