Tag Archives: 21st-century-skills

21st century education: Flaws, fixes, further thoughts [SAIS/MISBO NOTES]


[Warning: long post]

I’m at the SAIS/MISBO conference in Atlanta, Georgia. My keynote and workshops aren’t until tomorrow so today I’m just a learner. Right now I’m sitting in a session titled 21st century education: Flaws, fixes, further thoughts, facilitated by Matt Gossage and David Streight. David is the director of the Center for Spiritual and Ethical Education. Matt is the Head of the Cannon School in Concord, North Carolina. Most of the session attendees are heads of independent schools or school business managers. Here are my notes… [much of this is paraphrased]


A few years ago, I began to feel an assault as I was bombarded by journalistic and educational calls for my school and me to incorporate 21st century skills. It was like a course I had to take that I wasn’t interested in. How many lists of competencies have you seen that are supposed to be part of 21st century learning? I pushed back with my head, not my whole self.

Watching my son go through college counseling made me reframe much of this, however: What are the essentials for my son? Can he relate to other people? Can he put a stake in the ground that’s uniquely his? Does he have the resolve to stand for something because he owns it in his heart? And so on… And for my granddaughter, what kind of schools is she going to attend? Is someone going to claim her, pick her up, and dust her off when she needs it? Is someone going to help her be discerning, to have hope?

The 21st century skills list seems to blow right by many of the fundamentals. I’m not against these competencies, but I think there’s a layer underneath to which we need to pay attention. The government-owned Buckner Building in Whittier, Alaska, is now an empty shell because its purpose is no longer viable. Are we in danger of turning out graduates who have certain skills and competencies but are empty shells inside?

David ( if you want a copy of the slides)

There’s a huge body of research that says that we do our best work when we experience Relatedness, Autonomy, and Self-efficacy. If at your job you didn’t like the people (and maybe they didn’t like you), you had no say over anything, and the work bored you out of your mind, you’d HATE it! For how many of your students do these hold true?

Center for Public Education, Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the 21st Century Skills LLC, Tony Wagner’s ‘survival skills,’ Pat Bassett’s 6 Cs, the NAIS/SoF competencies, Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences / 5 minds, and so on. All of these are 21st century competency lists…

The big 7 (occur across multiple lists)

  • critical thinking / problem solving
  • creativity / innovation
  • collaboration
  • media / technology / digital literacy
  • cross-cultural skills / diversity
  • initiative / self-direction
  • oral and written communication

Other frequently-mentioned 21st century competencies

  • leadership
  • green / ecoliteracy
  • math / finance literacy
  • ethics
  • social / emotional literacy
  • flexibility / adaptability

Is the purpose of education in the 21st century the same as it was in previous centuries? Are our 21st century goals aligned with our mission goals? Are we creating a better world or a faster world or a different world?

Wagner’s ‘survival skills’ are based on concerns about global workforce preparation / economic needs. Should these be the primary drivers of what we do as educators?

Fixes – Focus on goals consistent with your mission. We need to glean the best from the 20th century, be open to the new and unexpected, and take the best of what’s available out there. Teresa Amabile, How to Kill Creativity – people are most creative when they feel motivated primarily by interest, satisfaction, and the pleasure of the work, NOT by external pressures.

Autonomy – “We give our kids a lot of autonomy” – it’s not how much autonomy you have, it’s how much autonomy that you perceive that you have that fosters your best work. The more perceived autonomy, the greater the persistence, performance, and well-being. Lots of research to support this. Ways to kill it: extrinsic rewards, threats, deadlines, directives, and competition.

Relatedness (social engagement) – Perceptions of connectedness, warmth, and trust are key. 

Self-efficacy – “I have the skills to meet challenges.” ‘Mastery’ over important components in the environment. We build self-efficacy through mastery experiences, seeing others can do it, encouragement/persuasion (by ‘relateds’), mood.

The extrinsic to intrinsic ladder: 1. ‘buy me off’ (resistance); 2. ‘my ego is at stake’ (give me status, avoids shame); 3. ‘this has importance’ (goals identified); 4. ‘this is me!’ You remember better the higher up the intrinsic ladder you are. And you can live deeper conceptually. We can help students internalize motivation: Did I choose to study this or did somebody make me study this?

Making motivation internal: 1. provide a meaningful rationale (understand importance), 2. acknowledge feelings (person feels understood), and 3. offer choice rather than control (feel responsibility for the behavior). 2 or 3 of these factors = internalization tends to be integrated. 1 or 0 present = internalization tends to be introjected.

Benefits of Relatedness, Autonomy, and Self-Efficacy (RAS): psychological health (less anxiety, greater coping), sense of well-being, conceptual understanding, academic performance, standardized test scores, enjoyment of learning, attitudes toward school, self-regulation (start & sustain behaviors, persistence), creativity, confidence.

7 questions that make all the difference (each on scale of 1-5)

  • People at school like me
  • I can trust the people around me
  • I am capable of saying no when friends pressure me
  • I have an appropriate amount of control over my life
  • I get to choose lots of things throughout my day
  • I am learning important things at school
  • I love the challenges that school offers me


  • We have parents with very high expectations for their children. In elementary school they begin to incentivize behavior and issue rewards in ways that, over time, often kill their kids’ own creativity and interest in learning.
  • We have to spend a lot of time educating and working with our parents. And talking about what we stand for, not just what we do.
  • Our teachers thought our scores and grades would go down as we assigned less homework. But our scores and grades went up.
  • Streight: We stopped talking about ‘success’ and instead started talking about living a life of significance 

My own closing thoughts

Is a focus on ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ a luxury of the middle class or affluent, because the rest are just struggling to survive? Conversely, is economic success worth it if it lacks meaning?

Reconciling convergence and divergence

How do you reconcile…

principles of standards-based grading; “begin with the end in mind and work backwards;” understanding by design; and other more convergent learning ideas


project-, problem-, challenge-, and/or inquiry-based learning; creativity; innovation; collaboration; and our need for more divergent thinkers?

Yesterday was the final day of our Next Generation Leadership Institute, an initiative of the University of Kentucky College of Education’s P20 Innovation Lab. This was the big question I asked groups throughout the day.

How do (or would) you reconcile these potentially-conflicting concepts? How should schools navigate the tension between convergence and divergence?

Some Iowa students weigh in on what classes they need for 21st century jobs

Leslie Pralle Keehn, a Social Studies teacher here in Iowa, had her students read The World Is Flat and then asked what ‘classes’ would help prepare them for 21st century jobs. Here are their responses:


I love how none of these are disciplinary silos (which, I’m guessing, is how her students experience most of their school days). What do you think about her students’ responses?

Can States Assess Creativity?

by Richard Kassissieh

test tubeA student gazes at a mystery solution. Its contents are unknown. The student reaches into her toolkit, a set of known solutions, and one by one, combines them with a small portion of the mystery solution. One test changes the color to bright yellow. Another produces a milky, solid substance. Gradually, the student pieces together the clues that allow her to identify the unknown solution.

This qualitative analysis laboratory required the student to recall properties of different solutions, understand reaction processes, and synthesize the results of different experimental tests while under pressure. To practice, the student had worked together with classmates to identify a series of mystery solutions and shared their findings with their classmates.

Did this performance assessment play out in the classroom of an innovative, 21st-century educator? No, the qualitative analysis laboratory has been part of British national chemistry examinations for decades.

It is tempting to rail against high-stakes state tests in the United States. They emphasize basic skills and fact recall, pressuring school districts to strip programs to the basics and eliminate or reduce “non-core” subjects such as art and history. For example, many school districts “double dose” language arts and mathematics classes in order to improve students’ performances on state tests (see this EdWeek article).

Are large-scale, standardized assessments bound to forever measure a narrow range of skills and knowledge?

Summative work has to insist on standards of uniformity and reliability in collection and recording of data, which are not needed in formative work, and which inhibit the freedom and attention to individual needs that formative work requires.

External tests which are economical are bound to only take a short time. Therefore, their reliability and validity are bound to be severely constrained: they can only use a limited range of methods and must be limited in respect to their sampling of relevant domains.

Paul Black, Testing: Friend or Foe?

On a brighter note, some national assessments include hands-on performance assessments. Not only do we have the IGCSE national examination described above, but the U.S. Advanced Placement examinations test higher-order thinking skills through essays in many subjects and the submission of a portfolio of work in art.

The International Baccalaureate program, originally from Switzerland and growing in popularity in the U.S., includes summative assessments that measure creative problem solving, analysis and presentation of information, and argumentation (IB Diploma Programme Assessment Philosophy).

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills reports on work in progress in several states to develop “demonstrations of 21st century skills graded based on a common rubric” (p21.org).

The U.S. college admission process represents another effort to assess higher-order thinking skills fairly across a broad pool of candidates. Most selective colleges use multiple measures to evaluate students: essays, standardized test scores, lists of accomplishments, interviews, the reputation of one’s high school, and letters of recommendation.

It may well be possible to develop standardized assessments that measure 21st century skills. Cost is the main obstacle. How much would it cost to systematically test problem-solving, collaboration, and presentation skills across all U.S. schools?

Though we may see inconsistencies between standardized assessments and 21st century skills, we can advocate for an increased role of performance assessment and the assessment of higher-order thinking skills in these high-stakes tests.

Richard Kassissieh is director of information technology at Catlin Gabel School (Portland, Oregon, U.S.A.) You may find him at http://kassblog.com and @kassissieh.

Photo credit: judybaxter on Flickr