I recently visited Texas Instruments in South Portland with a group of teachers. Our purpose was to gain an understanding of the skills employers seek when hiring today’s high school and college graduates. Touring the semiconductor plant, we learned that engineers work in teams to create improved templates for technology and to solve efficiency problems.
One of the head chemical engineers told our group that a stand-out on resumes is the amount of lab time an applicant has under her belt. She explained that lab time indicates an applicant has likely developed skills beyond those that are measured by papers or exams. In short, they are looking for applicants with 21st-century skills.
What is 21st-century learning?
This type of learning is a framework for teaching that is often referred to as the four C’s: critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration. Using these skills can connect curriculum to experience, as well as encourage students to take greater ownership of their learning.
There is an increasing body of evidence in educational research showing that students who develop 21st-century skills are better able to apply content learning to real-life situations. Ultimately, this leads to deeper engagement and understanding of taught material. Moreover, practicing 21st-century skills helps build the resilience, accountability and ingenuity that will carry today’s students into careers of the future.
21st-century learning in an elementary classroom
Keeping a focus on 21st-century skills has caused me to elevate my instruction to include more rigorous questions, more time for trial and error, and more time for reflection. My students now have richer conversations about literature and are able to synthesize information from expository texts.
In math, students explain their problem-solving approaches, and they have more opportunities to reason and wonder. Within a 21st-century learning framework, the content has not changed, but the level of engagement and rigor has skyrocketed.
Overcoming challenges together
21st-century learning can certainly happen without modern technology. I recently observed a fourth grade classroom that was bursting with the 4 C’s, and yet there was not a computer in sight. On the day of my visit, students were working in research groups to study weather topics. Teams of students dispersed throughout the room, organizing materials, determining goals for the day and pouring over their notes.
The teacher breezed among the groups to offer support, and she noticed that the students in the hurricane group sat silently, thumbing through their various books. She briskly gathered the four kids around her and asked them to articulate their research plan. However, not a single student spoke up. Rather than taking the easy route and assigning each child a task, she asked them, “What are you going to do about that?”
At that moment, her teaching was as much about close reading of nonfiction texts as it was about successful collaboration and communication. After just a few minutes the students arrived at a purposeful plan and were productively engaged in their learning.
In my own third grade classroom, we have been studying circuits and simple motors. In a recent session, I gave students wires, batteries, tape and a paintbrush. I then directed them to assemble a painting machine. When one group successfully completed the task, the three kids decided to split up to help the others.
Just before lunch, we gathered on the rug to debrief our successes and challenges. Each child agreed that they had experienced moments of frustration during the task. However, they also expressed that overcoming the challenges gave them a greater sense of accomplishment.
A third application of 21st-century learning that does involve technology is an activity called Mystery Skype. This is an educational game in which two classrooms use the video conference program to call one another without saying what city and state they are in. The goal is for the students to ask a series of “yes or no” questions that help them determine the other class’ location.
For example, students might ask, “Is your state landlocked?” or “Does the Mississippi River run through your state?” Students use iPads, laptops and atlases to research the results and to guide their ensuing questions. An activity like this gives students an authentic purpose to use the 4 C’s. It also broadens their perspectives by extending the learning experience beyond the classroom walls.
Since visiting Texas Instruments, I have wondered if the collaboration and problem solving in my classroom in any way reflects the kind of work that happens in their offices and labs. Whatever the future holds for my students, I believe they are developing a reserve of skills that empower them to be courageous, to learn from failures and to embrace creativity. I can hardly wait to see what they will do.
Talya Edlund is a third-grade teacher at Pond Cove Elementary School in Cape Elizabeth and is the 2016 Maine Teacher of the Year.