By Bill Scott
KSBA Executive Director
Several months ago I asked a top administrator at the Kentucky Department of Education to recommend some resources that describe the skills our students will need to be successful in the 21st-century economy, along with the most effective approaches for teaching those skills. One of her suggestions was a book titled 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times by Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel.
As I read the book I found myself underlining practically every other sentence. I would highly recommend it to any board member, superintendent or other education leader looking for a road map to the future of public education.
The book explores the dramatically different world of work our students are facing, their prospects for future jobs and careers, the essential skills that all workers will need to be successful in the 21st century, and finally, some of the most effective approaches to teaching these critical skills.
The authors write that to be successful in the new economy, workers will need a broader range of competence characterized by higher levels of knowledge and the ability to apply this knowledge to real-life challenges through such skills as problem solving, communication, teamwork, and the use of technology and innovation. (See chart below).
A major theme of the book is that recent research has shed new light on our understanding of how people learn and these findings must be incorporated into our schools. For example:
Authentic learning environments: These are settings where a particular skill or knowledge is used in the real world. These authentic environments, both simulated and actual, greatly increase the chance that a lesson will be remembered and used in other similar situations. The implication is that students need more real-world, problem-solving opportunities in the form of internships and apprenticeships.
Internal motivation: When students have an emotional connection to what is being learned through a personal experience or a burning question, they learn at deeper levels and retain the lessons longer. This finding confirms that students should have a voice in designing their own learning and that projects geared to student interests will result in more active engagement, deeper levels of understanding and the motivation to learn more.
Social learning: Both face-to-face and virtual collaborations (online) can increase motivation to learn, create better results and develop critical social and cross-cultural skills. Given these advantages, it’s not surprising that collaborative, small-group learning teams are becoming more popular both in the classroom and the workplace.
As you may have surmised, Trilling and Fadel are huge fans of project-based learning methods and describe a growing body of research that proves the effectiveness of these approaches. In particular, they cite a review of 50 years of research by Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University. The review shows that compared with more conventional lecture methods, these approaches build deeper understanding and higher levels of motivation while providing the ideal setting for students to develop some of the most essential skills for the 21st-century workplace.
According to the authors, effective project-based learning models share five key characteristics:
• Projects are based on authentic, real-world problems and questions that students care about.
• Project outcomes are linked to curriculum and learning goals.
• Compelling questions and problems lead students to important concepts related to the subject area.
• Student investigations and research involve inquiry and knowledge building.
• Students are responsible for designing and managing much of their own learning.
Because of the proven effectiveness of project-based learning methods to prepare students for the 21st century, it’s imperative that board members and other education leaders gain a better understanding of this approach.