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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Hinton

The Knowledge Economy Requires 21st Century Skills

In the middle of the 20th century, American public schools were considered by many to be the best in the world. Through compulsory education laws and an enormous expansion of the high-school system, students from all economic levels and backgrounds had the opportunity to attend school. This educated populous would propel the country to economic prosperity as the nation ascended to become a global economic superpower after World War Two. Today, however, many stakeholders lament the American school system’s condition. International test scores place America’s students somewhere in the middle of tested first-world nations. In trying to determine what went wrong in American education policy, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan pointed out that “About 100 years ago, America made secondary education in high school compulsory. That was almost unprecedented, a massive leap forward, and it drove a lot of our economic boom over the past 100 years. The problem is we haven’t moved past that, and we haven’t adjusted the model. The world is radically different from that time, but unfortunately, education isn’t much different.” Therein lies the crux of the problem. It is not that our schools are broken. They are working just as they were designed to for a world that looked much different than it does today. The problem is that they have not evolved to meet the changing demands of an interconnected world. As Tony Wagner points out in his book The Global Achievement Gap: Why Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need-And What We Can Do About It, “Schools haven’t changed; the world has. And so our schools are not failing. Rather, they are obsolete-even the ones that score the best on standardized tests. This is a very different problem requiring an altogether different solution.”

Over the last twenty years, the standards-based “reforms” driven by high-stakes testing have taken the nation’s education system in the wrong direction. Instead of looking backward and trying to prepare our students for a world and economy that no longer exists, we should be preparing them for the world to come. Author and futurist Buckminster Fuller created the “Knowledge Doubling Curve,” when he noticed that until the 20th-century human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By the end of World War Two, however, knowledge was doubling every twenty-five years. Today, on average, human knowledge is doubling every thirteen months. And according to IBM, the development of the “internet of things” will lead to a doubling of all knowledge every twelve hours. This incredible growth in information is due to the evolution of the internet. In 1995 there were approximately 16 million users worldwide. By the end of 2019, there were 4.6 billion internet users, almost two-thirds of the world’s population. With the increase in online users, social media has exploded. In 2019 there were 3.7 billion users. According to research done by Global WebIndex, “Social media users are now spending an average of 2 hours and 24 minutes per day multi networking across an average of 8 social networks and messaging apps.” E-commerce is quickly dominating the retail market and has increased dramatically, going from 1.6 billion users in 2017 to 2 billion in 2019, which is a quarter of the world’s population now shopping online. And according to the Nasdaq, those numbers will only increase. By 2040, 95% of all purchases will be made online.

Why Our Schools Need to Change

According to the World Economic Forum, the most sought-after occupations in many industrialized nations did not exist ten or even five years ago. Careers such as digital marketing specialist, social media manager, chief listening officer, blogger, search engine optimization specialist, app designer, cloud services specialist, big data analyst, and market research data miner, to name a few. One popular estimate predicts that sixty-five percent of children entering primary school today will ultimately work in jobs that don’t currently exist. Richard Riley, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Education, once pointed out, “We are currently preparing students for the jobs that don’t yet exist…using technologies that haven’t been invented…in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.”

The modern technological revolution spurred on by the development of the microprocessor, personal computers, the internet, and smartphones has fundamentally changed how we live and work. Not since Guttenberg’s printing press has there been a greater democratization of knowledge and information. Anyone with a device and internet connection can access almost unlimited information anytime and anywhere, regardless of their social and economic status. High tech has become the new big business that was once enjoyed by railroad, oil, chemical, and steel manufacturers of the last century, as evidenced by the rise of Amazon, Google, and Facebook. In his book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Friedman describes how technology has fundamentally leveled the economic playing field. Friedan points out that flatteners such as the internet, broadband, online workflow software, and collaboration have contributed to outsourcing service jobs to countries that can most efficiently and cost-effectively perform the task. In other words, today’s high school and college graduates are not just competing with other graduates from the same towns, cities, and states. But with workers around the world in a new digital global workplace. And while technology has fundamentally changed most aspects of life, the way we educate our children has remained stubbornly rooted in the past.

The modern American school is the product of its industrial past that emphasized conformity and efficiency. Students are grouped according to age and not ability, bells signal when classes begin and end, and strict enforcement of punctuality and classroom discipline are the norm. Classes are organized by subject, and students are evaluated by letter grades and points and not mastery of content. Most teachers use direct instruction to present information to the class, relying heavily on the textbook to drive their curriculum. Students sitting in neatly arranged rows and columns dutifully take notes and memorize what has been presented. In the early 20th century, students would then be required to “toe the line” or recite the lessons from memory. Today, most assessments of student learning are performed with standardized tests that consist of multiple-choice, true and false, matching, and short answer questions. Fill in the bubble assessments are among the most common forms of assessment used in schools because they are quick to create, administer, and evaluate and are theoretically free from bias. The problems associated with these tests are well documented but continue to proliferate at all education levels. Federal legislation such as the No Child Left Behind Act and Every Student Succeeds Act has put intense pressure on students and teachers to perform well on high-stakes standardized tests. This has resulted in a significant narrowing of the curriculum and usurpation of time and energy to focus on testable subjects such as reading and mathematics to the detriment of non-testable but equally essential subjects like social studies, foreign languages, art, and music.

Learning based only upon rote memorization may have been appropriate to an agricultural and industrial-based economy but is anachronistic in the modern technological world. While a high degree of technical ability is needed to be successful in the modern workforce, today’s employers are looking for candidates who possess technical and soft skills. Recently the World Economic Forum released a paper titled The Future of Jobs Report: 2020. The report documented the top 15 skills for 2025. They are:

1. Analytical thinking and innovation

2. Active learning and learning strategies

3. Complex problem solving

4. Critical thinking and analysis

5. Creativity, originality, and initiative

6. Leadership and social influence

7. Technology use, monitoring, and control

8. Technology design and programing

9. Resilience, stress tolerance, and flexibility

10. Reasoning, problem-solving, and ideation

11. Emotional intelligence

12. Troubleshooting and user experience

13. Service orientation

14. Systems analysis and evaluation

15. Persuasion and negotiation.

Employers are looking for candidates who know how to learn independently, solve problems creatively, innovate, communicate, and collaborate. Workers need to self-regulate, have a high degree of emotional intelligence, and work with others from diverse backgrounds. There is a growing schism between what schools do and what employers need. This gap is only increasing as new technologies develop, such as artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, robotics, and green technology. Schools can help prepare their students for the modern world and the future by utilizing 21st-century skills in all aspects of the curriculum.

21st-Century Skills

21st-century skills are the skills and dispositions that students will need to succeed in the modern world of college, career, and civic life. Educators, school reformers, college professors, governmental agencies, and employers believe that these skills are essential for students’ future success. These skills can be applied to any grade level, academic discipline, and in all career and civic settings. 21st-century skills can be grouped into three overarching categories, which are:

· Learning skills: learning skills are necessary to cultivate a person’s creative potential and include the 4 C’s creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem-solving, effective communication, and collaboration.

· Digital literacy & Citizenship skills: These skills help students become responsible consumers and creators of digital content. They help students locate, evaluate, and process new information and create content for the web.

· Life skills: These are the skills that enable students to live productive well-rounded lives both in their personal lives and as members of work teams. The skills include adaptability, initiative, leadership and responsibility, productivity, cross-cultural understanding, and social awareness.

In subsequent posts I will explore the three areas of 21st-Century skills in more detail. Please sign up for email alerts so that you don't miss content as it is posted. And as always thank you for reading.

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