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What are 21st Century Skills?

The soft skills are key, but how do we teach them

Educators are increasingly being asked to provide students with what are often called “21st century skills” – and it’s difficult to argue with the premise behind that initiative. Who wouldn’t want our students to have such abilities – critical thinking, collaboration, communications, and especially, problem solving skills.

But experts are saying there are three fundamental problems for educators hoping to pass along these skills, even as research increasingly shows they help us learn in deeper ways as students – and to go on to be more successful and happy later in life.

First, they sometimes are difficult to identify. Just what we are talking about when we discuss these new “soft” or interpersonal skills? There are a lot of things that fall into this category. Which ones specifically should we include and prioritize?

Beyond that, there aren’t always clearly defined approaches to a curriculum that gives teachers guidance about how to provide students an understanding of these skills nor are there many opportunities to explore new ways to teach them. It is something promoted in schools, but not always fully implemented in ways that bring it into the classroom.

And, finally, how do busy teachers in the classroom, saddled with more responsibilities each year, find time to make this shift. As teaching goals become firmer and test scores more critical throughout the year, it is hard to find time and energy for imparting these skills, which are difficult to measure.

The Brookings Institution in a series of articles recently has made an effort to tackle the first two problems, naming the most critical skills and offering specific approaches that certain educators have found successful in their classroom. (Finding time and energy to implement them is something schools and teachers must also, nonetheless, prioritize.)

These skills help students better understand how their own brain works and how they can best learn – and they offer important strategies that will be helpful throughout their educational career, Brookings notes.

In addition to that, however, the Association of American Colleges and Universities has an ongoing initiative in higher education to provide these skills to students because employers increasingly say they want them.

“Nearly all employers surveyed (93 percent) say that “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than an undergraduate major,” AACU said in its report. “Even more (95 percent) say they prioritize hiring college graduates with skills that will help them contribute to innovation in the workplace.”

Brookings devoted a series of five articles on key 21st century skills, including problem solving, which experts say isn’t often formally taught, but should be.

In the real world, students encounter problems that are complex, not well defined, and lack a clear solution and approach”, says Helyn Kim, a researcher at Brookings in an introduction to an article on the topic. “They need to be able to identify and apply different strategies to solve these problems.

She said in an interview that we assume problem solving is an ability we learn – but research shows not all of us do, and some learn it easier and more completely than others.

“However, problem-solving skills do not necessarily develop naturally; they need to be explicitly taught in a way that can be transferred across multiple settings and contexts,” she says.

Kate Mills,  a literary specialist at Red Bank Primary School in New Jersey who taught fourth grade for 10 years, collaborated with Kim on an article about ways to succeed at developing these skills in schools, and says she tried to create a “classroom culture of problem solvers”.

“Helping my students grow to be people who will be successful outside of the classroom is equally as important as teaching the curriculum,” she says.

First, she says she chose language and activities in class that made students think about how to manage their mental processes to set and achieve a goals. She says such “thinking about thinking” is particularly effective when student’s effort and struggle are identified.

I begin by “normalizing trouble” in the classroom. Peter H. Johnston teaches the importance of normalizing struggle, of naming it, acknowledging it, and calling it what it is: a sign that we’re growing. The goal is for the students to accept challenge and failure as a chance to grow and do better,” she says. She strongly encourages the student to find ways to work through a problem, and then point out to them how they did.

Soon students understand that she is there to support their learning, not solve problems for them – and then she can help them with those strategies and how, when and where to use them.

She often shows students a “broken escalator video” where people on seem stuck. “Since my students are fourth graders, they think it’s hilarious and immediately start exclaiming, “Just get off! Walk!’ I then tell them ‘Many of us, probably all of us, are like the man in the video yelling for help when we get stuck. When we get stuck, we stop and immediately say ask for help instead of embracing the challenge and trying new ways to work through it.”

She said she often uses that lesson in math classes, but it applies elsewhere.

“I give students a math problem that will make many of them feel stuck. I will say, ‘Your job is to get yourselves stuck—or to allow yourselves to get stuck on this problem—and then work through it, being mindful of how you’re getting yourselves unstuck.’ As students work, I check-in to help them name their process: How did you get yourself unstuck? or What was your first step? What are you doing now? What might you try next?”

When a student finds a solution, she points it out and has them describe how they did it and name it.

Problem solving, Mills says, is always being prioritized in her classes –  by her and, as the year goes on, increasingly by her students.

“For me, as a teacher, it is important that I create a classroom environment in which students are problem solvers. This helps tie struggles to strategies so that the students will not only see value in working harder but in working smarter by trying new and different strategies and revising their process. In doing so, they will more successful the next time around.”

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim has been a newspaper and magazine editor and an award-winning writer for The Washington Post, USA Today Weekend, the Christian Science Monitor, Parents magazine, and a number of national and regional publications. During a break from writing he worked as a school counselor for seven years and quickly became head of a counseling department and Counselor of the Year in Montgomery County, MD