“What are the skill sets that children need to have by the time they leave school to not survive, but, in fact, thrive in the coming century?” (Thornburg, n.d.). Most essential is how we become critical consumers of technology. “All the internet does is that it magnifies the kinds of skills that we should have been developing all along anyway to try to break the habit of us just blindly accepting information that we read and moving forward from it” (Thornburg, n.d.). He lists information and technology leadership 21st century skills that are necessary for students to learn.
The foundational 21st century skills and dispositions identified by Dr. Thornburg provide a platform for schools on which to build curriculum. In addition to information literacy, he lists critical thinking, problem solving, communication skills, teamwork and collaboration, information technology, leadership, creativity and innovative thinking, lifelong learning, self-direction, professionalism, ethics, and social responsibility, all of which are fostered in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) (or STEAM, STEM plus Art) programs, as well as in curricula for each of these subjects separately, along with Language Arts and Social Studies curricula.
“STEM skills are absolutely essential,” Thornburg adds. There are not enough engineers to meet the demands for engineering jobs in America, so it is imperative that students acquire the foundational skills needed in the 21st century that he and others have identified. While digital natives are competent in using technology, as Miners and Pascopella (2007) point out, these students who spend an average of 27 hours a week online outside of school do not use critical thinking while doing so. This disconnect is evident when visiting a public library and seeing students of all ages using computer centers as video arcades and little else.
However, at school, where students spend an average of 15 minutes per week online, there is a dire need to teach critical thinking skills to our students while they are engaged in using technology. Unlike our schools, our workforce embraces technology a fundamental tool, expanding territories and supply chains globally. Due to technology that connects people with work and work with customers “profound changes have been driven by the internationalization of competition” Bates and Phelan, 2002, 121) and have fundamentally changed how work is done and skills needed in this new global economy.
“Today’s workers are being asked to learn new technologies, to develop innovative techniques, to cross-function in work teams, to troubleshoot, to work independently, and to assume the leadership role in front-line productions” (Bates & Phelan, 2002, 122). These authors also cite skills rudimentary needed to “successfully perform job duties, learn, and apply learning on the job,” (Bates & Phelan, 2002, 123) including “reading, writing, mathematics, listening, and a number of higher-order thinking skils” (Bates & Phelan, 2002, 123), which include, creative thinking, decision-making, problem-solving, visualization, knowing how to learn, and reasoning. Reading, writing, and mathematics are in the Common Core State Standards, as are many 21st century skills. However, state tests don’t examine children’s creative thinking, decision-making, problem-solving, or any of the other 21st century skills.
Yet, teachers are responsible for making sure students pass these tests that determine funding for their schools and job security. Teachers caught in this conundrum are forced more and more to “teach to the test.” Yet, most educators want to do just that, educate students, rather than teaching them facts to pass a test. Evidence seems to indicate that teaching 21st century skills results in better tests results in Toledo Public School District (TPSD) which was fourth among the four largest school districts until last year when new Superintendent Romules Durant made drastic changes in the district his first year out resulting in Toledo moving to first among the largest urban districts in the state of Ohio in progress achieved in one year.
The district still has a long way to go, but there are indications that technology can take them there. While a STEM elementary school had average scores in progress achieved in a year, the Toledo Technology Academy High School had a 97.1% graduation rate for students graduating in four years and a 92.3% graduation rate for students graduating in five years and 100% success in closing the achievement gap, showing if students are learning reading and math, as well as graduating from school. It answers the question from NCLB (No Child Left Behind) “Is every student succeeding regardless of income, race, ethnicity, or disability?” (Ohio State Report Card, TPSD, Overview). This and the gap closing success in Cleveland in an urban school using a computer program that allowed differentiation and peer support indicate that technology aids learning, including that required to pass state tests effectively.
The problem may be more budgetary than academic, however. Schools that score low on state proficiency test receive less funding and with less funding these school districts cannot afford technology and without technology students and schools are left in a digital desert that cannot produce the 21st century learning needed by the workforce. “Preparing students for the 21st century calls for collective action on many fronts….Leaders in education, business and the public sector have been discussing the need for a 21st century education model for at least a decade – but we still have much to accomplish. Now is the time to begin” (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, n.d., 20). Therefore, part of the solution should be an investment from the industries that need students with 21st learning schools.
“Major tech and telecommunications companies are answering the president’s call to connect 99 percent of U.S. schools with high-speed internet within the next five years by pledging more than $750 million in donations” (Ryan, 2014, February 4, pp.1) Those companies include Apple, Microsoft Sprint, and Verizon. Apple is pledging “more than $100in iPads, MacBooks, and other services. Microsoft will make 12 million copies of its signature Office suite available at no cost. Sprint will provide wireless Internet to 50,000 low-income students, and AT7T and Verizon are both committing $100 million to the initiative” (Ryan, 2014, February 4, pp.3)
“’These companies have recognized the compelling national need for us to have the high-speed broadband that allows us to have the most modern, most effective learning classroom in our country where every child can learn at their desk and have a world of learning at their fingertips,’ National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling said on a press call” (Ryan, 2014, February 4, pp.4). The Federal Communications Commission announced prior to this disclosure that “It is doubling investment in high-speed Internet access for schools form $1 billion to $2 billion through E-Rate, a program established in 1966 that is funded through fees on monthly phone bills. (Ryan, 2014, February 4, pp.5).
This news forecasts improvements in making technology accessible to millennial students who are wired for technology, making the creation of a globally competitive workforce more likely. A successful globally competitive workforce depends on our workforce development systems’ ability to provide both basic academic skills and higher order competencies or employability skills that today’s workplace requires. According to the authors, “this research has been effective in sparking and facilitation communication between educators, human resource development professionals, employers, policy makers, and other stakeholders in an effort to bridge the skills gap and build a globally competitive workforce” (Bates & Phelan, 2002, 130).
Based on these needs, the most effective plan should include the following:
1. Learning new technologies
2. Development of innovative techniques
3. Cross-functioning in work teams
5. Working independently
All of the above require available technology and programs like STEM and STEAM in concert with employers who can provide volunteer or work opportunities for students to acquire hands on experience using the twenty-first century skills they learn in school. In order to achieve that, students in special education classes, both gifted and special needs, require curricula to address their needs. Special education programs have been quite effective in establishing relationships with employers to provide training and work and volunteer opportunities for these students to learn on-the-job skills in supported work enclaves, supported employment provided by a vocational trainer in real job situations, and other similar vocational programs. Historically, these have been menial jobs.
Now, with more gifted children identified with special socio-emotional needs, students in special education are likely to be hired to work with technology and other sophisticated systems. For example, students with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) at nonpareil Institute in Plano, Texas, learn software programming and digital design, as well as 3-D modeling. “Two-dozen young adults with autism work as employees there” (Silverman, 2013, August 2, pp. 9).However, the availability of technology is lacking for both gifted students and students with special needs. Using technology, Individual Education Plan for each child would include the following skill development criteria:
1. Inquiry, critical thinking and knowledge acquisition
2. Ability to draw conclusions, apply knowledge in new situations, and create new knowledge.
3. Knowledge sharing and participation ethically and productively as members of a democratic society
4. Pursuit of personal and aesthetic growth (Association of School Librarians, 2007).
Key questions asked would include:
Does the student have the right proficiencies to explore a topic or subject further?
Is the student disposed to higher order thinking and actively engaged in critical thinking to gain and share knowledge?
Is the student aware that the foundational traits for 21st-century learning require self-accountability that extends beyond skills and dispositions?
Can the student recognize personal strengths and weaknesses over time and become a stronger, more independent learner? (Association of School Librarians, 2015, 8).
Research supporting these dispositions was conducted by Arnone & Reynolds, 2009) that investigated the contributions of “perceived competence in information and digital literacy skills, perceived competence in reading, the disposition to read for enjoyment, and the disposition of curiosity, towards actual performance in an information and digital literacy skills knowledge test” (Arnone & Reynolds, 2009,1) in a study of over 1200 eighth grade students from twenty states. Data collected by the researchers supports “the importance of considering the disposition-in-action component of the new standards when planning instruction” (Arnone & Reynolds, 2009,1).
Implementing this curriculum through IEPs provides each student with an individualized technology plan incorporating the 21st century skills that students needs to learn. Once a skill is learned, a new skill replaces it and this continues until the student has acquired as many of these skills that student is able to learn. In the case of gifted students with socio-emotional problems or students with Asperger’s Syndrome or ASD with the ability to engage in higher order thinking, the possibilities are unlimited. However, we still have a long way to go. Meanwhile, “the great danger is the continuing decline in earnings opportunities for Americans who lack the skills to do the growing number of jobs requiring expert thinking and complex communication” (Sahin, Ayar, & Adiguzel, 2014, 316).
However, many students have not been interested in STEM fields, partially because of the heavy emphasis on science and math skills. Sajhin et al. (2014) conducted a qualitative study of after-school programs that connect STEM with real-world problems taken on as projects, facilitating student interest and involvement, as well as discrete learning of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics learning. TPSD incorporated a community-based program on African-American inventors as an after-school program at one of its middle schools due to student interest in famous inventers like Lonnie Johnson, an engineer who invented the super soaker. These programs which do not carry the burden of high-stakes testing provide yet another avenue for introducing STEM to students using project-based learning.
Therefore, it is highly recommended that schools burdened with the task of making sure students are prepared for tests and that do not have availability of technology to facilitate learning of 21st century skills like those inherent in STEM programs, follow TPSD’s lead, along with many other school systems throughout the country and welcome community partners to develop project-based after school programs that will provide students with 21st century learning without the pressure of grades and test scores and the benefits of learning collaboratively in an environment that facilitates use of technology in th the form of cell phones which most students have now, along with laptops, tablets, and other technologies.
American Association of School Librarians (AASL) (2015). Standards for the 21st-Century Learners. Retrieved 5/25/15 from http://www.ala.org/aasl/standards-guidelines/learning-standards
Arnone, M. P., & Reynolds, R. (2009). Empirical support for the integration of dispositions in action and multiple literacies into AASL’s standards for the 21st century learner. American Association of School Librarians (AASL) School Library Media Research,12.
Bates, R., & Phelan, K. (2002). Characteristics of a globally competitive workforce. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 4(2), 121.
Laureate Education (Producer). (n.d.). Skills for the 21st century [Video file]. Retrieved 5/25/15 from https://class.waldenu.edu
Miners, Z., & Pascopella, A. (2007). The new literacies. District Administration, 43(10), 26–34. Used by permission.
Ohio State Report Card (2015). Toledo Public School District Retrieved 5/25/15 from
Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (n.d.). A report and mile guide for 21st century skills. Washington DC: Author. Retrieved 5/25/15 fromhttp://www.p21.org/storage/documents/P21_Report.pdf
Ryan, L. (2014, February 4). Tech companies donate $750 million to Obama’s education initiative: Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, and Verizon are just a handful of the private companies contributing services and funds. National Journal. Retrieved 5/26/15 from http://www.nationaljounral.com/technology/tech-companies-donate-750-mill…
Sahin, A., Ayar, M. C., & Adiguzel, T. (2014). STEM related after-school program activities and associated outcomes on student learning. Educational Sciences: Theory and Practice, 14(1), 13-26.
Silverman, L. (2015). Young adults with autism can thrive in high-tech jobs. National Public Radio. Retrieved 5/25/15 from http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2013/04/22/177452578/young-adul…