Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Welcome to the 21st Century

A while back, I was a member of an Educator’s Book Club at school. At the time we were exploring so-called 21st Century Skills – the skill sets our students would need for the shifting future of tomorrow’s job market. These abilities, as set forth by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, include creativity, innovation, communication and problem solving as well as the core subjects. But they also include information and media literacy, financial literacy and global awareness as important themes that students need to explore. 

Since several of us were also science and math teachers, it was natural to explore the connections between those sought-after skills and the current trends in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education.

The year 1991 marked an important turning point in the American work force. For the first time money spent on Knowledge Age goods – information and communication technologies – exceeded Industrial Age good – materials for agriculture, mining, manufacturing, etc. That $5 billion difference marked a shift in the U.S. economy from a world that was all nuts-and-bolts to one that was information-driven. The world had become high-tech, almost overnight.

The problem is that not much really changed in K-12 education to echo that tremendous shift. Sure there are more computer labs, and kids know how to use PowerPoint, but is that really any different than typewriters and shorthand classes of long ago? Has the thinking really changed, or have we simply updated the tools?

Elementary age students of today will face a completely different job market in their adult lives than the one our educational system is currently designed to support. They will be knowledge workers relying on digital tools, creativity and an ability to work collaboratively with people from all over the world. Out-of-the-box thinking will need to be their norm. They will change careers and companies many times over the course of their adult lives, which requires flexibility and adaptability, not to mention the ability to transplant what they have learned in one industry into a completely different one, with new rules and expectations.

That’s a perfect match to goals of good STEM education, where an innovative technological workforce is the primary goal. Critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration have long been sought after, especially in the sciences and in engineering. Now, however, the importance of such skills has become deeper and more urgent as we watch the world change more quickly than our textbooks can keep up with. The kind of thinking needed for solid science and engineering will be the kind of thought needed for many, many other disciplines, as well.

We can – and must -- create a system that supports the new world we’re already building. And that’s something that can’t come from the top down, with bureaucracy and administration. It can’t come through standard tests and budget cuts. It needs to grow from the ground up. We need to be the change – parents, students, educators. We need to embody the new world and passionately share it with others.

The future is already here. What are you going to do about?

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