Recently, I was asked by our central administration the question, “What is your school doing to prepare students for the 21st Century?” Honestly, I had a difficult time answering that question. First of all, there’s the issue of “What does 21st Century Learning Look Like?’ The answer to that question depends in one sense on who you ask. The individuals at The Partnership 21st Century Skills have their list of skills. The 21st Century Workforce Commission National Alliance of Business has a list of skills. and if you search for a 21st Century skills list on our state web site, you get a dead link message. Apparently, their skill list has not made it into the 21st Century yet. Seriously, before someone asks me how my school is preparing students for the 21st Century, perhaps there needs to be a consensus on what these skills are. But let’s set that problem aside and acknowledge that no matter what list you look at, there is some congruencies regarding the skills on these lists. For example, most of these lists have things like problem-solving, collaboration, and creativity/innovation, among others. So coming to some level of agreement of just what these 21st Century skills are should be easy. This leads us to the second issue regarding the 21st Century Skill question.
Let’s just be direct here. As long as states and policy makers are hung up on multiple choice assessments that test core skills, school are going to focus on test preparation. Sometimes, what it takes to do well on those tests is in direct opposition to those skills described by 21st Century rhetoric. Naturally, this means less time spent on teaching things like problem solving and collaboration. What this means is that our schools are sometimes torn between “getting ready for the test” and “preparing students for the 21st Century.” Some would disagree with this, but the bottom line is we are still assessing twentieth century style and until we develop 21st Century Assessments, teaching and the content of teaching is going to change very little. Given the sanctions environment created by No Child Left Behind, we all know that schools are going to choose teaching to the test over the problem solving and collaboration skills of the 21st Century.
So how do I answer the central office question? I could answer it by looking at what we are doing instructionally at our school and make that fit the 21st Century Skills framework. The problem is, I honestly feel guilty answering in that manner. In my heart, I know 21st Century learning is not the focus; getting students ready for “the test” is the focus. So I cannot in good conscience answer in that manner. It all comes down to this: I am not able to answer that question like I want to answer it. As a 21st Century Principal, I am ashamed to answer that question, because I know we are not doing enough to prepare our students for the future. Now I also refuse to play the blame game because that is done enough. Instead, I want focus on what I can do. I can work to create the kind of school environment that makes 21st Century skills important. I can fight for technology resources in tight budget times. I also can be more discerning in what resources to fight for. I can work provide teachers the tools, skills, and time to make 21st Century learning happen. Finally I can continue to advocate with all who will listen, for assessments that mirror what our students face in the 21st Century. Bottom line, I want to be able to answer that 21st Century question from the central office next time with a whole list of what we are doing to prepare our students for the 21st century.