Preparing All Students in the 21st Century: How Are We Doing?

There is so much talk these days about the skills that students need in order to be successful in the 21st century. Beyond “traditional” skills such as reading, writing, and arithmetic, the focus is now being placed on “softer” 21st century skills like problem solving, adaptability, critical thinking, collaboration, analysis, curiosity and imagination, and communication. While it’s pretty safe to assume that these same skills were necessary for success in the 20th century, what’s changed is that the job market in the 21st century is not nearly as predictable as it once was. Whereas students could once choose a profession at a young age and feel pretty comfortable that the same job would be in place for the entirety of their career, technology in the 21st century has created a landscape in which jobs are eliminated and created daily. In some ways, it’s impossible to predict and, given that, high schools often find themselves in the awkward predicament of preparing students for both everything and nothing at the same time. The result has been a high school curriculum (and school day) that is in many ways similar to what students experienced thirty years ago but differs in that the sole emphasis is now placed on preparing all students for an academic college-bound track. Long gone are the vocational programs that once prepared so many graduates with “real world” job related skills. What we are seeing instead in the best high schools is the integration of 21st century “experiences” which highlight the development of the skills believed to be necessary for success beyond the walls of the school. Examples of this include one-to-one technology, makerspaces, expanded research opportunities, and project-based learning through programs such as the IB DP and MYP. Unfortunately, these opportunities are not commonplace, particularly in urban areas, where the sole emphasis is placed on high stakes exams that in many cases assess anything but the types of 21st century skills that schools claim to value most.

While the goal of attending college is certainly a good one, the truth is that not all students should be forced to take that path. The current K-12 paradigm provides students with little to no exposure to the types of jobs that they may one day pursue or the skills needed to be successful in those respective roles. Until around the 1990s, many high schools offered vocational alternatives on site to students who wished to develop “real world” work skills that would make them immediately employable. While I’m not advocating for a revival of this model per se, it is important that high schools contextualize student learning and skill development with “real world” current and potential jobs that students might one day pursue. At DFHS, we have begun to make the shift by linking 21st century skills to current and potential 21st century jobs. This is an important shift and one that we believe will lead to richer and more complete educational experiences for all students at our school. In doing so, there are three overarching approaches for schools to consider and build upon when developing future curricula, strategic plans, and ultimately district- and school-based programs. They are as follows:  

  • Classroom Connections: “How will I ever use this? Why are we learning this?”At one time or another, every teacher has been asked these types of questions by students who roll their eyes because they see no meaning or relevance to what they are learning. I often pose these same questions to teachers in pre-observation meetings and challenge them to provide students with this added context through essential questions and examples that connect the respective topic to some type of real world application. More recently, I have begun to include a section on “21st Century Jobs” in my weekly email update to the staff. Each week I feature a new job that is either currently in existence or may one day develop and challenge the teachers to consider how, if at all, the subject that they teach helps students to develop the skills necessary for success in that respective position. I also challenge the teachers to further introduce these ideas into their lessons and to provide students with opportunities to explore and research independently. This approach will not only contextualize learning for all students, but will foster the development of curiosity and imagination (see Wagner’s “survival” skills) while inspiring deeper learning and understanding.
  • Professional Development: As noted above, the weekly emails that I send serve as a quick and informal form of professional development. Last week, the 21st century job that was featured was a “nanotechnologist” and in future weeks we will look at jobs such as robotics technicians, stem cell researchers, wind turbine technicians, cell phone developers, computer science teachers, language teachers, organic farmers, market research analysts, and car mechanics (electric and hybrid). In addition, @careim2 and I are planning to engage the whole staff in a professional development session around this topic with the hope that some our teachers will identify professionals who may come to our school or that our students might go out and visit firsthand.
  • Real World Application: While it’s important for our teachers to make the types of real world connections that are noted above, it’s perhaps more important that students have opportunities for real world application. At DFHS, we already provide students with these types of experiences through programs such as the IB DP, senior internship, science research, Creativity/Activity/Service (CAS), and Extended Essay (EE). We are also in the midst of implementing the IB MYP Personal Project and offer real world electives such as Financial Literacy, Journalism, Media Journalism, Computer Science (will offer AP next year), and OC 21 (online blended electives). Finally, @careim2 is in the early stages of exploring an extended half-year or full-year credit bearing internship program for our seniors who wish to “get out there” and learn real world skills under the guidance of an experienced mentor.

Like so many schools, we are working feverishly to keep up with the times to ensure that all of our students are best prepared for success beyond high school. Please feel free to comment and share some of the best practices that are happening at your school!


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