As I told my Falconer students in the Upper School ASB class last week, effective problem solving requires accurate problem definition. When we think about how to instill 21st Century skills in our students and educational programs, we have immediately defined the problem incorrectly.
The skills that we refer to as “21C” have ALWAYS been the critical keys to success. Primitive hunters only succeeded in killing large game sufficient to build multi-day stores for the clan when they collaborated. Florentine renaissance artists were amongst the most creative in human history. Greek and Egyptian mathematicians built universal concepts out of asking the right questions in the right ways. Explorers and venture capitalists from 10th century Norsemen to 14th century Chinese traders to Amelia Earhart embraced risk. Those with a command of communication and literacy, from campfire storytellers to transoceanic cable engineers have always been at the heart of our social, economic, and political structures.
These are Nth Century skills. They are timeless and critical in any age. They are the set of skills that has characterized successful, innovative, creative, pioneering, courageous, and dynamic people in every era.
In 1981 I was helping to create an environmental baseline map in the highlands of Negros Island in the southern Philippines. Our team of western-trained geologists, chemists, and land-use experts was up in the mountains trying to understand why the local slash-and-burn farmers had deforested one hillside to plant a root crop and left an adjacent hillside alone. We took loads of soil samples for later analyses back in the chemistry lab and were leaving the mountain when we ran into one of the locals. We asked him about the planting practices and he told us, with an appropriate level of disdain for our lack of knowledge that the soils on the unproductive hillside were too rich in copper for the root crops to grow. This was part of the shared database of communicated knowledge created from centuries of collaborative work practices in an iron-age agrarian society.
At the other end of the spectrum, I had a conversation recently with a shop foreman at Boeing in Seattle. Over the last five years he has seen a remarkable change on the floor of one of the world’s most technology-dependent industries. More than 50% of the line workers spend their day on a lap top computer using sophisticated software to run machines, program tools, and communicate with co-workers on the other side of a massive workspace or suppliers on the other side of the world.
Agrarian laborers, industrial line workers, and students working towards a post-information age global collective all need the fluidity and tool kit to adapt to changing environmental factors in order to succeed. Some learn through trial and error; others from a collective village knowledge bank; others by tapping into extended neural networks of like-minded entrepreneurs.
If we want to create elegant learning models for our students in this era, we need to define the problem correctly: How do we shift our educational system to better prepare our students to acquire and use Nth Century skills that are the timeless hallmarks of success?