What do educators mean when they talk about 21st century skills? If they’re referring to things like collaboration, resourcefulness, smart use of technology, and problem-solving, here’s strong evidence showing how these skills are becoming a natural part of students’ daily lives. Sharon Noguchi writes in the San Jose Mercury News about the changes student activists in the Bay Area are making in their own schools.

Exhibit A: An eighth-grade class at Renaissance Academy that’s on a mission to bring updated technology to its school. They tested all different kinds of gadgets to figure out what they need, sent out newsletters, applied and received a grant, wrote to elected officials, and created a site on Donors Choose to raise enough money to buy tech tools for the class. They’ve still got $1,700 to go, but they’re making progress — and they’ll keep the effort going despite the fact that they’re graduating this year.

Exhibit B: One junior took it upon himself to include students’ voices in changing the school-year calendar. He took a comprehensive survey and presented the results to the school board, influencing one of the trustees to vote for the students’ choice.

Exhibit C: A 13-year-old created a Facebook page to lobby to keep three of his teachers who’d been pink-slipped. He also emailed the school district’s superintendent — twice — to let his opinions be known. The outcome? Two of the three teachers’ layoff notices were rescinded.

These accounts of student empowerment and savvy exemplify what we mean when we refer to 21st century skills, and why they’re so important. Students can see how much power they have in making an impact in their own lives.

What does that take on the part of the educator?

“It required a lot of giving up control,” said the Renaissance Academy teacher. “Everything has been student done.”

  • Real World Learning is definitely key to 21st century skills. Projects that mimic the outside world no longer need to be invented by teachers. With access to technology and the freedom to pursue interests students can take charge. This was inspiring to read.

  • Andrea Lo

    How do you balance cultivating book smarts with street smarts?  This generation more than ever needs to grow up empowered to change the world and it is these very 21st century skills that are going help them do so.  Great article.

  • Sanee

    Thanks for posting this story!!  The amazing work of these young students can be found on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/user/RAAdvocacyProject#p/u/0/ddDVhDRfnkA and you can check out the student blog at http://www.arusd.org/20422011319923857/Blog/browse.asp?A=398&BMDRN=2000&BCOB=0&C=55794

    The eighth grade students at Renaissance promote to high school this Thursday, and we’d love to get their Donor’s Choose proposal funded before they leave. So, your help in speading their message is greatly appreciated. http://www.donorschoose.org/we-teach/22320 

  • Having researched ’21st-century learning’ policy in BC for my MA, I feel compelled to offer a somewhat less enthusiastic view of Barseghian’s post.

    To begin, the centrality of “skills” is a dead give-away that we’re veering into managerialism – an ideology which fetishizes inputs and outputs, efficiency, and profit.

    Pring (2004) understands this economic skills agenda as relying on “the
    bewitchment of the intelligence by a misuse of language.” Pring
    critiques the vocationalistic skills strategy by suggesting that a
    skilled philosopher is not necessarily a good philosopher. A skilled
    philosopher, for instance, may be quite adept at the mechanics of
    philosophical argumentation without actually having “anything
    philosophically interesting to say.” This critique holds for lawyers,
    authors, musicians, and other professions. Therefore, Pring suggests
    that “to focus on skills traps us into a limited language which
    transforms and impoverishes the educational enterprise.” In other words,
    there may be noble hopes animating the push for skills and embedded in
    policies, but they may actually “impoverish the educational enterprise.”

    Over and above this point, I would invite Barseghian – and anyone else interested in the ’21st-century learning’ policy agenda – to see my thesis => https://circle.ubc.ca/bitstream/handle/2429/43675/ubc_2013_spring_steeves_cory.pdf


  • Power to the people!

  • Ann S. Michaelsen

    I agree that working like this requires giving up control. But if you do, you might be amazed with the results. Like when my students and I decided to write a book together. The students stepped up and took responsibility for getting the project done. Letting them be creative and take charge really helps with motivation as well. http://plpnetwork.com/2013/05/21/connected-students-taught-motivation/

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