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Redefining education through 21st century skills

By Staff | Sep 30, 2010


We are in the midst of significant change in the field of education. This change is centered on teaching the 21st century skills that will serve students in the ever-changing world in which they live.

This educational shift is the result of significant research by Dr. Tony Wagner, a Harvard University Graduate School of Education professor. He focused his research on discovering what common skill sets are expected of employees by the top 5,000 international corporations, including various branches of the military. After conducting surveys and interviews of incredible depth and scope, Dr. Wagner created a matrix of over 30 essential skills that are important to individuals in the modern national and international work place.

In the past, education in the United States emphasized: 1) the development of basic skills (reading, writing and mathematics) in elementary school; 2) continued development of basic skills at a higher level with more emphasis on content in middle school; and 3) heavy emphasis on content in upper school with much less focus on skill development. Students who did not develop necessary skills at any of these three levels needed successful intervention and remediation or faced the prospect of failure.

Dr. Wagner’s research supports redefining modern education to place a continuous emphasis and focus on developing well-defined skills from preschool through 12th grade. This approach is intended to make education more meaningful and pragmatic by connecting students to the real world through the regular use of real life skills, tasks, projects and experiences. Dr. Wagner’s research has also influenced colleges and universities to assess their programs in light of this more pragmatic view of higher education. Indeed, the “get in,” “get out” and “get a good job” approach has increased enrollment at many colleges. Ultimately, a focus on teaching 21st century skills will support student success in college and beyond, because these are the skills that will distinguish an individual from other applicants and other employees.

How does the teaching of 21st century skills change the educational experience of our students?

Student learning is much more active, with students assuming more responsibility for their own learning.

Assignments are outcome-based rather than time-based.

Learning is research-driven rather than textbook-driven.

Students work collaboratively with classmates and others, rather than individually and only within the four walls of a classroom.

Learning is student-centered with teachers acting as facilitators/coaches, rather than teacher-centered with the teacher as the center of attention and dispenser of all information.

The curriculum is integrated and interdisciplinary rather than taught as isolated subject areas.

Student work is assessed in many ways — through self, peer and teacher assessments as well as public presentations, rather than with the teacher acting as sole judge and no one else seeing the work.

Curriculum and instruction address student diversity, rather than ignoring diversity and assuming that teaching and learning only happen one way for all students.

In 2009, Maui Prep was extremely fortunate to be selected as a “School of the Future” by the Hawaii Community Foundation. Utilizing our HCF grant of $43,000 and building upon our solid academic curriculum, we began transforming our students’ educational experience by creating an environment that encourages student leadership, multidisciplinary project-based learning, group collaboration, personal reflection and creativity.

Our students are designing their own projects in the same format as project managers in the real world — assessing needs, writing proposals, consulting experts, creating plans, establishing timelines, projecting outcomes, enacting plans and reflecting on the end results. A second year grant of $70,000 from the Hawaii Community Foundation will allow us to expand this important initiative.

Through this process, Maui Prep students are developing skills that will make them independent, confident and competent citizens of the 21st century.