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Basics v. 2.0 (21st century skills)

A common myth about “21st century skills” is that today’s students no longer need to learn traditional academic content. “Why do you need to know ‘that stuff,’” the argument goes, “if you can look it up on Google?”

It’s tempting to think that today’s schools should focus just on the latest technology and add in some thinking skills. But research has shown such an approach would be wrong for a number of reasons:

  • Cognitive scientists have found that a broad vocabulary and sufficient background knowledge about the world—the kind of things students learn in science and social studies classes, for example—are hugely important for strong reading comprehension.
  • Higher-paying companies that invest in training their workers are particularly likely to screen for applicants who already have basic reading and math skills.
  • Being able to think critically about something or creatively solve a particular problem (crucial skills in today’s workplace) requires sufficient background knowledge about the topic. Since creativity is about making connections across domains of knowledge, it’s impossible unless a student knows enough about different subjects in the first place.

The research base is particularly strong for math. For example, research has shown that taking higher level math courses leads to greater success both in college and on the job. In fact, a study by the research group Mathematica found that having stronger math skills was a better predictor of future success than having good work habits.

But it’s not just math that matters. Other researchers link mastery of the arts and humanities to high earnings as well. In a report by the Skills Commission, they conclude, “Mastery of the arts and humanities is just as closely correlated with high earnings, and, according to our analysis, that will continue to be true….History, music, drawing and painting, and economics will give our students an edge just as surely as math and science will.”

Finally, these findings hold true no matter a student’s career path. According to a 2004 report by the American Diploma Project in 2004, all students, whether heading to college or pursuing a well-paying career, need the same level of knowledge in the “foundational subjects” of English and mathematics.

But while students still need the basics, they need a different version of the basics. Call it “Basics v. 2.0”: not just academic knowledge and skills, but also “practical literacies”—knowing how to use the knowledge in real life. In the past, these analytic and reasoning skills were typically associated with high school honors courses. Finally, students will need “broader competencies”—the flexibility, ability to collaborate, and creativity required to tackle challenges.

How does all this fit together? Picture a sphere with many layers. The outer layer is competencies—broader skills like problem solving and teamwork—which often draw upon practical literacies, which in turn draw upon foundational or “core,” knowledge and skills.

For more, see Foundational knowledge and skills in the full report, Defining a 21st century education.

This summary was based on a work by Craig D. Jerald. Craig D. Jerald is president of Break the Curve Consulting, specializing in education policy, communications, research, and practice. Previously, Craig was a Principal Partner at the Education Trust, where he worked on issues related to teacher quality, accountability, federal education policy, and the practices of high-performing schools and districts. Craig was also a Senior Editor at Education Week, where he founded and managed the organization’s research division and helped create Ed Week’s special annual reports series, Quality Counts and Technology Counts.

Posted: September 21, 2009

©2009 Center for Public Education

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