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Saturday, April 7, 2012

21st Century Skills

“How do we know they’re getting better?”

This is a question I started asking many years ago while working with a national educational organization. I wanted to know then if there were ways of determining if our students were getting better at critical thinking and problem solving.

One respondent commented, “I don’t think we need to be reductionist about it.” Seemed to me he thought we needed to look at students’ growth only in terms of numbers. We dropped the subject until about three years ago when I began asking the same question about what we now call 21st century capacities or skills--inquiry, problem solving, critical/creative/reflective thought and uses of technology.

Corwin has just published a book by this title focusing upon how some outstanding educators grades K-8 have been answering this quetion. They work in schools such as Partnership 21, STEM, International Baccalaureate and traditional schools.

There are many amazing stories within this new volume and one that I am especially fond of is related to an earlier post, “STEM changed my life.” Here I related the story of Karla, an eighth grade student in Pearson Middle School during her challenge with a science, technology, engineering and math project to build a better roller coaster for Cedar Point Amusement Park.

We also learned from interviewing these students on several different occasions that the most important learning was “TEAMWORK!” Virtually every student, in grades 6-8, noted how difficult this was--working in teams to solve problems.

One CEO, Carlee noted, “I like my team because were are able to bounce ideas off each other and work well to get everything done.”

Emmy said, “Working together is important because you all have to be on the same page, and if you’re not you get off task.” (Barell, 2012, How Do We Know They’re Getting Better? Assessment for 21st Century Minds, K-8, Corwin)

But not all teams were as successful. Sydney noted that “you have to learn to deal with arguments” and with those who do not participate. Some groups were able to achieve consensus. But when I asked one CEO what she did with disagreement, she replied, “I told them what we were going to do.”

When Mary Darr, the leader of the STEM projects, and other teachers realized through observations that teams weren’t working well together, she often brought them into her office and asked questions such as, “What if we follow your solution? What are the consequences?” and “How are these two ideas alike? How might we combine them?”

Mary worked with students’ struggles to build teams where collaboration was the essence, where students listened and bounced ideas off each other; built upon each other’s ideas and were able to arrive at reasonable decisions by consensus.

During subsequent team challenges their abilities to work together improved markedly.

Today, teams work in all fields of human endeavor from sports, medicine, engineering to education, and the military. What is the essence of good team work? Being able to work for the good of the group, not always feeling that one’s ideas are the best but keeping your eye on the intended outcome.

As somebody once noted, “There’s no `i’ in `team.’”

Phil Jackson, the NBA’s most successful coach observed in Sacred Hoops (1995), quoting his former NY Knick coach Red Holzman, “

The power of We is stronger power of Me.”

And, “Working with the Chicago Bulls I’ve learned that the most effect way to forge a winning team is to call on the players’ need to connect with something larger than themselves.” (p. 5)

This “something larger than themselves” might be the goals of the team--to do your best, as John Wooden coached; the desire of every family--develop its health, welfare and collective joy; the aspirations of a concerned citizenry--to preserve the essence of our democracy; the vision of an action group--to save the planet.

This might or might not be hard for Carlee and her friends to grasp, working for something larger and more significant than our own egos, our own successes, and today, how wonderful it is that there are in every walk of life people who recognize daily that power in a team’s committing to goals representing

an ideal worth striving for, the betterment of the human condition. Perhaps in every walk of life with some notable exceptions.

Carlee and her friends might just have learned life’s most important lesson.

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