Today's Boston Globe contained two interesting pieces on so-called 21st-century skills.


I say "so-called" not because I doubt the value of these skills, but rather, take some exception to their being so labeled.

In November of 2007, I attended the "A New Day for Schools" conference held at the UMass Boston campus. As part of the agenda, I sat in on a session entitled, "Integrating 21st Century Skills: Deepening Learning Opportunities and Student Engagement."

A panelist who worked for Intel spoke of the "employment gap:" those skills valued by employers but too often missing from job candidates (based on a national study of 400 companies).
1. Professionalism/work ethic
2. Written/spoken communication
3. Teamwork/collaboration
4. Critical thinking/problem solving

This list aligns well with the skills cited in the Globe editorial ("media literacy, critical thinking, and working in groups;" "reasoning and problem solving") and the Globe op-ed ("Think strategically. Use technology. Work collaboratively. Communicate effectively. Recognize how the world around you connects with everything else;" "problem-solving, financial and business literacy, global awareness, and innovation").

The editorial isn't so much against these "soft" skills as it is cautious about how teaching them might displace "hard" academics. In particular, the piece lauds how well Massachusetts students perform against the best international students, counseling the state Board of Education to "protect these hard-won gains." The editorial concludes: "Teachers and parents across the state just don't know enough about 21st-century skills. The unnerving part is that the proponents don't seem to know much more."

For its part, the op-ed piece cites a report by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education's Task Force on 21st Century Skills. That report spells out in some detail how to integrate these skills into the K-12 curriculum. The op-ed piece ends: "This is hard work, and must be done in a careful, thoughtful way, but it must be done."

Like so much in life and education, common sense tells us that an appropriate balance must be found between the poorly-named "hard" and "soft" skills. For my part, as an employer, I prefer to help employees with strong "process" skills (of the 21st-century variety, which in my opinion include reading, writing, and math) acquire "content" than I do the converse.

To that end--both employment narrowly and citizenship more broadly--I continue to encourage the Wayland Public Schools and its administration to keep raising the bar regarding the thoughtful (and where possible, evidence-based) integration of "process" and "content." I'm curious to hear the thoughts of others on this topic.