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Would You Hire Your Own Kids? 7 Skills Schools Should be Teaching Them

Schools aren't teaching the skills our kids need. Why?

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There are none, and the groups quickly go to work. There is a great deal of animated discussion within all of the groups as they take the problem apart and talk about different ways to solve it. While they work, the teacher circulates from group to group. Occasionally, a student will ask a question, but the teacher never answers it. Instead, he either asks another question in response, such as “have you considered…?” or “why did you assume that?” or simply “have you asked someone in your group?”

What are some of the design elements that make this an effective lesson—a lesson in which students are, in fact, learning a number of the Seven Survival Skills, while also mastering academic content? First, students are given a complex, multi-step problem that is different from the ones they’ve seen in the past and, to solve it, they have to apply previously acquired knowledge from both geometry and algebra. Mere memorization won’t get them very far in this lesson; critical thinking and problem-solving skills are required. Second, they have to find two ways to solve the problem, which requires some initiative and imagination. Just getting the correct answer isn’t good enough; they have to explain their proofs—using effective communication skills. Third, the teacher does not spoon feed students the answers; he uses questions to push students’ thinking—as well as their tolerance for ambiguity. Finally, because the teacher has said that he’ll randomly call on a student to show how the group solved the problem, each student in every group is held accountable. The group can’t rely on the work of one or two students to get by, and the teacher isn’t going to just call on the first student to raise a hand or shout out an answer. Teamwork is required for success.

“Rigor” Redefined

Increasingly in American schools today, there is only one curriculum: test prep. Assessment drives instruction—for better or for worse. And when most of the tests are multiple choice and require mainly memorization of facts—it’s definitely for the worse. It is the rare teacher—like the one whom I described above—who is willing to risk teaching students to think versus merely drilling what must be covered for the test. Of the classes that I’ve observed, fewer than one in twenty met this criterion, unless you are in one of the exceptional schools I describe later in the book where teaching all students “habits of mind” is the curriculum.

Even in our best schools, we are teaching kids to memorize much more than to think. And in the 21st century, mere memorization won’t get you very far. There’s too much information, and it’s changing and growing exponentially. Besides, most of the information we need is readily available on the nearest computer or PDA screen—provided we know how to access and analyze it. Where in the 20th century, rigor meant mastering more—and more complex—academic content, 21st century rigor is about creating new knowledge and applying what you know to new problems and situations.

All over the country, I see schools that are succeeding at making AYP but failing our students. We are not teaching or testing the skills that our students need for college, careers, or citizenship. These skills have, in fact, converged, but they are rarely the focus of work in classrooms. In order for this change to occur, we must first re-define excellent instruction. Excellent teaching is not a check list of teacher behaviors and a model lesson that covers content standards. It is working with colleagues to ensure mastery by all students of the skills they need to succeed as lifelong learners, workers, and citizens. I have yet to talk to a recent graduate or a college teacher or a community leader who said not knowing enough academic content was a problem. In my interviews, everyone talked about the importance of critical thinking, communication skills, and collaboration.

We need to use academic content as a means of teaching the Seven Survival Skills every day—in every grade level and every class. The Seven Survival Skills can and must be tested through a combination of locally developed assessments and new nationally-normed, online tests such as the College and Work Readiness Assessment, which measures students’ analytic reasoning, critical thinking, problem-solving, and writing skills.

It is time to hold ourselves and all of our students to a new and higher standard of rigor—one that is defined according to 21st century criteria. It is time for our profession to advocate for accountability systems that will enable us to teach and test the skills that matter most. Our students’ futures—and the future of our country—are at stake.