Monday, November 5, 2012

Well hello 21st Century, how long have you been standing there?

“21st century breakdown
I once was lost but never was found
I think I am losing what's left of my mind 
To the 20th century deadline…” 
- Green Day

I’m not a big fan of the phrase, “21st Century skills” and it’s used quite often in the education world.  For example, you might hear someone say, “We need to teach kids 21st century skills.”  You will also find, “We will need students to graduate with 21st century skills.” 

One reason why I don’t like the phrase is because I’m not really sure what century we’re in right now and that’s a little embarrassing.  I also don’t like it because it implies some set of skills students will need in the future.  I contend that students need these skills right now and they need to start building them as soon as they get to school.

You find variations of this list of skills in numerous places.  The Partnership for 21st Century Skills uses names like “learning and innovation” skills or “life and career” skills.  My friend Tony Wagner calls them “survival skills” in The Global Achievement Gap and includes elements like “critical thinking and problem solving,” and “effective oral and written communication” skills.  There isn’t just one correct list, they are all appropriate.  In my talks, I break them down into four themes (which of course include elements of all types of skills).  I call them communication, collaboration, problem solving, and analyzing and assessing information.  I’m not going to cover all four here (that would be a very long post) but I’ll start with the first one, communication.  I will follow up with the other topics in future posts, maybe in the 21st century!


How we communicate has evolved over time and in the last 20 years, it has dramatically changed.  In the last five years, it’s just been transformed.  When she started college, my daughter and I had to have a communication meeting.  We were having so many misunderstandings and communication fails that we had to come up with a system to deal with the expectations we had for each other.  This wasn’t an issue when I was in college.   When I had to communicate with my mother, I had one choice with three potential outcomes.  I walked over to the hallway payphone to place a long distance phone call.  The first potential outcome was that she picked up the phone and I talked to her.  The second one was a busy signal, and I just hung up.  The third option was pretty much like the second one.  If she wasn’t home, the phone rang and rang, and eventually I hang up (she didn’t have a máquina). 

My daughter and I had a much more complex system to work through.  If it’s information she thinks I need but does not require immediate attention, she emails me (i.e., here are my classes and tuition is due next month.)  If it’s information she wants to share, wants feedback on, or needs my attention that day, she texts me (i.e., hey when you get a chance, let me know if we are going shopping this weekend, I need stuff.)  If she needs my immediate attention, she calls me and if I don’t answer, she follows up with a text (i.e., I need money in my account, I’m starving!)  And how does she find out where I am in the world at any given moment?  Yes, she checks my Google+, Facebook, or Twitter status.  By the way, for those of you who are “friends” with your kids, have you talked about expectations?  I am sure your daughter has given you the, “mom, please do not post any comments to my status updates” plea.  Have you set your communication expectations with your kid?  Are you going to wait until she posts a status like, “have to take my mother to her doctor’s appointment.  She is getting warts removed from her feet and I have to drive her.”  How we communicate matters and it will continue to be even more important.

I remember thinking about how communication was changing during my senior year in college.  You see, I was from the WordPerfect 5.1 generation.  I saw the new Windows 3.1 being adopted by the underclassmen and I was so thankful to be getting out of there!  I didn’t think I would be capable of managing the new communication expectations that were going to come with those new capabilities.  I was a dot matrix printer communicator, with lots of words and maybe a few tables.  I was an overhead projector presenter, where I would type big WordPerfect words and copy them onto overhead transparency paper.  I would hand draw pie charts with my trusty Sharpie marker.  I didn’t think that would be acceptable in the new Windows 3.1 world.

I assumed students would be required to have professional looking presentations with pictures and sound and other elements I didn’t have the skill set for.  They would be colorful and vibrant.  As this capability grew, I believed the expectations would grow more intense.  By the time my daughter was in high school, I thought she would be expected to have a live interview with the researcher she was writing about in the middle of her presentation.

The truth is we haven’t really raised the bar on communication and haven’t taken in all the technological and social changes that have taken place in.  Every semester, I am asked by a fellow professor (yes, I teach classes at ASU every couple of semesters) who teaches an MBA class at ASU.  Each semester, a group of students are assigned the Google business case and they are required to do a class presentation on it.  I sit in as their guest and help review their presentation and answer questions.  What happens during the presentation stopped surprising me many semesters ago because it happens every time.  This class of MBAs who are supposed to be the future leaders of industry takes the business case, regurgitates it point by point in 20 slides, each with six bullet points.  In other words, they present their WordPerfect made transparency paper on an overhead projector.  Talk about automating bad communication.

Our students need to effectively express themselves.  They need to learn how to write complete complex sentences.  They need to create original thought and learn how to share it in everything from full blown white papers through 140 character tweets.  They need to learn how to get effective feedback in various formats.  They need to learn how to take complex ideas and communicate them to multiple audiences, including considerations for global meaning and cultural differences.  They need to learn to communicate using varies media and develop strategies for how to send out effective targeted communication. 

These skills have to be built into the new learning models we are creating.  We don’t have to teach them as separate lessons.  It is about time that we raise the communication expectations of our students.