Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Most Important 21st Century Skill

I was in a workshop yesterday discussing elementary math centers with teachers.  We talked about Curriculum, Instructional Strategies and Assessment and making sure that centers had a basis in content and skills, either through reinforcement or through articulation of what kids are THINKING.

My colleague asked the group how they talk to their own children about school.  Most said that they just ask how school was.  My colleague said, "What if you changed that conversation?"  "What if you asked, 'What questions did you ask today?'"

I thought that was HUGE.  If we ask kids about the questions that they are asking, we're doing two things.  First, we reinforcing the fact that asking questions is important, and second, we're getting a glimpse into their metacognitive analyses. 

If kids ask questions to clarify what they are learning, expand on what they're learning or make connections to previous learning, then they are being mindful of the learning moment.  They are thinking.  They are processing.  They are NOT spitting back known answers.  They are NOT learning in a rote way.

Kids asking questions opens up a variety of avenues for discussion.  How often do we assume the "sage on the stage" mode just to get through content?  Clean and neat learning isn't learning.  We have to be prepared to "get our hands dirty," meaning that real learning is neither neat nor clean.  Real learning is active and involved and sometimes loud and sometimes messy and always engaging.

Someone said on Twitter the other day that they were concerned about the "entertainment" factor in education today.  They were concerned that teachers too often are "putting on a show" and that "drill and skill / lecture / traditional teaching methods" are still viable and essential.

I'm not saying the classroom should be a circus.  I'm saying kids should be thinking.  Kids should be doing the work.  If the teachers are doing most of the action, whether it's printing out notes, doing all the talking, doing the demonstrations, doing the presentation of all the material, then what are kids really learning?  Is all that listening and repetition going to serve them when they grow up and try to find jobs?  Or is learning how to learn, learning how to solve problems themselves, and learning how to find/evaluate resources for a specific purpose, in short, learning how to THINK, going to be the greater skill?

At this point, you may be asking yourself, "What does this have to do with a Blog about Education Technology?"

Well, everything.

The technology we are using in classes today needs to have a THINKING purpose behind it.  Are we using technology as a flashy engagement strategy, or are we really asking kids to dig deep and think about the content they are learning by using resources (like technology) to enhance the experience?  I think I've said this before, but the technology is much like a textbook.  Tools and resources will come and go, but the content and associated skills aren't going to change.  The fact that THINKING must happen around the content isn't going to change. 

Asking kids to THINK--to problem solve, to make connections, to learn how to continue learning...that's what is important. 

THINKING is the most important 21st Century Skill. 

If you need proof of that, think about what scientists are doing with technology:  Artificial Intelligence.  Computers in the future will "think" and "problem solve" and "learn."  If humans lose that skill and depend on computers to do all of their "thinking," is that really such a great thing?


  1. Ooh, "What questions did you ask today?" is great! First, it is particular enough to actually promote conversation, and second, it does Good Things (TM) for scaffolding future math behavior.

    I have a favorite conversation starter, too: "What math did you make today?"

    You can make all sorts of math: conjectures, examples, problems, pictures and stories and graphs and other representations, definitions and so on.

  2. Mike - Amen to this post!
    Far too often we lead with the technology, the tool,the skill, or the content. Imagine what would happen if we lead with thinking first!

    Starting with questions, analyzing the kinds of questions that help us move through the process more efficiently, and reflection on the questions that kept us going or want us leaving more...WOW, what a lesson that would be!

    Love it!

  3. Hey--great conversation beginning to unfold here. Thought of this post when I saw:

  4. Hey Mike,

    A middle school student once asked me--if you are the teacher and I am the student, why do you get to ask all the questions? That always stuck with me and prompted me to allow students more opportunities to ask questions.

    Thus--the Notice, Think, Wonder tool was helpful in inviting students to "Wonder" about the content we were learning.

    Of course there are always more moments that make us pause. When using this tool to help students process ambiguous text, I had a parent call me and ask me to please stop asking her son to "wonder" because she didn't know how to help him at home!!