Educational and business leaders want today's students both to master school subjects and to excel in areas such as problem solving, critical thinking, and communication -- abilities often referred to by such labels as "deeper learning" and "21st-century skills." In contrast to the view that these are general skills that can be applied across a range of tasks in academic, workplace, or family settings, a new report from the National Research Council found that 21st-century skills are specific to content knowledge and performance within a particular subject area. The report describes how this set of key skills relates to learning mathematics, English, and science as well as to succeeding in education, work, and other areas of life.
Deeper learning is the process through which a person develops the ability to take what was learned in one situation and apply it to new situations, says the report. Through deeper learning, the person develops transferable knowledge, which includes both expertise in a particular subject area and procedural knowledge of how, why, and when to apply this knowledge to solve unique problems in that subject. The report refers to this blend of transferable content knowledge and skills as "21st-century competencies."
The committee that wrote the report identified three broad categories of 21st-century competencies: the cognitive domain, which includes thinking and reasoning skills; the intrapersonal domain, which involves managing one's behavior and emotions; and the interpersonal domain, which involves expressing ideas and communicating appropriately with others. Supporting deeper learning and developing the full range of 21st-century competencies within mathematics, English, and science will require systematic instruction and sustained practice, which calls for instructional time and resources beyond what is currently spent on content learning, the report says.
Research has identified features of instruction that support the process of deeper learning and therefore the development of transferable knowledge and skills in a given subject area. Curricula and instructional programs should be designed with a focus on clear learning goals along with assessments to measure students' progress toward and attainment of the goals, the report says. These programs should feature research-based teaching methods such as using multiple and varied representations of concepts, encouraging elaboration and questioning, engaging learners in challenging tasks while also providing guidance and feedback, teaching with examples and cases, connecting topics to students' lives and interests, and using assessments that monitor students' progress and provide feedback for adjusting teaching and learning strategies.
Goals for deeper learning and 21st-century competencies are found in the new Common Core State Standards for mathematics and English language arts and the National Research Council's Framework for K-12 Science Education. All three disciplines emphasize the development of cognitive competencies such as critical thinking, problem solving, and argumentation, but differ in their interpretation of these competencies. For example, the rules for constructing an argument and what counts as supporting evidence are different for physics than they are for history or essay writing. Research and development is needed to create and evaluate new curricula for 21st-century competencies and to more clearly define and develop assessments of cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal competencies, says the report.
Because 21st-century competencies contribute to learning of school subjects, widespread development of those competencies in the K-12 curriculum could potentially reduce disparities in educational attainment and other outcomes, the report suggests. But the committee found that research to date linking 21st-century competencies to desirable education, career, and health outcomes is limited and primarily correlational and does not show causal effects.
Cognitive competencies, however, show consistent, positive correlations with desirable educational and career outcomes, the committee found. Among intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies, conscientiousness -- being organized, responsible, and hard-working -- shows the strongest correlation, while antisocial behavior is negatively correlated with these desirable outcomes. The committee also found that the total number of years a person spends in school strongly predicts adult earnings, health, and civic engagement, suggesting that schooling develops a poorly understood mix of valuable 21st-century competencies.
The report recommends that state and federal policies and programs support deeper learning and acquisition of 21st-century competencies, including efforts to help teachers and administrators understand the role of these competencies in learning core academic content and create environments that support students' learning of these skills.
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