An emerging body of research suggests that a set of broad “21st century skills”—such as adaptability, complex communication skills, and the ability to solve nonroutine problems—are valuable across a wide range of jobs in the national economy (Levy and Murnane, 2004; National Research Council, 2008a). However, the role of K-12 education in helping students learn these skills is a subject of current debate. Some business and education groups have advocated infusing 21st century skills into the school curriculum, and several states have launched such efforts (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2009a; Sawchuk, 2009). Other observers argue that focusing on skills detracts attention from learning of important content knowledge (Mathews, 2009; Ravitch, 2009).
To explore these issues, the National Institutes of Health Office of Science Education and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills requested the National Research Council Board on Science Education to conduct a workshop on science education as a context for development of 21st century skills. Science is seen as a promising context because it is not only a body of accepted knowledge, but also involves processes that lead to this knowledge. Engaging students in scientific processes—including talk and argument, modeling and representation, and learning from investigations—builds science proficiency (National Research Council, 2007a). At the same time, this engagement may develop 21st century skills. For example, developing and presenting an argument based on empirical evidence, as well as posing appropriate questions about others’ arguments, may develop complex communication skills and nonroutine problem-solving skills. The sponsors charged the Board on Science Education to:
Plan and conduct a public workshop to explore the intersection of science education and 21st century skills. This activity will build upon the work of a previous workshop held in May of 2007, which focused on the identification of 21st century workforce skills and the available evidence in support of that identification process.
Among the questions to guide the steering committee in their planning process are the following:
How much overlap is there between the 21st century skills that evidence suggests may be critical for future workforce needs and the knowledge and abilities that are the focus of current efforts to reform science education, particularly those reforms based on developmental psychology and cognitive science?
What are the unique domain-specific aspects of science, as well as the conventions and practices of science itself, that appear to hold promise for developing potential 21st century workforce abilities?
What are the promising models or approaches for teaching these abilities in science education settings? What, if any, evidence is available about the effectiveness of those models?
What is known about transferability of these abilities to real workplace applications? What might have to change in terms of learning experiences to achieve a reasonable level of skill transfer?
The Board on Science Education convened an expert planning committee, chaired by Arthur Eisenkraft (University of Massachusetts, Boston), to design and conduct the workshop. As a first step to meet its charge to build on the May 2007 workshop, the planning committee and staff developed preliminary definitions of five 21st century skills that emerged as important at the earlier workshop (see Box 1-1):
complex communication/social skills,
nonroutine problem-solving skills,
Research suggests that these five skills are increasingly valuable in the workplace. Autor, Levy, and Murnane (2003), economists who studied changes over time in job tasks throughout the national economy, found that computers were eliminating tasks that involve solving routine problems or communicating straightforward information. Based on this analysis, Levy and Murnane (2004) conclude that nonroutine problem-solving skills and complex communication and social skills are increasingly valuable in the labor market. Papers prepared for the May 2007 workshop
Preliminary Definitions of 21st Century Skills
provided evidence that these two skills and adaptability, self-management/self-development, and systems thinking are important in the rapidly growing sector of “knowledge work.” For example, electrical engineers in sales often work at client sites, where they must adapt to a new work culture and apply systems thinking and complex communication skills to gain understanding of client needs and identify systems solutions tailored to meet them (Darr, 2007).
At the other end of the occupational spectrum, ethnographic and survey research indicates that low-wage service workers, such as restaurant servers, require adaptability and nonroutine problem-solving skills to meet the needs and desires of unique customers (Gatta, Boushey, and Appelbaum, 2007). Low-wage workers with higher levels of communication and problem-solving skills earn higher wages and are more likely to be promoted than those with lower levels of these skills (Maxwell, 2006). The elimination of layers of management across the economy has increased demand for individuals with self-management/self-development skills (Houston, 2007).
These definitions were provided to the background paper authors as a starting point for their reviews of various aspects of science education, with the understanding that they could modify or reinterpret the definitions as appropriate in the context of science education. The authors were allowed flexibility, because the definitions themselves are multidimensional. For example, the definition of complex communication/social skills and nonroutine problem-solving skills in Levy and Murnane (2004) is based not only on a quantitative analysis of shifts in job tasks but also on cognitive science. In their view, both of these skills involve expertise to discern patterns in a broad span of information and metacognition, the ability to reflect on whether a problem-solving or communication strategy is working, and to revise it if necessary. Similarly, the broad skill of self-management/self-development includes dimensions related to motivation and monitoring and regulating one’s own learning. Although the definitions are presented in the context of the workplace, as they emerged from the May 2007 workshop, later chapters of this report indicate that dimensions of the five skills are valuable in learning generally, including science learning.
As a second step in creating a framework for the workshop, the planning committee considered how to interpret its charge, specifically the four questions that were “among the questions to guide the steering committee in their planning process.” After discussion, the committee decided that the workshop would not fully address Question 4, which focuses on the transferability of 21st century skills to workplace applications.1
This decision reflects the fact that research on science learning has moved away from an earlier focus on domain-general reasoning strategies that may be transferable across different content areas (e.g., Inhelder and Piaget, 1958; Kuhn and Phelps, 1982). Researchers now view science learning as a complex process involving knowledge of the specific natural phenomena being studied, along with general reasoning strategies and an understanding of how scientific explanations are generated (National Research Council, 2007a). The planning committee’s decision also reflects
recent research indicating that transfer is much more than simply taking knowledge and skills learned in one domain and applying them to another; instead, it is an active process that involves ongoing learning, sometimes in collaboration with others (e.g., Bransford and Schwartz, 1999). The planning committee elaborated the other questions in the charge, to arrive at a list of guiding questions for the workshop (see Box 1-2).
The planning committee used this list of questions to define topics for the background papers and structure the workshop agenda. Each workshop session was designed to address one or more of the guiding questions, and the agenda generally followed the order of the questions in this list (see Appendix A).
The structure of this report follows the structure of the workshop agenda. This chapter continues with the remarks that opened the workshop, followed by a summary of the panel discussion of demand for 21st century skills. Chapters 2 through 7 describe subsequent workshop sessions, summarizing both the presentations and the discussions. The final chapter includes a synthesis and summarizes participants’ and committee members’ reflections on the workshop.
Workshop Guiding Questions
OPENING REMARKS AND PARTICIPANTS’ INITIAL COMMENTS
Carlo Parravano (Merck Institute for Science Education) opened the workshop by thanking the sponsors for their desire to build educational programs on a strong research base. He explained that the workshop builds on earlier activities sponsored by the National Institutes of Health Office of Science Education, including a planning meeting on education for 21st century skills in 20052 and the May 2007 Workshop on Research Evidence Related to Future Skill Demands (National Research Council, 2008a).
Bruce Fuchs (National Institutes of Health Office of Science Education) observed that the 2007 workshop had engaged economists and labor market researchers in looking ahead to try to see what kinds of skill sets the national economy would require in the near future (National Research Council, 2008a). Describing his plans to support a future workshop on assessment of 21st century skills, he cautioned that the assessments used by private industry to measure these skills are too labor-intensive and expensive for use by school districts. Referring to what he sees as a backlash against 21st century skills, Fuchs contested two arguments. First, although he agreed with critics who argue that so-called 21st century creative thinking and collaboration were actually needed in Plato’s time (Mathews, 2009), Fuchs suggested that this is not an important topic to argue about. Second, disputing the argument that focusing on skills leads to content-free teaching (Rotherham, 2008), Fuchs asserted, “We at the NIH want kids to have lots and lots of science content.” However, he noted that this criticism does point toward important questions about which skill sets developed in science education may be domain-specific and which may be transferable to workplace problems.
Eisenkraft observed that, although he had previously been unaware of 21st century skills, he found that, as he read about demand for them (Levy and Murnane, 2004; National Research Council, 2008a), he began to see these skills everywhere. He noted that the National Science Teachers Association and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills had created a task force to develop a map of such skills in science. Eisenkraft then listed the skills used as a framework for the conference (see Box 1-1). He suggested several reasons why these skills may be uniquely important now.
In the area of communication skills, the growing diversity of the U.S. student population poses new communication challenges. Eisenkraft gave the example that earth science and physics textbooks often refer to waves on a beach, yet many students in the Boston Public Schools have never actually been to the beach. Similarly, chemistry books, when discussing the concept of balancing a chemical equation, often suggest that it is similar
to baking brownies, in which one combines certain amounts of various ingredients. Most students today purchase brownies and are unfamiliar with baking, Eisenkraft said. The world of people adding and mixing measured ingredients to make brownies, he said, “is not the America we live in,” yet textbook authors assume it is when they try to communicate with students. Although communication and problem-solving skills have always been important, Eisenkraft went on, society now wants everyone to have these skills, not just an educated elite. This may be another reason to focus on developing 21st century skills.
At the same time, however, Eisenkraft identified important unanswered questions, especially the question of definitions. He gave the example of widespread enthusiasm about the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996), which masked different understandings of the meaning of these education standards. Some textbook publishers quickly claimed that their textbooks already met all of the new standards, although, in Eisenkraft’s view, the “visionary” standards document called for far-reaching changes in textbooks. Similarly, he said, a term such as “nonroutine problem solving” may mean different things to different people.
In another example of the importance of definitions, Eisenkraft said that science teachers often claim to use an “inquiry” approach to teaching. He described two quite different classrooms he observed in a recent visit to a school district. In one, the teacher lectured about the history of the theory of the atom, never mentioning that the atomic model had been revised over time on the basis of new evidence. When Eisenkraft asked why he never mentioned a model or evidence, the teacher replied that it was because he was using an inquiry approach. In the other classroom, the teacher engaged the students in a science activity and circulated around the room, but she did not talk with them or ask questions. When Eisenkraft asked why she had not used the opportunity to pose questions about the concepts being studied, she replied that it was because she was using an inquiry approach. Eisenkraft said that, while both of these teachers embrace the notion of inquiry, neither of them uses an inquiry approach as he understands it.
Eisenkraft asked whether science education may already be supporting development of 21st century skills. As a science textbook author, he said, he has never focused on such a goal, yet he wonders if he may have inadvertently incorporated them into his textbooks. He said this question would be explored at the workshop. And he asked what changes in science education might be required if 21st century skills were accepted as an important goal. Finally, he asked whether, if many young people developed these skills, this would advance the goals of science education, such as increasing scientific literacy among the public (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993). As an example of how science education goals might be
advanced, Eisenkraft asked, “Would fewer people believe that aliens had visited the earth? Would more people believe in evolution?”
An Interactive Workshop
Eisenkraft introduced a tool for soliciting participants’ ideas: carbon-less notebooks that were distributed at the start of the workshop. He and other panel moderators would invite participants to write down their reflections at designated times, he said, and the planning committee would like to review their written comments in order to understand what the audience was thinking. He noted that some of the written reflections might be used without attribution in the summary report.
Eisenkraft then invited the audience to participate in a KWL process (Ogle, 1986), designed to encourage reflection and learning, in which K stands for what one knows, W for what one wants to know, and L for what one has learned. He asked participants to divide the first notebook page into three sections: “what I know, what I think I know, and what I would like to know about the intersection of 21st century skills and science education.” After giving participants time to fill out these initial thoughts, Eisenkraft asked for volunteers to share what they had written. Their comments included the following:
I think I know the meaning of the five skills, but I would like to know the components of each in more detail.
How would classroom science teaching have to change in order to develop these skills, and what would be needed to support such change?
My grandchildren, ages 2 and 6, already know much more than I did at those ages, demonstrating the rapid pace of change. Although we might have some idea of the skills needed in 2020, we have no clue of the skills required in 2099.
Do parents, students, and science educators understand the critical importance of these skills in innovation and engineering?
I know that the 21st century is different, I think I know that the government doesn’t contribute very well to developing 21st century skills, and I want to learn about the policy implications of the need for these skills.
Kids need better science knowledge to make informed decisions.
Why has there been no discussion of the first 5 years of life, when much development takes place?
I think that 21st century skills are important for individual success, but is science the best subject to develop them?
Is science “enough” to support development of 21st century skills? How might the skills be integrated into other school subjects?
Darwin’s development of the theory of natural selection, based on close observation of animals, is “a great example of 21st century skills back in the 19th century.” Complex scientific thinking skills have always been for a small, elite group, but what will happen when science educators try to develop them among all students?
DEMAND FOR 21ST CENTURY SKILLS
Session 1, moderated by William Bonvillian (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), focused on how the five skills manifest themselves in job performance. Bonvillian introduced the panel members: Emily DeRocco, (Manufacturing Institute of the National Association of Manufacturers and former assistant secretary of labor), Janis Houston (Personnel Decisions Research Institute), and Ken Kay (Partnership for 21st Century Skills).
DeRocco reframed the issue to focus on how the skills manifest themselves in company performance. A survey of manufacturers conducted by her association (Deloitte Development, 2005) found that 80 percent reported shortages of skilled employees across all occupations in their firms. In terms of the kinds of skills needed, the respondents most frequently cited basic employability skills, including attendance, timeliness, and work ethic; problem-solving skills; and reading, writing, and communication skills. These skill clusters are quite similar to self-management/self-development, nonroutine problem solving, and complex communication skills, respectively.
DeRocco said that manufacturers responding to a recent survey view innovation as integral to company growth, competitiveness, and shareholder value (Andrew, DeRocco, and Taylor, 2009). Survey respondents indicated that the education and skills of the workforce are the single most critical element of successful innovation, while also reporting a lack of skilled workers.
DeRocco argued that companies whose workforces lack 21st century skills are at a disadvantage in dealing with such challenges as the convergence of technology and manufacturing and the need to quickly move new products to market to beat the intense global competition. This is why, she said, manufacturers believe it is imperative to better educate the workforce not only in science, but also in 21st century skills.
Kay described a report on young people’s readiness for work (Casner-Lotto and Barrington, 2006). Over 400 business executives and managers were asked to rank the relative importance of 20 skills and fields of knowledge to the job success of new workforce entrants at three education levels: high school, two-year college or technical school, and four-year college. The
respondents ranked three skills among the top five most important skills and fields of knowledge for all three groups of new entrants: (1) professionalism/work ethic, (2) teamwork/collaboration, and (3) oral communication. In comparison, science knowledge was ranked 17th in importance in the list of 20 skills and fields of knowledge for high school graduates and 16th in importance for two- and four-year college graduates. When asked which skills and knowledge fields would become even more important over the following five years, critical thinking/problem solving, information technology application, teamwork/collaboration, and creativity/innovation were at the top of the list, and science knowledge was ranked 16th in growing importance.
To support the earlier point that focusing on 21st century skills need not reduce attention to content knowledge, Kay described a collaboration between the business community and the public school system in North Carolina, one of the states that has joined the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. In response to concerns about workforce preparation expressed by the state’s life science industry, the North Carolina state education department engaged educational psychologist John Bransford to develop a new assessment of genetics knowledge and skills. Bransford drew on a certification exam for genetics counselors, revising both the content knowledge of genetics and genetic diseases and also the skill requirements to make them appropriate for the tenth grade level. Bransford and colleagues embedded this content and skills in a new type of assessment that challenges students to learn genetics by engaging them in playing the role of genetics counselors in different scenarios.3 The new assessment, Kay said, “does away with this dichotomy between content and skills,” because it simultaneously requires deep content knowledge and 21st century skills.
Houston responded to the question of how the five broad skills in Box 1-1 manifest themselves in job performance by first explaining her role as a corporate consultant. She and her colleagues help companies develop employment tests, establish standardized job expectations for use in performance appraisals, and define the critically important competencies4 for successful performance across jobs in a corporation. When she reviewed her firm’s recent reports in these three areas on such major companies as IBM, American Express, Microsoft, Best Buy, and Verizon, she was surprised to see how frequently the five broad skills appeared. Although these compa-
nies use somewhat different terminology, she said, the underlying skills are the same.
Houston gave some examples of the specific work behaviors that she has used as job performance standards or expectations for each of several competencies identified as critically important for the corporations she works with. She first described the “drive to achieve” competency, which includes such work behaviors/performance standards as setting and accomplishing difficult project goals, motivation to produce work of world-class quality, and staying focused and persistent in overcoming obstacles. These behaviors, she said, reflect “self-management/self-development, with a bit of adaptability.” Next, she presented the competency “taking ownership,” which includes taking responsibility for difficult or unpopular tasks, working effectively and productively without a lot of supervision, and accepting responsibility for one’s own mistakes. Although the language is somewhat different, she said, these behaviors, too, are manifestations of the skill of self-management/self-development.
Noting that a number of companies have some kind of collaboration or communication competency that is clearly linked to complex communication skills, Houston listed the job performance expectations set for these competencies:
Building, maintaining, and using a network of colleagues to increase productivity;
Demonstrating a good understanding of coworkers’ points of view and working with them;
Demonstrating a thorough knowledge of the matrix structure when collaborating;
Presenting complex technical information to nontechnical audiences in an understandable way; and
Matching the mode of communication to the requirements of the situation.
Houston then listed several examples of job performance expectations she developed for the competency of nonroutine problem solving:
Suggesting improvements to standard operating procedures that enhance quality and efficiency,
Using difficult or novel problems as opportunities to innovate,
Finding creative solutions to problems others have been unable to solve,
Finding innovative ways of improving productivity with fewer resources, and
Thinking beyond paradigms and methods when necessary to solve problems.
Among the five skills, Houston said, systems thinking is somewhat harder to define, but she identified some job performance standards she has developed that clearly apply to systems thinking:
Learning and understanding how one’s own work responsibility fits into the larger company’s strategy, values, and goals;
Understanding how one’s own work might affect other groups and organizations; and
Investigating issues or situations from multiple perspectives to get a more complete picture.
Bonvillian observed that the three panelists had clearly described real employer demands for talents and capabilities. Their remarks demonstrate that 21st century skills are not just an abstract theory and that this workshop has real “on the ground implications,” he said. He then asked the panelists to describe what has changed in the business environment that makes these skills more important, critical, or valuable for individuals and companies than in the past.
DeRocco responded that, when she was assistant secretary of labor for employment and training, she worked with industry associations to develop models of the key competencies required in several sectors, including advanced manufacturing, energy, information technology, health care, construction, and hospitality. The core academic and workplace competencies that make up the foundation of these pyramid-shaped models (State of Minnesota, 2009) are quite similar to the five skills, including adaptability, speaking/presentation and listening skills, problem solving and decision making, and motivation. DeRocco said that, in a recent meeting to discuss these models, employer representatives were struck by the fact that the core academic and workplace competencies were exactly the same across sectors. They viewed this shared demand as an opportunity to assist workers laid off in one industry sector because of the current downturn to transition to another sector—provided the workers have the core competencies.
Returning to Bonvillian’s question about change, DeRocco said the education system has become more focused on abstract, theoretical knowledge and has lost the core competencies needed in the workplace. Kay added that the flattening of organizations means that individuals lacking in self-management skills are not employable. He said he has seen teachers develop self-management skills through writing assignments that require students to set goals, assess their own progress, and improve the quality of their own work.
Kay said that the shift of employment out of manufacturing and agriculture and into the service sector, which now accounts for 86 percent of all jobs (Franklin, 2007), is another change increasing demand for 21st century skills. He described a paper presented at the May 2007 workshop about the rapidly growing number of degreed engineers who are working in sales (Darr, 2007). The paper indicates that engineers selling computer applications require communication, sales, and networking skills, along with their technical knowledge, and proposes that the most rapidly growing jobs in the U.S. labor market should be called “techno-service” occupations, because they require both technical knowledge and service-oriented communication skills (Darr, 2007).
Houston added another driver of increased demand for 21st century skills—mergers and acquisitions, which create larger, more diversified companies, requiring employees with adaptability and complex communication skills. Systems thinking is also required, as technical, sales, and service employees more often collaborate, work in teams, and share responsibility for customer satisfaction.5
Agreeing with DeRocco that new technology is driving increased demand for 21st century skills, Houston said that one way technology does this is by enabling remote work. At IBM, for example, she encountered individuals who had worked for the same supervisor for five years without ever meeting in person. Remote workers participating in virtual teams need communication skills to select the most appropriate mode of communication, such as knowing when to pick up the phone instead of sending e-mail. For remote workers, self-management/self-development is critical, she said.
Reiterating Kay’s point that firms have restructured and eliminated layers of management, Houston observed that this has increased demand for a particular kind of problem solving. In the past, she said, companies said they needed creativity or innovation, but now they ask for “innovative solutions that work … within the infrastructure of the organization or that are cost-effective.” Houston suggested that this growing demand reflects the reality that creative experts are no longer isolated in research and development departments but have become part of larger teams that share responsibility for developing practical solutions to business problems.
Kay added that the accelerating pace of change, the result of global competition, is another factor increasing demand for 21st century skills. Bonvillian noted that, as science and technology advance, the content will change from year to year, so the ability to master content (self-development) may become more important than knowledge of particular content. He then invited the audience to reflect on what they had learned and what they
wanted to know, using their notebooks. Participants’ written comments are summarized in Table 1-1.
In response to Bonvillian’s call to share the written reflections, a teacher shared her concerns about her students’ employment prospects. She said she sees her former students working at places like discount retail stores, making such low salaries that many are forced to work two or three jobs. They do not receive any direction or management or job training, she asserted. She asked what the incentive was for students to think about 21st century skills, when the workplace does not seem to encourage the use of these skills or help to develop them.
Another participant suggested that the government ought to demand 21st century skills and asked whether it was agile enough to do so. Houston responded that her consulting work for many different federal agencies has identified demand for such skills. Eisenkraft returned to Bonvillian’s point about the change in science and technology content. While agreeing that scientific knowledge changes, he observed that organizing principles allow
TABLE 1-1 Participant Responses to the Discussion of Demand for 21st Century Skills
fields of science to incorporate new facts. He asked whether there might be similar principles in the world of work that would guide workers in understanding the changing content and context of their jobs.
DeRocco responded that the organizing principles in the world of work are the foundational personal, academic, and workplace competencies in the models she had mentioned earlier, which provide the capacity for lifelong learning.6 For the individual, she said, it is less important to “know everything the moment you walk in the door” than to possess these core characteristics and values.
Houston cautioned that the group should not minimize the importance of science content or job content, as both teachers and bosses remain impressed by people who know many facts. She suggested that employers view 21st century skills as an addition to core knowledge. The ability to quickly add to the knowledge base or synthesize it, she said, may be increasingly important, and this process involves 21st century skills. She explained that, in her competency modeling, she often includes a competency called “functional” or “technical” competency, in recognition of the fact that employees and teams are responsible for knowing and understanding the content of their work.
Kay asked if there was a trade-off between breadth and depth in science education. He expressed concern that requiring teachers to cover too much information would reduce time for developing critical thinking and problem solving related to particular science concepts (National Research Council, 2005, 2007a). He asked if there might be six or eight great science challenges that would require students to demonstrate both content mastery and 21st century skills and whether this might require giving up some content.
Kay then said that, although the panel had focused on the corporate perspective, he hoped they would not ignore the individual, especially at a time when so many people who have mastered the content of their jobs have been laid off. He offered two points of clarification. First, he said that the 86 percent of jobs in the service economy should not be equated with working at a discount retail store. He noted that the workshop participants are part of the service economy, which includes education, health care, scientific research, and all types of economic activity other than manufacturing and agriculture (Franklin, 2007). Second, he argued that all workers, whether employed at the high or low end of the service economy, are in danger of being laid off and will need 21st century skills in order to survive and advance in the current economy.