Americans have long recognized that investments in public education can contribute to the common good, enhance national prosperity, and support stable families, neighborhoods, and communities. In the face of economic, environmental, and social challenges, education is even more critical today than it has been in the past. Today’s children can meet future challenges if they have opportunities to prepare for their future roles as citizens, employees, managers, parents, volunteers, and entrepreneurs. To achieve their full potential as adults, young people will need to learn a full range of skills and knowledge that facilitate mastery of English, mathematics, and other school subjects. They will need to learn in ways that support not only retention but also the use and application of skills and knowledge—a process called “transfer” in cognitive psychology.
Today’s educational policies and practices will need updating to help all children develop transferable knowledge and skills. American students’ performance is not impressive when they are tested through the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for their ability to not only understand but also apply their knowledge. PISA tests are designed to measure students’ capacity to apply knowledge and skills in key subject areas as well as their ability to analyze, reason, and communicate effectively as they pose, interpret, and solve problems. On the 2009 PISA reading and science tests, the scores of U.S. 15-year-olds were only average when compared to students from the other industrialized nations making up the OECD; in mathematics, the scores of U.S. 15-year-olds were below the OECD
average.1 Part of the reason for the weak average performance of American students is uneven learning and achievement among different groups of students. Disparities in the relative educational attainment of children from high-income versus low-income families have grown enormously since the 1970s (Duncan and Murnane, 2011). In a related trend, the gap between average incomes of the wealthiest and poorest families has grown.
Business leaders, educational organizations, and researchers have begun to call for new education policies that target the development of broad, transferable skills and knowledge, often referred to as “21st century skills.” For example, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills2 argues that student success in college and careers requires four essential skills: critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2010, p. 2).
Although these skills have long been valuable (for example, Thomas Alva Edison observed in 1903 that “Genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration”), they are particularly salient today, and education officials are beginning to focus on them. Sixteen states have joined the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, based on a commitment to fuse 21st century skills with academic content (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2011) in their standards, assessments, curriculum, and teacher professional development. Some state and local high school reform efforts have begun to focus on a four-dimensional framework of college and career readiness that includes not only academic content but also cognitive strategies, academic behaviors, and contextual skills and awareness (Conley, 2011). At the international level, the U.S. secretary of education participates on the executive board of the Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills (ATC21S) project, along with the education ministers of five other nations and the vice presidents of Cisco, Intel, and Microsoft. This project aims to expand the teaching and learning of 21st century skills globally, especially by improving assessment of these skills. In a separate effort, a large majority of 16 OECD nations surveyed in 2009 reported that they are incorporating 21st century skills in their education policies, such as regulations and guidelines (Aniandou and Claro, 2009).
To increase understanding of the research related to deeper learning, 21st century skills, and related educational goals, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the John D. and
2This nonprofit organization includes business, education, community, and governmental groups.
Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, the Pearson Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, the Susan Crown Enchange Fund, and the Stupski Foundation charged the National Research Council (NRC) as follows:
An ad hoc committee will review and synthesize current research on the nature of deeper learning and 21st century skills and will address the following:
- Define the set of key skills that are referenced by the labels “deeper learning,” “21st century skills,” “college and career readiness,” “student centered learning,” “next generation learning,” “new basic skills,” and “higher order thinking.” These labels are typically used to include both cognitive and noncognitive skills—such as critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, effective communication, motivation, persistence, and learning to learn that can be demonstrated within core academic content areas and that are important to success in education, work, and other areas of adult responsibility. The labels are also sometimes used to include other important capacities—such as creativity, innovation, and ethics—that are important to later success and may also be developed in formal or informal learning environments.
- Describe how these skills relate to each other and to more traditional academic skills and content in the key disciplines of reading, mathematics, and science. In particular, consider these skills in the context of the work of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers in specifying Common Core State Standards for English language arts and mathematics, and the work of the NRC in specifying a A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (hereafter referred to as the NRC science framework).
- Summarize the findings of the research that investigates the importance of such skills to success in education, work, and other areas of adult responsibility and that demonstrates the importance of developing these skills in K-16 education.
- Summarize what is known—and what research is needed—about how these skills can be learned, taught, and assessed. This summary should include both the cognitive foundations of these skills in learning theory and research about effective approaches to teaching and learning these skills, including approaches using digital media.
- Identify features of educational interventions that research suggests could be used as indicators that an intervention is likely to develop the key skills in a substantial and meaningful way. In particular, for learning in formal school-based environments, identify features related to learning these skills in educational interventions in (a) teacher professional development, (b) curriculum, and (c) assessment. For learning in informal environments, identify features related to learning these skills in educational interventions in (d) after-school and out-of-school
programs and (e) exhibits, museums, and other informal learning centers. For learning in both formal and informal environments, identify features related to learning these skills in education interventions in (f) digital media.
HOW THE COMMITTEE APPROACHED THE CHARGE
To address these five areas of concern, the committee reviewed research literature across several disciplines, including cognitive science, educational and social psychology, economics, child and adolescent development, literacy, mathematics and science education, psychometrics, educational technology, and human resource development. The committee drew on recent NRC workshops focusing on demand for 21st century skills, the intersection of science education and 21st century skills, and the assessment of 21st century skills, as well as on papers commissioned for an NRC planning process on behalf of the Hewlett Foundation. It considered the work of the ATC21S project and emerging research on the relationship between cognitive and noncognitive skills and abilities and adult outcomes (see Chapter 3).
The committee met three times. The first meeting included an open session with representatives of the FrameWorks Institute, which focused on how the public thinks about education and early childhood development. In the closed session of the first meeting, teams of committee members focusing on each topic in the study charge delivered brief presentations summarizing relevant research findings. These presentations and discussions provided the basis for a preliminary draft of this report. At its second meeting, the committee deliberated on the preliminary draft and decided to focus the report on learning for transfer. Following the second meeting, the committee and staff revised the preliminary draft extensively, and this new draft was discussed at the committee’s third meeting. At the third meeting, the committee also developed preliminary conclusions and recommendations based on the draft. Following this meeting, the committee and staff again revised the report. In a final teleconference, the committee discussed and reached consensus on the conclusions and recommendations. The draft report entered the NRC review process in February 2012. Following receipt of review comments it was revised and publicly released in July 2012.
ORGANIZATION OF THE REPORT
Following this introductory chapter, Chapter 2 begins to address the question of how to define deeper learning and 21st century skills, proposing a preliminary taxonomy with clusters of competencies. Chapter 3 summarizes several different strands of research on the importance of
these competencies to success in education, work, and other areas of adult responsibility. Chapter 4 focuses on deeper learning, which the committee views as learning for transfer. Chapter 5 discusses deeper learning and 21st century competencies in the disciplines of English language arts, science, and mathematics. Chapter 6 discusses teaching and assessing transferable knowledge and skills, in both formal and informal learning environments, and identifies research-based methods and instructional design principles for effectively developing the desired knowledge and skills. Chapter 7 considers key elements within the larger educational system that may help or hinder wider implementation of educational interventions to support the process of deeper learning and the development of 21st century competencies. Chapters 3 through 7 end with conclusions and recommendations, and all of the conclusions and recommendations are included in the Summary.