Why We Need to Teach 21st Century Skills-And How to Do It

By Regan, Bob

“TTYL, mom, I heard an 8-year-old call out as she headed off with a friend. Even though she doesn’t own a cell phone and has never texted anyone, technology is her first language. Most American adults, however, are technological immigrants to the 21st century, and we know it. In a 2007 poll (www.21stcenturyskills.org/documents/ P21_pollreport_singlepg.pdf) conducted on behalf of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (www.2 Istcentury skills.org), an overwhelming 80% of voters say that the kinds of skills students need to learn today are different from what they needed 20 years ago. And a virtually unanimous 99% of voters say that teaching students 21stcentury skills is important to our country’s economic success. As educators, we need to clarify what these skills are-and figure out how to teach them. According to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the skills we need to be teaching include the following:

* Information, media literacy, and communication skills

* Thinking and problem-solving

* Interpersonal, collaborative, and self-direction skills

* Global awareness

* Economic and business literacy, including entrepreneurial skills

* Civic literacy

While the context in which our schools operate today has changed, the goals have not. We can look at these 21st-century skills as an extension of efforts that date as far back as John Dewey at the turn of the previous century. The key difference is that today we have a new set of tools to apply to the tasks. Moreover, the changing economy makes it more of a necessity that our students can use technology to solve problems, collaborate, and create.

Learning by doing was a core theme of John Dewey’s work. It is as important today as it was in his day. We don’t want to teach our students about science, we want them to become scientists. Textbooks alone can only get us part of the way there. With the varied resources available today, students can get closer to the source of information than they could before. They can collect data themselves, analyze the results using sophisticated techniques, present their results, and discuss these results with experts from around the world-all within the confines of their desks.

Dewey’s emphasis on problem solving and critical thinking are particularly important today. Students now are awash with unvetted “information” they find on the web. Group work and social skills, vital to the functioning of a globalized economy, need to be honed through collaborative learning projects. Social responsibility and integrating community-based projects into the daily curriculum enhance student awareness of life beyond school. And the fundamental principle of progressive education holds true: 21st-century skills must be an integral part of teaching and learning of all academic subjects, not add-ons to the curriculum.


Today’s technology provides the ability for students with diverse learning styles to engage with ideas in ways not previously possible. Students can be exposed to rich visuals and audio to supplement concepts on printed pages. At the same time, students are increasingly expected to express their understanding using images, video, and animation in addition to plain text. This means that multimedia applications-once reserved for a few students taking video or design classes-are increasingly a part of all classrooms. Educators must find ways to incorporate multimedia technologies into everyday activities, and help students explore and master new ways to communicate what they are learning.

“Visual memory is strong, so the more you can involve the student in creating or re-creating a visual, the more you’re imprinting that information in their minds,” explains Colette Stemple, an arts and technology instructor at Coral Gables High School in Miami. “We’ve been using arts classes to raise standard test scores in math, reading, and writing.” When students take a picture and have to describe it, they’re learning how to verbalize the essential meaning. When they read a story and illustrate it, they’re showing reading comprehension, but they are also engaging at the level of synthesis. They are choosing what element to focus on and creating a visual representation.

Students are ready for this shift to multimedia-even enthusiastic. “Students are more comfortable experimenting with technology and visual images because these things are often a regular part of their lives outside of school,” says Sara Martin, technology coordinator at Hart-Ransom Union School District in Modesto, Calif. A recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project (www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/247/report _display.asp) found that students make strong distinctions between the kind of writing done in and out of school. Surprisingly, the study found that students enjoy writing and that many write quite often outside of school. Within school, students were most likely to engage in work that was relevant to their own context. With digital media, teachers have new ways to create situations where writing is tied to student interests.

“Multimedia software provides a bridge to reach students who otherwise might give up on certain subjects,” says Stemple. “In my classes, students can use software to become active learners and explore a subject at their own pace. This is where they can take all of the things they are learning and bring them together. For example, if they’re studying the digestive system, they can create images with the scanner or draw their own using imaging software and then present the concepts to their science class.”

For some students, especially those with learning disabilities, digital media provides a means to engage with and express ideas. For many students, text can present real hurdles to learning. While still working through issues with text, students can supplement core ideas through the use of interactive digital experiences.


In language arts classes at Crestwood Junior and Senior High School in Cresco, Iowa, students use the same multimedia software that professionals use to illustrate scenes from books and deepen their understanding of plots and characters. In one assignment, students develop a playbill for their favorite Shakespeare play: incorporating images of action, characters, plot summaries, and other details to entice someone to read or see the play. Using Adobe Photoshop CS, students experiment with ideas and create new images by reworking scanned pictures, combining them with their own drawings, adding colors or shadows, and distorting images. Students add text and complete their layouts in Adobe InDesign CS software.

“The world of a play opens up for the students,” explains Mark Johnson, a teacher at Crestwood. “With multimedia software, they can discover the movement, shapes, and other images essential to the story-and ultimately find better ways to express ideas and explore subjects.” He also finds that posting student work online has improved the quality and professionalism of final projects. “It’s one thing to have a term paper read only by a teacher and quite another to have an interactive project with text and images posted on the web for everyone to see,” he says.

Johnson likes the fact that students have the opportunity to view and learn from the work of students not just in their class, but worldwide, cultivating a 21stcentury skill of global awareness. “Posting work online enables students to share ideas and opens dialog between students with different backgrounds and experiences,” he says.


Since the sciences often describe phenomena, items, and life forms that we see and hear, multimedia is a perfect way for students to express what they’ve learned and observed. For example, students become more engaged when they can incorporate images and sounds into their reports of experiences from field trips. As they rework captured images and make decisions about interpretation, they’re exploring the material in ways that go far beyond the limitations of a written report.

Physics students struggling to grasp the inner workings of an atom can “get it” by designing and defining images on their computers. Chemistry students can play with chemical bonds and create images of molecules that are more readily shared and reconfigured than old-fashioned stick-and-ball models. They can also create practice experiments-engaging with the concepts, constructing the formulas to be tested, and predicting the outcomes, so that when they conduct the experiment itself, they have a richer understanding of what they’re observing.

And in all the branches of science, budding scientists can learn what professional scientists know: that discovery is just the first step, and that you have to be able to communicate effectively. Just like professional scientists, they can use multimedia tools to collaborate, present their findings, and publish them for review and comment.


No matter what field students go into, their skills in collaborating will be significant factors in their success. Multimedia tools can help: when students work with each other to pull together multimedia presentations, they learn about sharing responsibility across a project, about stylistic consistency, coherence, and the vital give-and-take skill of constructive criticism. Collaborative technologies also contribute to students’ experience of working with people outside their school. A growing number of states have established virtual schools where students and faculty participate in virtual study groups that may include people from anywhere in the world. These techniques and technologies also have value for traditional brick-and-mortar K-12 schools: For example, teachers can set up virtual study groups so that schoolchildren in the U.S. can create reports on France and then discuss them with French schoolchildren, and vice versa.

In addition to helping students build skills in communicating and working with people from different cultures, collaboration tools can enable “virtual field trips” that enrich the curriculum with “visits,” for example, to engineers at a power plant across the state, to researchers studying great apes in Africa, or to an author at her home in rural New York. This helps build global awareness- without adding to a school’s carbon footprint.


The impact of students’ technology skills reaches beyond the classroom and into communities. At Crestwood Junior and Senior High School, students use design and web development software to create websites and marketing materials for local organizations. “The ability to communicate visually is in high demand,” says Crestwood’s Johnson. “With easy-to-use software, students can produce digital images and websites that, in many cases, rival that of professionals.”

At Coral Gables High School, students take their photography projects into nursing homes and pediatric cancer wards, teaching residents and re-creating their stories. “Most of the kids get business cards right away,” says arts and technology instructor Stemple, “because they start volunteering or selling their graphic design services.”

Not only does this give students the opportunity to “give back,” but it also builds confidence that the skills they’re learning have value beyond the classroom. This gives them deeper respect for the importance of their education and more incentive to excel-and continue-in their studies.


Assessment of 21st-century skills can be challenging and is too multifaceted to be captured by a simple multiple choice test. As student work becomes more varied and sophisticated, so too does the effort required to evaluate it. In many parts of the world, portfolio assessment has become a popular strategy for evaluating student work. In a portfolio-based assessment, students collect examples that best illustrate their progress over a term. These might include written, recorded, animated, and visual materials. For each item, the student writes a brief description of the why it was selected for inclusion in their portfolio. The portfolios are then reviewed using a consistent set of standards.

The challenge is designing an effective portfolio assessment program. It needs to support the full range of media with which students work. Twenty years ago, portfolio-based assessment programs often crumbled under the logistics of collecting, reviewing, and maintaining large numbers of student portfolios. Today, readily available tools such as Adobe Acrobat 9 Pro have removed the barriers to these programs. It is now far easier for students to gather a diverse set of materials and share them across geographies and technical platforms.


“We’re giving students valuable skills to use today and tomorrow- and just as important, they’re learning to look critically at the quality and content of images they see daily,” says Martin at Hart- Ransom. By seeing through the eyes of someone who creates content rather than just viewing it, students develop a clearer understanding of where these images come from and what they mean. As they learn to interpret stories and create their own images using the same software that professionals use, students transform from passive consumers to more critical and creative individuals. Not only do they become better students, but mastery of today’s media can help make them more confident, thoughtful, and successful citizens.

“Students begin to see themselves and their abilities differently,” says Stemple. “By activating the creative side of the brain, students improve their learning and thought processes.” And, she adds, “While they’re developing their critical thinking skills, they’re also developing marketable technology skills.”

To succeed in school and on the job today-where a visual cacophony and information overload are the norm-students need to learn how to assemble data in a meaningful way that expresses the possibilities, interpretations, and implications that arise from the facts. Think of Al Gore winning the Nobel Prize. He did not conduct the basic research; his unique contribution was to package, present, and explain the facts in a way that made abstract predictions fresh and viscerally meaningful to a 21st-century audience.

“What we need in industry is more creative thinkers,” says Stemple. “What we’re creating with visual and multimedia technology programs is students who can see an issue from all angles and present it in meaningful, compelling ways. These are the skills students need to thrive in the 21st century.”

While the context in which our schools operate today has changed, the goals have not. We can look at these 21st-century skills as an extension of efforts that date as far back as John Dewey at the turn of the previous century. The key difference is that today we have a new set of tools to apply to the tasks.

Resources on 21st-century Learning Skills

* Framework for 21st Century Learning, Partnership for 21st Century Skills, www.21stcenturyskills.org

* Community for K-12 Education, Adobe Systems, Inc., www.adobe.com/education/community/k12

* Portfolio Assessment, Eduplace, www.eduplace.com/ rdg/res/ literacy/assess6.html

by Bob Regan, Adobe Systems, Inc.

Bob Regan is director of K12 education at Adobe Systems, Inc. Reach him at [email protected]

Copyright Information Today, Inc. Jul/Aug 2008

(c) 2008 Multimedia Schools. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.