Using 21st Century Skills

Elsewhere on this web site we document what experts believe will be the basic skills of the 21st Century. For example the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory has identified digital-age literacy, inventive thinking, effective communication, and high productivity as the new basics. Closer examination of these four skill areas indicates a concentration of skills generally categorized as higher-level thinking and their use in real-world situations. Several articles on this site identify these skills and even include teaching activities to help students master them. It turns out that knowing the skills and being able to use them is not enough, however.

David Perkins and Shari Tishman, reporting on Project Zero’s Patterns of Thinking Project, suggest that besides possessing the skills of thinking a person must also be motivated to use them and be sensitive to occasions when their use would be appropriate. In order to compare and contrast characters in a book, for example, one must have the skills to carry out the procedure, be willing to invest the time and energy to do so, and be sensitive to the occasions when the process would be an appropriate strategy. Research has shown that this sensitivity is a major stumbling block for effective intellectual performance. The purpose of this paper is to help understand what sensitivity is and to propose strategies that might be helpful as learners attempt to gain it.

According to the researchers at Harvard’s Project Zero, sensitivity refers to the disposition of an individual to recognize situations where various thinking procedures might apply and to determine which might be more appropriate. For example, when listening to a debate on global warning, reading an article on illegal immigration, or considering a purchase of a major appliance the sensitive thinker realizes that they possess a variety of skills that might be of use, knows which is more likely to be applicable, and is aware of the need to apply the appropriate thinking skills to the problem at hand.

Knowing that sensitivity is important or that sensitivity consists of particular attributes does not make one a sensitive thinker. It appears that one gains these attributes as a regular part of their repertoire only through participation in a culture where good thinking is the norm, is honored and is expected. Building such a culture in the school environment is not just a matter of spending a little time each week or each day which is labeled as “thinking time.” Early in the school year a “thinking time” each day might be a way for the novice teacher to feel their way into a thinking culture, but as the students begin to pick up on vocabulary and metacognitive strategies, thinking should permeate the curriculum.

Reading, science, math, and social science each offer many opportunities for the teacher or parent to ask questions to stimulate higher-level thinking. As children become comfortable with an environment where asking and responding to questions is normal, the level of questioning can be raised. Examples of these questions in a loose hierarchical order might include:

  • Can you compare and contrast the…?
  • What facts support your conclusion?
  • Can you think of another way to say the same thing?
  • How do you think the result would change if you doubled the…?
  • Can you show me the steps of your plan?
  • Given this information, how would you organize it for an essay?
  • Can you identify and list the important parts?
  • What is the relationship between the two characters?
  • How can you justify your conclusion?
  • Why do you think that is important?
  • How would you improve the process?
  • Can you design a new way to accomplish the same thing?
  • Can you draw a diagram to show the steps you used to solve the problem?
  • What facts would you use to prove your belief?
  • How would you choose a friend from among the characters in the story?
  • Given the information, how would you prioritize the facts?

Based on recent research on classroom questioning it is recommended that for younger and lower ability students questions from the top of the list should be emphasized while older children and students with greater strength should be asked more of the questions from the bottom of the list.

Metacognition is knowledge about thinking (cognitive) processes and knowledge that can be used to control cognitive processes. If the student is to become a part of a thinking culture metacognition must play a central role. In the early phases of induction into the culture the teacher might merely name the thinking skills as they are displayed by characters in stories, public figures in newspaper accounts or current events reports, or by the teacher or students in the classroom. A teacher who models by thinking out loud during problem solving or inquiry provides a cognitive map for students. Introduction of a “thinking map” and placement on the map of examples from these sources adds a second dimension, still appropriate for elementary school children. By middle school a thinking log or journal can be used to extend the concept to the students own work. During discussion periods the teacher might call attention to the skills being used, stop discussion to inquire into appropriate strategies, or ask students to spend a few minutes writing in their thinking log. Each of these activities helps students learn the many options available to them and to begin to identify those that are most appropriate for a given situation.

Emphasizing thinking and helping sensitize students to appropriate thinking strategies is a key role for educators. Using the ideas techniques illustrated in this article will help develop a citizenry more likely to use quality thinking in their solution of life’s problems.


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