Always learning

21st century skills, revisited in my well.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

If I asked you to name some really tired, overused phrases in educational technology, what would you say? Paradigm shift hasn't gone away since the 80's. Disruptive classroom technologies, maybe? Pedagogically sound technology integration rolls off the tongue. Digital Natives is a no-brainer (although it really does help paint the right picture). But 21st century skills has to be #1 on my list. No doubt about it.

For too many people, 21st century skills revolve around Microsoft Office and the Internet. As I've noted before, the real 21st century skills, though, revolve around information management, flexibility, lifelong learning and retooling, teamwork, and collaboration, all of which hinge upon either technological frameworks and tools or our understanding that the world in which we live and work is changing at a very rapid pace.

This can be a tough thing to get through to people, particularly when those people are responsible for implementing technology-rich curricula and struggle to find ways to make them relevant.

Although I'm preaching to the choir in most cases here, I had an experience yesterday (that unfortunately dragged into today) that reminded me in a very ordinary way how vital it is that we push those struggling teachers and the kids in their classes to really embrace just what it means to manage information in an age when the sum of human knowledge is at our fingertips (along with the sum of human scams, nonsense, drivel, and stupidity.)

Monday night, I wrote about my adventures in well maintenance and how they reminded me of the importance of hiring, retaining, and empowering really sharp staff who can and will take on technology challenges happily. Last night, as I watched my newly rejoined pipes pop their seals and spray water everywhere, my continued well adventures screamed how important STEM, lifelong learning, and the ability to access high-quality information was to our students, no matter how digitally native they might be.

We've already established that I have far more determination than plumbing expertise. However, in the last 3 days, through my attempts to avoid paying a plumber to do something I know damned well I can do myself, I've learned more about household plumbing than I ever cared to understand. While there is no replacement for years of training and apprenticeship, a decent head for engineering and some high-integrity websites can go a long ways towards building new skills.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not going to retrain to be a plumber. But a core set of skills in STEM fields with an emphasis on real world capabilities and applications will put our students well on the road to being able to adapt and retrain quickly when the need arises (and it will). With that in mind, I set out to once and for all fix my plumbing and well problems. It took some careful Googling and some time with a great site I found (www.inspectapedia.com), but before long, I knew why my initial attempts failed, what my next approach should be, and what steps I would take to determine if I'd reached the "oh-crap-I-need-a-real-plumber" stage.

Ideally, our students would be able to take risks and have learning experiences without their wives telling them that they should have called a plumber. What better place to take these sorts of academic risks than school?

I'm not necessarily an advocate for full-on constructivist learning. However, our students will need to be able to approach new problems, new careers, new challenges, and new opportunities with confidence and powerful skills. Learning experiences centered around the application of modern STEM curricula will ultimately prepare our students for 21st century careers in ways that classes on Office or even Java could not.

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