Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

21st Century Skills: Deeper Learning is Essential Ingredient for Success

Tarsi Dunlop's picture

Deeper learning will ensure students possess transferable knowledge, or the ability to use their knowledge and skills to solve problems and navigate new situations. As a 21st century skill set, it should be a core element of the public education academic experience.  A recent report from the National Research Council, Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century argues that when facilitated through teaching and learning of academic subjects, this approach to learning pushes students beyond rote memorization of facts and procedure, and prepares them to succeed in work and life. This opportunity ensures that we are teaching and assessing the skillsets that we want our students to acquire as a majority of states work to implement the Common Core State Standards. Emphasizing deeper learning will require several shifts, in teaching methods, curricula, and assessments much like the shifts that are necessary to ensure success for Common Core.

This deeper learning effort involves numerous stakeholders, from teachers and professional development specialists, to colleges of teacher education, policy-makers, and school and district administrators.  The report defines deeper learning as “the process through which a person becomes capable of taking what was learned in one situation and applying it to new situations – in other words, learning for ‘transfer.’” The report describes 21st century competencies organized into three overarching domains: the cognitive, the intrapersonal and the interpersonal.  Research is still limited in linking 21st competencies and positive outcomes in education, work and other areas in life, but there is a positive and consistent correlation between cognitive competencies and positive outcomes in education, health, and the workplace. With intrapersonal competencies, desirable outcomes are exhibited by conscientiousness – such as being organized, responsible and hardworking. Continued research will provide a better understanding of the connection between such competencies and positive outcomes in adulthood.

The report recommends the following research-based methods as instructional strategies teachers should us to support the development of transferable interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies in the classroom:

  • Start with clear learning goals of how learning is expected to develop, a step that will help coordinate instruction and assessment
  • Use multiple and varied representations of concepts, such as diagrams, numerical and mathematical representations, and simulations, along with support to help students interpret them.
  • Encourage elaboration, questioning, and explanation – for example, prompting students who are reading a history text to explain the material aloud to themselves or others as they read.
  • Encourage learners in challenging tasks, while also supporting them with guidance, feedback, and encouragement to reflect on their own learning processes.
  • Teach with examples and cases, such as modeling step-by-step how students can carry out a procedure to solve a problem while explaining the reason for each step.
  • Prime student motivation by connecting topics to students’ personal lives and interests, engaging students in problem solving, and drawing attention to the knowledge and skills students are developing and their relevance, rather than to grades and scores.
  • Use “formative’ assessment, which continuously monitors students’ progress and provides feedback to teachers and students for use in adjusting their teaching and learning strategies.

As the conversation surrounding 21st century skills and college and career-ready standards continues, the report notes that research is needed to increase our understanding of the relationship between 21st century competencies and adult outcomes; shed light on how to design instruction to help students, develop transferable knowledge and skills in the interpersonal and intrapersonal domains; and determine whether and to what extent knowledge and skills developed in one discipline or subject area can transfer to another. Answers in these areas can help inform policy and practice moving forward.

Finally, in order to ensure students are first prepared for new assessments and standards, ones that are more focused on measuring these deeper learning and 21st century skills, policymakers at the local, state and national levels must focus on four areas: curriculum, assessments, accountability and teacher education. Given the heightened tensions around many of these areas, it is critical that all stakeholders are at the table when it comes to policy-making. Everyone has a role to play as we work to prepare our students for work and life, and the capacity to collaborate and partner in this effort will determine our success or failure.