Problem-solving approach emphasizes thinking, not rote learning.

Depending on our age, little in modern life seems like the way it was when we were kids, according to Chris Lehmann, founding principal of the nationally distinguished Science Leadership Academy (SLA) in Philadelphia. In too many cases, he notes,“education and school policy have lagged behind society’s changes.”

SLA’s mission is to nurture “people who can think,” says Lehmann. “If you educate workers, you get workers. If you educate for citizenship, you get more than that.” He says the challenges of the current century will be solved by well-prepared, critically and creatively thinking, inquiring minds.

Lehmann and the SLA are examples of what’s known as “21st century education.” SLA is a public high school, established in 2006 in partnership with The Franklin Institute.

The 21st century model

The 21st century approach focuses on inquiry-based projects. Students master the rigorous core curriculum through inquiry, research, collaboration, problem solving, presentation and reflection.

For example, study about the water cycle takes SLA students beyond textbooks and classrooms. Armed with maps, science kits and record books, they sample soil and water across specific areas in the city. Their real world analysis helps them understand the sources and socioeconomics of pollution.

Classroom schedules in 21st century schools often differ from typical high schools. SLA has 65-minute periods that integrate grade-wide themes and “essential questions” for study across disciplines. Lehmann says this contributes greater coherence and linkages across all courses.

Portable skills

“Portable skills” are among the goals of 21st century education, according to Carlye Nelson-Major, associate head of The Philadelphia School, an independent, progressive PreSchool-to-grade 8 institution. An example of a portable skill is learning “how to vet information, distinguish good information from bad, figure out point of view, and cross-check with other sources,” says Nelson-Major.

21st century learning crosses disciplines, she adds. It uses primary sources and authentic audiences. It calls for higher order thinking and more effective organization of curriculum and time.

 Students don't need to memorize something that's easy to look up (like state capitals), but they do need to learn how and why cities develop, and the impact of rivers and railroads on them. They need to be able to apply knowledge meaningfully to real situations.

 The P21 collaboration

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) was founded in 2002 as a collaborative of major corporations, educators and member states, with the help of matching federal funds. Microsoft, Dell, AOL, Apple, Cisco and the NEA were among the founding organizations. New Jersey is one of the state partners.

P21 sees itself as a “catalyst” for bringing research, expertise, best educational practices and policy advocacy together “to prepare students for life, ongoing education and citizenship,” according to spokeswoman Tatyana Varshavsky.

For More Info

Partnership for 21st Century Skills: 202-312-6429, www.p21.org

The Philadelphia School: 215-545-5323, www.tpschool.org

Science Leadership Academy: 215-979-5620, www.scienceleadership.org

“Vision for West Windsor-Plainsboro: Competencies for 21st Century Learners”

P21 emphasizes “4Cs: critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration and creativity and innovation,” and focuses on “global awareness, and financial, civic, health and environmental literacies,” she says.

Lehmann says learners must be guided through deep explorations of complex, rigorous content to emerge with competencies relevant to the 21st century. P21 offers research, expertise, resources, networking, professional development, rubrics, speakers and conferences to help educators guide students in this new learning terrain.

The West Windsor-Plainsboro, NJ school district was an early adopter of the 21st century paradigm. It adheres to the notion that “it’s no longer how much you know that matters; it’s what you can do with what you know,” as one document puts it. Students are taught how to evaluate information, extract what’s relevant, define problems, plan, develop strategies, monitor interventions, and deal with ambiguity. They learn persistence, flexibility and leadership.


Lehmann says he has yet to meet a teacher who doesn’t agree that these skills are important. Then why hasn’t the 21st century approach been widely adopted? He suggests that simplistic metrics for progress are short-changing both teachers and students. He says a “fear that we won’t get a new approach to education perfect out of the gate” is holding back progress.

To merely use technology as a tool to teach and improve test taking is going for the low-hanging fruit. Lehmann advocates teaching and measuring “what matters.” Complex skills — such as problem solving and collaboration — can and should be assessed. P21 offers professional development and systematic procedures for measuring skills such as working in a group or oral communication. Both Lehmann and Nelson-Major emphasize that this sort of process requires practice and patience.

The outcome of 21st century learning isn’t a product — a worker or a graduate. The goal is globally aware community participants who know how to learn and desire to continue to do so.

Ann L. Rappoport, PhD is an educational consultant and a contributing writer to MetroKids.

Categories: Education Features