What are 21st Century Skills, Anyway?

Ever hear that old saw, “All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten”? To some, it is a precious whimsy, to others a well-loved book. But to early childhood educators like me, this particular phrase is an unshakable truth.

Preschool (and kindergarten) is the time when higher-order skills like collaboration and creativity first arise, when life’s complex social dynamics present your children with countless new challenges to discover and master. It’s the time when children learn to manage their feelings, develop empathy, engage their peers and discover the ineluctable magic of unstructured play.

And now there is solid proof that we were right all along.

The Harvard Education Newsletter recently published a widely cited piece on the challenges of 21st century education. The thesis, which has been repeated often in the last decade, is that the world is moving away from a manufacturing economy and toward an information economy—one that rewards creativity and collaboration over test-taking and memorization. Here’s The Global Achievement Gap author Tony Wagner:

“Our curriculum is information-based and the emphasis is to acquire information first and foremost, and secondarily acquire skills . . .We have it exactly backwards.”

As it turns out, students who excel in traditional fact-based learning find themselves foundering in an economy that prefers go-getters, entrepreneurs and original thinkers.

The answer, according to researchers? Highlight novel classroom exercises that encourage uncommon solutions and strong collaboration. Examples include bridge-building, movie-making, even student-directed literature seminars. If this all sounds a bit ambitious, take heart: we are already doing every one of these things in the best Los Angeles preschools.

The only difference is that we don’t call it an educational crisis. We just call it fun.