Yes, My Child Is Book Smart, But Does S/He Have What It Takes?

Posted on October 30, 2010
by FeliciaOctocog

There has been a lot of talk in education circles about the failure of schools to teach 21st century skills.  Driven by the insatiable appetite of our knowledge economy, our schools need to address the needs of employers across all sectors for employees with strong problem solving, critical thinking and communication skills.  In an age of mega-standardized testing from MCAS to SAT to Accuplacer, our emphasis on test prep is reducing the time students have to build these skills.

In addition to problem solving, critical thinking and communication, students need to develop other less tangible Life and Career skills such as flexibility, adaptability, initiative, self-direction, productivity, accountability, leadership and responsibility. Finally, and not too surprisingly, all graduate must master Information Media and Technology.  Theses were some of the conclusions of a recently published report by the Rennie Center entitled “A New Era of Education Reform: Preparing all Students for Success in College, Career and Life.” This report can be found on their website at

While there were many interesting examples of schools implementing new curricula to address these skills, I was most intrigued by those offered by Paul Livingston, Superintendent of the Pentucket Regional School District.  His vision for 21st century education was implemented 4 years ago as part of a community wide effort.  Key in his vision was to develop a model that allowed teachers time to collaborate and to provide a curricula that is experiential, where students take ownership and are allowed to shape learning outcomes, that allowed reflection (so that students can adapt based on successes and failures), that pushed students outside their comfort zone and that provided students with multi-faceted support.

At Salem CyberSpace, we had already started to move in this direction so it was great to see that there was actually some theory behind it.  In our English Language Learners Program which works with low-income immigrant high school youth, we have moved to more of a project-based program.  In the prior 2 years, we focused on themes and arranged activities, games, and field trips. This year, each theme will have a 6 to 8-week project.  We just completed our first project around Halloween and Salem History. Students planned, raised funds and delivered a Halloween Party for young children in their neighborhood.

Was the party perfectly executed? Of course, not.  Their haunted house (which by all standards was magnificent) was pulled down by the Fire Department, 4 hours before the party was supposed to begin.  At 5:30 (30 minutes after starting time), not one child had arrived.  Did our kids spend all their time delivering the best party ever, and then forget to tell anyone about the party? Eventually about 25 kids did show up (after some rather aggressive recruiting and phone calling) but they were definitely expecting more. So it was not a perfect party but did they learn from their success and failures. Absolutely!  It was very hard for the staff to step back as adults and only give guidance without taking over the project but in the end the learning experience was much more comprehensive and I suspect, lasting.

We are planning 3 more projects – one project related to the environment, one project with the police and a third not yet decided.

As  the Human Resources person from Intel stated, we are not looking for employees with the highest GPA. We want students that can think, draw on resources available, and bring solutions, not problems, forward.  We owe it to our students and our country to deliver students with those capabilities.