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Bringing 21st Century Skill Development to the Forefront of K-12 Education


Advances in technology, the globalization of the world’s economy, and a renewed federal focus on college and career preparation have positioned 21st century readiness at the center of the U.S. discourse on K-12 education. To gain a comprehensive view of the challenges and opportunities 21st century learning presents for educators and students alike, Hanover Research spoke with Dr. Helen Soulé, the Executive Director of  The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and two K-12 practitioners at Walker Elementary School (WI), Principal Tracy Fischer-Tubbs and Teacher Katie Hart.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) is a leading voice in the national college and career preparation conversation. Since its founding in 2002, P21 has played an active and crucial role in guiding education policy and building a coalition of like-minded organizations to provide the strength and vision of the 21st Century Skills Movement. Furthering this mission, the P21 Framework for 21st Century Learning has become a widely recognized model for integrating 21st century skills into English, mathematics, science, geography, social studies, language, and arts curriculum.

Walker Elementary School (WI) is featured as one of P21’s exemplar program case studies. In our conversations, Principal Tracy Fischer-Tubbs and Teacher Katie Hart describe how their school’s commitment to next generation learning has enabled teachers and administrators to implement a personalized approach to college and career readiness.

As Dr. Soulé told us, “Educators want to ensure 21st century learning incorporates a healthy balance of knowledge and skills acquisition through engaging learning experiences that bring the real world into the classroom and the classroom into the real world. Yet, achieving this balance can be challenging. It requires that we adopt new ways of teaching and undertake significant professional learning; it requires re-visioning words like “classroom,” “teacher,” “school,” and even “student”; and it requires that we harness the power of technology for learning.”

Below, we present an excerpt from our conversation with these three educators.

HR: Throughout the K-12 education landscape, the integration of 21st century skill development in classroom instruction is increasing. What instructional practices are the most promising? What challenges do they pose?

Dr. Helen Soulé (P21): Project based and inquiry based learning (PBL) are promising instructional 21st century learning practices proven to produce positive student outcomes. It is not just one model of instruction that works; however, PBL and other instructional practices that promote student engagement, real-world experiences, the acquisition of 21st century skills, and transform the role of the teacher from lecturer to guide/facilitator have been shown to produce the desired student outcomes. There are significant challenges in implementing PBL curriculum, as these new instructional practices reflect a very different role for teachers and require significant changes in behavior, pedagogy, and practice. As such, properly transforming teacher practice requires significant professional capacity building, patience, support, and risk-taking.

Katie Hart (Walker Elementary): In my opinion, the most promising instructional practices are the essential skills that are needed to be a success in today’s society: problem solving, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. Nine years ago when I started in the teaching profession, we had very little technology to offer to our students, and our focus was on teaching reading, writing, and math.   Today, we are educating a different group of children – those of the digital age. The job description of an educator is not just teacher of academic skills, but a teacher of life skills. The greatest challenge we face is finding the time to blend all of these important life skills in with the rest of our rigorous curricular duties. Teachers are always strapped for time; nine months can fly by fast.  However, if we can blend these essential skills into our day in small increments they will have lasting impacts on our students throughout their K-12 career and beyond.

HR: The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has developed an entire framework for 21st century learning. How do you see this model impacting student outcomes? What do you see as the biggest challenge to 21st century readiness?

Dr. Helen Soulé (P21): The framework articulates the important combination of content knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for students to possess to be college, career, and life ready. Each part of the framework—the 4C’s, technology, media and information skills, life and career skills, content and themes – plays a critical role.  Possessing content knowledge is incredibly important, but without the skills to put that knowledge to work through effective communication, creation and innovation, problem solving, perseverance, and flexibility, its value as a pathway to success is significantly diminished.

Tracy Fischer-Tubbs (Walker Elementary): The skills, knowledge, and expertise students should master to succeed in work and life in the 21st century includes outcomes in collaboration, problem solving, and questioning. As an educator, the biggest challenge will be in developing a deep understanding of content (depth of knowledge). Educators today don’t always possess deep knowledge in all areas. Additionally, how do you break down difficult content into meaningful chunks so you can teach it to others? If you can break it down, how do you assess the depth of a student’s understanding? As our district moves forward, we are centered on depth of knowledge/close reading/inquiry to a build solid understanding of content. Our staff collaboration, planning, and professional development emphasize strategies, questioning, and student collaboration to build a thorough understanding of a world that is constantly changing. We don’t have all the answers, but with constant reflection and the use of data to drive instruction, I know we are headed in the right direction.

HR: How can districts and education organizations prepare students for careers?

Dr. Helen Soulé (P21): Some of the most successful initiatives involve deep partnerships with local businesses, including innovative types of internships. In Spirit Lake, Iowa, seniors spend the month of January working in local businesses, while the rest of the high school students participate in cross-curricular, standards aligned, multi-grade project based learning activities that also closely involve the community. In Anaheim, California, the Mayor and City Council have partnered with Anaheim Union School District and local businesses to place students in internships.  Other schools, such as Wunsche Senior High School in Texas’ Spring Independent School District, have extensive career pathways within the school ranging from dentistry to marketing to forensics to architecture. These pathways are achieved through differentiated staffing and curricula, where some of the teachers are from the business sector and therefore bring real live career expertise into the school. Other schools partner with hospitals, community colleges, community organizations, government entities, and universities to bring hands-on, experiential, and career-based learning into their classrooms.

HR: What additional steps would you encourage education organizations, businesses, and community leaders to take to better prepare students to become productive global citizens?

Dr. Helen Soulé (P21): One key to enhance student career preparation is ensuring students receive as much diverse experience as possible in various career fields. This most successfully occurs through partnerships among schools, education organizations, businesses, and community and government agencies. Both schools and local organizations must reach out to each other, and be innovative in the ways that they construct career experiences. Creating opportunities inside and outside the school day (after school, in the summer, during holidays, etc.) provides avenues for students to gain the knowledge and skills needed to succeed professionally. In order for students to have positive experiences, they need to be prepared to understand the expectations of a professional environment and exhibit a wide range of critical 21st century skills, including: critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creativity and innovation, self-direction, flexibility and adaptability, productivity, responsibility, and social and cross-cultural awareness. The responsibility to prepare our students to succeed in their education and beyond is one that can, and should, be shared among partners.


Article Contributors:

Dr. Helen Soulé, Executive Director of Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21)

Dr. Helen Soulé is the Executive Director of Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21), where she has led the organization’s state recruitment and support effort, the 21st Century Learning Exemplar Program, and other initiatives.  Soulé is a longtime educator with P-16 leadership experience at the local, state and national level. Nationally, Soulé served as chief of staff to the assistant secretary for the Office of Postsecondary Education in the U.S. Department of Education, and Executive Director of Cable in the Classroom. She is a founding member of the State Educational Technology Directors Association and the recipient of several awards, including Converge magazine’s 30 “Shapers of the Future” award, E-School News “Impact 30 Award for Excellence”, and the Mississippi Educational Computing Association’s Technology Educator of the Year award. She also currently sits on the Board of the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences.

Tracy Fischer-Tubbs, Principal of Walker Elementary School (WI)

Tracy Fischer-Tubbs grew up in Muskego, Wisconsin. She studied at Cardinal Stritch University and is presently in her 5th year as principal at Walker Elementary in West Allis, WI. She has spent 27 years as an educator in West Allis-West Milwaukee and Milwaukee Public Schools. Walker Elementary School is listed as a 21st Century Exemplar School and featured as a case study by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

Katie Hart, Teacher at Walker Elementary School (WI)

Walker Elementary School is listed as a 21st Century Exemplar School and featured as a case study by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Katie Hart is in her ninth year of teaching in the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District.  Four years ago, her district offered her the chance to transform the way she teaches and has since been teaching in a Next Generation Learning community comprised of first, second, and third graders.  While not in the classroom Katie enjoys spending time with her husband Jason, one year old daughter Michaela, and her dog Dayne.


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