By Michael K. Smith, Ph.D.
“Every child in the U.S. needs 21st century knowledge and skills to succeed as effective citizens, workers and leaders…There is a profound gap between the knowledge and skills most students learn in school and the knowledge and skills they need in typical 21st century communities and workplaces.” This mission statement from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills reflects the concern that what is currently taught in schools should change. In particular, the Partnership argues for the teaching of problem solving and creativity. However, for students to become creative problem solvers, what would happen during a typical school day? What would teachers and students do?
First, teachers and students need knowledge. There is a common myth that creative problem solvers do not need facts, only skills. For instance, it is believed that a skilled mathematics problem solver can easily solve problems in biology or economics or international relations. This is not necessarily true. A certain basis of information is needed to solve important problems or create new solutions in any field. The Common Core Standards initiative recognizes this need by advocating broader standards in Reading and Mathematics. In Reading, “students establish a base of knowledge across a wide range of subject matter by engaging with works of quality and substance.” The Partnership for 21st Century skills goes even further: students should not only master subjects like reading, mathematics, science, and history but also develop global awareness, financial, economic, business and entrepreneurial literacy, civic literacy, health literacy, and environmental literacy. Teachers need to keep learning as well. Strong professional development programs could be incorporated into the school day, as teachers and students learn together. So part of the school day would be spent acquiring all kinds of knowledge.
“It is often thought that creativity only applies to the arts: painting, photography, sculpture or stories and poems.”
Second, teachers and students should work on well-defined or previously solved problems. The word “problem” derives from the Greek words for “something thrown forward.” The word “solve” comes from the Latin word for “to loosen, dissolve, or untie.” Many classroom problems are of this nature; a teacher places a problem in front of a student and the student seeks to “take it apart” step-by-step. Teachers often know the answers to these problems and have carefully constructed lesson plans to help guide students through the learning process. Students “rediscover” classic laws of physics and chemistry through laboratory exercises. Open-ended mathematics problems help students apply mathematical principles to something other than repetitive drills. The Common Core Standards state that “mathematically proficient students start by explaining to themselves the meaning of a problem and looking for entry points to its solution. They analyze givens, constraints, relationships, and goals.” So, a second part of the school day would be devoted to teachers guiding students through well-structured exercises that teach problem-solving skills.
Finally, though, teachers and students need to tackle problems that have not been solved. These types of problems may not have definitive lesson plans nor even have solutions. The word “create” derives from the Latin word “to make, bring forth, or grow.” It is often thought that creativity only applies to the arts: painting, photography, sculpture or stories and poems. Students, however, can learn to be creative in all disciplines, from mathematics and science to history and social studies. The Common Core Standards say, “Mathematically proficient students can apply the mathematics they know to solve problems arising in everyday life, society, and the workplace.” The Partnership urges students to “create new and worthwhile ideas.” So part of the school day would have to allow time for students to present new ideas and problems and for teachers and students to collectively work on solving these problems. But true creativity can be frustrating, time-consuming, and even end in failure. Not all problems can be solved nor can something be made of all new ideas. So, schools would have to reward both students and teachers as they struggle to “view failure as an opportunity to learn.”
So, the 21st century classroom would be different. The first part of the school day would be spent learning what is already known and solving problems that have been solved before. Then, the second half of the school day would be more challenging. Students and teachers would create new problems to discuss, investigate, and propose solutions. This collaborative effort could be engaging but scary: both teachers and students may have to step outside their normal roles and create new relationships within the classroom. But isn’t this what the 21st century is demanding of us all?
Michael K. Smith, Ph.D., is owner of TESTPREP EXPERTS (www.testprepexperts.com) which prepares students for standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. He is also a consultant to Discovery Education Assessment. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.