21st Century Breadth Requirements: Time for an Education Revolution

21st Century Breadth Requirements: Time for an Education Revolution

21st Century Breadth Requirements

21st Century Breadth Requirements

During several recent education strategy projects, the question about what to teach came up over-and-over. In technology, there is no good answer today that will hold for tomorrow. But there are several background skills that underpin modern technology and contemporary social needs.

This list might also be called 21st Century Skills, but it is aimed at educators and at schools as a proposed alternative to traditional breath requirements of language, literature, science, history, etc. The list suggests general skills that all college educated learners should master to add a level of practical relevance to the learning experience. Some of the topics, such as first aid, are often taught to people after they join a company because the company anticipates some need either because of accidents, workplace violence or natural disasters. Other items, such as temporal integration, are both approaches to the organization of learning, and to skill transfer. If students learn how to align their learning to a context, they can better manage the context required to make future learning more relevant.


Transliteracy Essentially communicating for the 21st Century. How to effectively communicate using everything from Twitter to the Post-It note. To write, to read and to collaborate. This is not to exclude long-form writing, but to understand the breadth of forms available, when they are appropriate, and how best to communicate through them. Transliteracy should also include non-linear storytelling.

History with foreign language terms Rather than teaching a language initially to all students, all students should be exposed to language and its importance in history. We should all have an appreciation for different meanings of terms as they are understood in a native context, or words that are literally untranslatable. By incorporating foreign terms into history, people can gain a less state-centric view of historical events that will prepare them for the multi-cultural reality they will face, or better prepare them for navigating the one in which they already exist.

First Aid and Crisis Management The world is a dangerous place. Everyone should know basic first aid. Seems like a no-brainer but it usually gets relegated to work education for those charged with employee safety in the workplace. Wouldn’t it be great if we all actually understood how to treat ourselves and our loved ones should an incident befall us? And what better way to teach people about their bodies than talking about them as mechanical things that can be fixed. But the class shouldn’t just be about treating wounds, it should also include the psychology of the injured so we can learn better how to deal with crisis situations.

Global project management w/ foreign language (bi-directional emersion) Let’s see that language thing at work as people attempt to work together on a project across national borders, and across language and cultural borders as well. It’s a global economy, let every fresh-person experience globalization, not through the eyes of foreign exchange students, but by working with students who have chosen to stay in-country and collaborate, just like they will when they get a job in a few years.

Art. Study and copy. Multiple Mediums. So I just suggested that we not force calculus on every student, why force art on them? We live in a designed world. Art is in everything from phones to monitors to video games and other user interfaces. But students without an art background don’t know how any of this commercial implemented of art gets created or how it is managed. Art is everywhere. At a certain level, people naturally appreciate beauty. This competency would focus on taking something and copying it into multiple mediums (a sculpture: draw it, paint it, use it in a webpage, re-sculpt it, print it, etc.) so that the muscles of art get exercised. This same course could also integrate content management skills (tagging, repositories, collaborative sharing and version control) as a sub-topic.

Database development and queries People need to understand how the world works, and today the world is all about data and databases. This topic should not turn people into database administrators, but rather give them an understanding of how computers use data and how to request data and manipulate it. Every learner should understand what happens when her or she engages on the web, in social media, and in transaction systems—and what data collectors can and will do data once they collect the data. And learners should also get a chance to create a website that uses data from various places, apply skills in data gathering and data representation, as well as data as a form of communication.

Temporal (Historical) integration across subjects. Inventions happen at a certain time under a set of historical conditions and emanate from a set of historical pre-requisites, yet we treat things we know like they just are after awhile, and we loose their context. This is one reason schools have a difficult time convincing students of the value of history or engineering. The approach suggests an integration of history into science, art and engineering. History, for general education, perhaps ceases to be an independent topic. History creates the context for everything else (context without application). This approach place other learning into its historical context, and provides increased relevancy for both.

Parenting skills and learning about learning Epigenetics suggests that how we treat the fetus in the womb may be as important as anything we ever do as parents. Research also suggests that reading to children before the age of 3, may contribute significantly to academic success. It may be the most important contributor. Every student needs to understand that the future of education starts with them. The confluence of indoctrination into an industrial age consumer society created helicopter parents. Perhaps with a thoughtful introduction to the latest science of parenting we can help those parents land in order to co-create learning experiences, rather than run rough-shot over them. And we can help future parents better understand the impact of their choices on their children’s future.

Statistics From betting to stock markets, from traffic flow to disease, from machine learning to game theory, statistics are the key mathematics of everyday life. It is important that people are not just exposed to mathematics that matter in their daily lives, but that they master those mathematics. The course need not approach the topic from a purely mathematics perspective, but would ideally be presented as part of a living curriculum that integrated statistics into their context of use.

Arthur Benjamin’s TED talk on Statistics

Networking. Weaving networks has always been a factor in success. Today, the networks are no longer limited to the ones people were inserted into. They are created and co-created all of the time. How to create, navigate and weave networks will be a crucial survival skills, and a key to success in both getting a job and more importantly, staying employed.

Surveys. Asking good questions is a necessary skill. Asking good questions of people so you can collect data about opinions and perceptions will be an increasingly important skill as people learn that marketing isn’t just for marketers. People will increasingly become their own brands, and they will need to use survey data to understand their personal market, but also to establish unique positions based on the questions they ask, how they interpret the data and the positions they take on the results.

Asking good questions of data The other side of asking questions is asking good questions of data. Surveys generate data, but there is already a lot of data. Business intelligence is too constricting. Everyone needs basic skills in asking questions of data so that they can better understand the world around them, be it the natural world, the business world of the social world.

Building and understanding models As we better understand the world, we naturally model it. Modeling appears to be a core human endeavor. But models are often fragile. They exist at odd levels of abstraction that often only approximate their topic. Asking questions of data is important, but perhaps more important is understanding the source of the data and the model that underlies it. Some data is just the representation of the real world. Other data comes from models. Understanding the mechanisms behind those models, and their flaws are crucial in effectively understanding the meaning or story of the data. Models also require feedback. Many models work for a time, but as we learn, or the underlying elements upon which the model was built, evolve or otherwise change, then the model becomes increasingly inaccurate, even irrelevant. Being able to understand when a model ceases to be useful will not only be important, in some cases in may be a key element in survival.

Scenario planning and foresight The best way to navigate the future is to put a name on uncertainty and use scenarios to explore how those uncertainties might play out under different social, economic, political, environmental and technological circumstances.

Pattern Recognition People are the penultimate pattern recognizers. We do it naturally, but we don’t really hone it in today’s education system. Some classes in research start to hint how to improves acuity to patterns, but the intense use of pattern recognition across courses, connecting dots and generating insights will improve all student’s ability to succeed in tomorrow’s workplace.

Horizon scanning complements pattern recognition by helping people select information that is particularly useful in thinking about future action. Horizon scanning is a good case for how research, such as exploring how people will learn in the future, can provide a focal context for pattern recognition. Only a few people will become practitioners of scenario planning and practice it broadly, but everyone can benefit from looking ahead in a focused way, on the issues that matter to the work they are doing, in order to understand what they still need to know, and what is going to be important as the future unfolds.

Negotiating Boundaries Boundaries are everywhere. From geopolitical to workplace politics. From implicit neighborhood edges to the edges of knowledge. Success in the 21st Century will require that people can identify boundaries, understand how to navigate around them or what it necessary to permeate them. Today’s world isn’t flat, and tomorrow’s maybe even more lumpy. Without understanding boundaries and how to navigate them, people will become increasingly trapped experiencing the global economy through parochial lenses.

Carne Ross. TED talk on becoming a freelance diplomat-the ultimate negotiator of boundaries – also on randomness and nonlinear life stories.

Political engagement Many schools encourage political engagement, but most do not teach the intricacies of change unless one elects to become a political science major. As change is the only constant, an understanding of politics is one of the tools required for co-creation of the future. Government classes in high school and their oversimplification of legislative processes needs to be augmented by college-level work that helps all students directly and practically understand and experience this tool of change.

Finances and markets. Starting a new business. Investing in one’s own future. Deciding who to work for. These require a fundamental understanding of finance and markets. This course should also include entrepreneurialism and start-up funding models.

Personal Branding How people represent themselves has always been important. In a world increasingly led by small businesses and individual entrepreneurs, career management will be less important than personal branding. How one represents experience and differentiates themselves from their competition, will be an important element of revenue generation. The future will no longer be one of employment or unemployment, but one of personal utilization.

Innovation, Creativity, Cognition and the Senses How we think, and how we apply our mental capabilities, should be an absolute necessity for those who aim for lifelong learning. Challenging personal assumptions is the starting point for all learning. This experience should include all of the senses. Creativity is not just a mental exercise—the outcome of thinking hard about something – it is the result of the synthesis of experience, and if you don’t experience things, you won’t be as creative. This course would focus on transforming experience data into creative solutions and insights.

Sir Ken Robinson, TED Talk: Do Schools Kill Creativity? A must watch!

One final note. These topics should not be considered as discrete courses, but as an integrated set of skills and disciplines. Curricula should make clear connections and offer reinforcement wherever possible. And these courses should take place in multiple environments in order to maximize the lessons in multiple contexts. The outcome: a wide range of practical personal competencies. How they are acquired matters much less than their mastery. This allows learning guides to offer multiple entry points for learning. Additional research is required to determine the best way to measure the achievement of these competencies.

What else would you add, combine or change?

(A special thank you to the TED speakers who reinforce some of my points, and to Wired for their recent compilation of essential skills not taught in college. See the Wired here: 7 Essential Skills You Didn’t Learn in College)

Daniel W. Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.

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