I looked up this report, expecting to see something about computation as a ’21st-century skill.’ The report is not what I expected, and probably more valuable than what I was looking for. Rather than focus on which content is most valuable (which leads us to issues like the current debate of whether we ought to teach algebra anymore), the panel emphasized “nonacademic skills,” e.g., the ability to manage your time so that you can graduate and intra-personal skills. I also appreciated how careful the panel was about transfer, mentioning that we do know how to teach for transfer within a domain, but not between domains.
Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who was not part of the report committee, said developing common definitions of 21st-century skills is critical to current education policy discussions, such as those going on around the Common Core State Standards. She was pleased with the report’s recommendation to focus more research and resources on nonacademic skills. “Those are the things that determine whether you make it through college, as much as your GPA or your skill level when you start college,” she said. “We have tended to de-emphasize those skills in an era in which we are focusing almost exclusively on testing, and a narrow area of testing.”
The skill that may be the trickiest to teach and test may be the one that underlies and connects skills in all three areas: a student’s ability to transfer and apply existing knowledge to a problem in a new context. “Transfer is the sort of Holy Grail in this whole thing,” Mr. Pellegrino said. “We’d like to believe we can create Renaissance men who are experts in a wide array of disciplines and can blithely transfer skills from one to the other, but it just doesn’t happen that way.”