Are We Really Ready for the 21st Century?
As a parent, I struggle mightily trying to figure out what to teach my children. On the one hand, I really need them to follow certain rules—I need them to cross at crosswalks, to not drink and drive, to go to school, to be kind, and to assume the best in people. I really want them to follow other rules—put their shoes away, don’t leave dirty clothes on the floor…
My struggle is that rule-following is at odds with some of the most important skills children need to have heading into their lives as productive members of our global and digital society. Researcher Tony Wagner, of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, has identified the “7 Survival Skills” needed for modern engagement and none of them are “rule following.”
- Critical thinking and problem solving
- Agility and adaptability
- Initiative and entrepreneurialism
- Effective oral and written communication
- Accessing and analyzing information
- Curiosity and imagination
What strikes me most is that every item on this list involves a dynamic, flexible way of engaging with the world. It is not enough to have a mental Rolodex of thinking skills; children have to know when to use one versus another. It’s not enough to know how to write a 5-paragraph essay, they need to be able to write emails and thank you notes, lab reports and requests for proposals, letters to their congressmen, and maybe even computer code.
One of the best ways to help students develop this kind of dynamism is to teach them to write different types of products. Writing-format indicates the way an author has had to organize her thinking.
Writing an RFP requires an author to plan a timeline, scope a project within a budget, and develop and summarize a work plan.
Writing a letter to a congressman requires an author to be succinct, direct, and open with a great lede; to identify legislation; to use the personal as an impetus for the political.
Writing computer code requires an author to learn, select, and use a scripting language; to learn about the structure of different programs and the concept of algorithms.
By writing in each of these formats, students demonstrate their ability to organize and present their thoughts and the information they explore in varied, interesting, and useful ways. I certainly want my own children to leave high school with that kind of agility, flexibility, and adaptability.
So, back to rule-following. A wise (jazz-playing) school principal once said to me, “Musicians have to play scales before they play jazz.” I think of 5-paragraph essays in the same way. Our students need to learn to write a solid 5-paragraph essay for sure. But once they’ve done that, we should let them soar with the potential to write jazz.
For ideas for teaching flexibility through varied writing products, visit these LDC resources.
- Academic Writing Across the Disciplines (paper that describes which writing products are authentic to various disciplines)
- Types of Assignments in the Disciplines (table of writing products typically found within major disciplines, includes task templates that match the products)
- Not a 5-Paragraph Essay (collection of modules with a variety of products, none of which is a 5-paragraph essay)
I hope there is great excitement for you and your students as the school year gets underway.