Change Again

Within the past 50 years, we’ve seen our country move from an industrial economy to an information-based economy. Now, early in the 21st century, it appears we are shifting to an innovation-based economy, one that requires what the psychologist Robert J. Sternberg calls “successful intelligence,” a three-point foundation of analytical, practical, and creative skills. In other words, the measure of success in today’s economy is not just what you know, but how you use that to imagine new ways to get work done, solve problems, or create new knowledge. This innovation-based environment calls for substantially new forms of assessment, and therein lies a major hurdle for schools, especially American schools, trying to prepare students for this new century.

That’s the first paragraph of an article in the current edition of Education Week. It’s by Charles Fadel, Margaret Honey, & Shelley Pasnik.

It’s another of those articles that raises urgent questions about the nature of learning and about whether what is so often taught in schools is actually what will serve children in the 21st century. Our present methods of testing children’s progress tend to concentrate on factual recall rather than on problem solving and reasoning ability. And what gets tested drives what get taught and emphasized in the classroom. Using international benchmarks evaluators of the American education system find American students lagging behind in problem solving ability in mathematics and science. According to these authors American students do not do as well as their European and Asian counterparts in applying what they know to new situations.

The authors contend that students need to be able to cope with the most salient feature of contemporary society: change. They believe that the “ability to adapt to new conditions and imagine new solutions” must be a major component of any skill set. Learning for the fluid and ever changing environment of this century demands is the skills of adaptation and practical application rather than merely the acquisition of facts and procedures.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills identifies the essential elements as academic content infused with themes such as global awareness and a whole range of essential academic, social and technological literacies. Their view of what it means to be educated is broad, comprehensive and all-embracing. The markers of success are not narrow test scores but real world skills, aptitudes and attitudes – including creativity, innovation, problem solving, critical thinking, communication and collaboration.

Fadel, Honey and Pasnik quote a recent document by Singapore’s Ministry of Education that calls for exactly this kind of approach: “Education is about preparing our people for the future. To thrive in the world in 2015, Singaporeans need strong analytical, communication, and interpersonal skills. They have to be more risk-taking, entrepreneurial, and able to tolerate greater ambiguity. Most importantly, they need to continuously learn, unlearn, and relearn to remain relevant in a dynamic environment.”

That document – Singapore’s blueprint for future learning is called Empowering Learners, Engaging Minds through Infocomm. It’s a document that crafts an imagined future for Singapore as a world brand with a population of highly educated and connected citizens.

If learning and the assessment of learning are to be about about integrating and using new knowledge and not just about memorization and mechanical performance then educators will need to focus assessments for learning that are performance based and reveal the work the progress (the student thinking as well as the end product).

The article goes on to add that such assessment must:
• Generate data that can be acted upon.
• Build capacity in both teachers and students. Assessments should provide frequent opportunity for feedback and revision, so that both teachers and students learn from the process.
• Be part of a comprehensive and well-aligned continuum. Assessment should be an ongoing process that is well-aligned to the target concepts, or core ideas, reflected in the standards.

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