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Any-Century Skills: Basic Abilities Are Building Blocks

Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant
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Last summer, during a conference session I was doing in Tennessee, we were discussing those kids who come into schools without book sense -- five-year-olds who, sadly, don't know how to operate a book. A participant spoke up and said, "Jim, I'm a kindergarten teacher, and I'm getting worried about the number of kids coming into my classroom who don't know how scissors work."

I was stopped short, considering the implication of what was said. It really got me thinking. And since that day, I have come to believe that this lack of scissors sense really is a big deal, and in fact that the mastery of scissors is even one of the early steps on the road to Advanced Placement physics or chemistry. I believe that the kinesthetic experience they provide around equilibrium, experience gained in struggling to master this simple tool so as to be able to cut construction paper smoothly, lays a foundation for future complex conceptual understandings.

How can you excel, I wonder, in a world where equilibrium and the need to achieve it or avoid it is so pervasive, without early body memories of just what equilibrium means, about what this thing called equilibrium feels like?

But hold everything; I'm no Luddite, no scissors fanatic. In fact, I am an active advocate for twenty-first-century skills. Like so many of you, I get it! To be engaged and successful in 2007, you have to be able to use technology, collaborate in the electronic world, and so on. The folks at the Partnership for 21st Century Skills help clarify just what these skills are.

For example, they focus on communication rather than grammar, making clear that the latter concept certainly plays a role in all sorts of communication across all sorts of media but also understanding that this communication thing is so complex that isolated instruction in grammar cannot effectively support a student in gaining control of it.

By the same token, simply teaching kids how to use iMovie or MovieMaker is not enough. Rather, a twenty-first-century student needs to be able to carefully consider the audience and the purpose of the message before settling on the appropriate medium to use -- and, yes, even consider what grammar should and should not be used in crafting the message.

And technology skills need to be infused throughout, as it is so much a part of the way people communicate, work, and play in 2007. It is not enough for students to know how to use this technology tool or that one; they must also be able to select the right tool for the job and be so well informed about current possibilities that they can select the best one for the current job.

Yes, these twenty-first-century skills are a big deal, and we need to make sure our kids, our teachers, and even our schools work towards their mastery. But I suggest that we not forget about, and that we even take time to champion, what I am beginning to call "any-century skills" and their integration with the now oh-so-popular concept of twenty-first-century skills. For an example of what I mean here, to better understand the importance of knowing about scissors, about the complexity and power of those simple tools, check out this analytical discussion of surgical scissors.

Some examples of what I consider any-century skills are thinking, caring about oneself, caring for others, perseverance, making careful choices, listening for understanding, and being able to understand human potential and frailty. And what about being able, as I discussed at the very beginning, to use books and scissors?

I also consider the following to be any-century skills: the ability to dig a hole with a shovel, to dance without undue inhibition, to draw or paint what you see, to ride a bicycle (perhaps even with no hands), to make music (even if only by clapping of hands or tapping toes), to care for an animal, to talk one's way out of a tough situation, to plant a seed and nurture it until it grows, and to use one's imagination and whatever materials are available to build a fort and then make that rough-hewn space into a personally relevant place where memories are made.

You see, I think some skills and experiences are timeless, so fundamental to the human experience, that all kids should have a chance to master them. I guess, in a way, I am saying, "First things first." So, tell me, what do you think about the idea of any-century skills? Do they exist, and what are they? I look forward to reading what you think.

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Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant

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Sarah Taraz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I feel completely what you are saying. First things first, I feel definitely. For example, tiny ones are now quite tech savvy. Thus, the baby CDs and videos. But a baby needs positive human interaction that builds trust and joy, and it needs to feel the natural world first to build foundational understandings. THEN and I feel only then should a tiny child, little by lttle, be introduced to the things it can learn via technology. And my little ones have learned a great, great deal using the computer and through quality "TVideo," but it would mean nothing if they didn't touch everything and feel love and healthy touch themselves - which singlehandedly will get those dendrites growing like crazy in positive arrangements.

I mention the wee ones because I feel the same about the older kids, the ones I teach in my school. They need to be greeted warmly, boosted with positive acknowledgements, taught how to communicate kindly and efficiently with others, how to think critically and creatively and how to express that thought creativity using all their senses. The computer, which they love of course, is wonderful for exploration, discovery, research, ongoing assessment of their skills (We use Renaissance Learning, which I really like), using programs and the Net, etc. etc. However, without the former, the latter means very little to the service of humanity, including the inner self.

I am passionate about 21st century skills and our field gaining more courage and assertiveness to implement them in spite of the content standards paranoia syndrome it is experiencing. As an educator, I am ready to do whatever is necessary to get moving with this. I feel 20th century education styles to be archaic and detrimental at this point to the student population. However, I feel your description of any century skills to be right on. Is there an ongoing list of these skills being made where we could add to as we are inspired?

A Creatively Frustrated Upper Elem. Teacher
Tucson, AZ

John's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a middle school technology teacher and the parent of a wee one, this topic hits home pretty hard. I totally agree that students need tech skills as well as non-tech skills. One of my the many hats I hold is to work with my staff on technology integration and all too often I get the arguement that students are already tech savy, we need to focus on the old school way of doing things. This grates on my mind just like running fingers down a chalk board. I see students who come into my intro to technology class who I am told know a lot about computers but can't do one or more of the following:
1. save a file with a unique file name
2. search for help within a program (although they can search for cars, sports, etc.)
3. communicate in a discussion group
4. navigate within a program to find tools

The list goes on and on but those are some of the basics. As teachers we need to focus less on what century skills we are trying to teach and focus more on teaching students how to utilize the tools available to them. It shouldn't be a battle between the basics (reading, writing, math, science, etc.) and the electives (tech, band, choir, shop, pe, etc.). It should be a blending of both and how to use the skills within those subject areas to set and reach goals.

Bob Collier's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Fabulous article. I agree totally. :)

Pam's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a teacher, and a parent of two high schoolers it is very disturbing that children are coming into kindergarten; never having used scissors, dug a hole in a sandbox, or are unfamiliar with well-known nursery rhymes. Friends and acquaintances are always asking me why my children, even at 15 and 17, are so creative, and I have to say we're probably the only family we know that has never had a game system in our home. No, we have not banned them, they play with them at their friends' homes, but they have so many other interests (fishing, music, art, building, boating, talking to us)that they don't seem to miss it.

Brenda Martin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The challenge for all teachers today is to achieve a balance. To introduce children to new technology without neglecting the basic building blocks.

In New Zealand we are seeing the same trends. Five year olds who struggle to cut and paste, take turns, look after equipment or tidy things away. Five year olds who no longer get the opportunity to explore, create and direct their own learning.

Yes I acknowledge the need for literacy, numeracy and technology but lets not forget the skills that underpin these.

In response to this dilemma some teachers in New Zealand are implementing a programme called Discovery Time. A ninety minute session each week where teachers can bring balance to the curriculum, can provide opportunities for students to develop basic skills and most importantly to control their own learning.

J.R. Moulton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Joe -

Thanks so much for sharing this... So critically important. I love to tell folks one of the most important pieces of technology we all should use is a Phillips head screwdriver... And that we should use it to take the DVD player out of the backseat of your minivan... We have to TALK to our children... Looking out the window is a good thing. Please.


Cindy Dorner's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach second grade and I have also been shocked at the students' lack of awareness of nursery rhymes, fables, and folk tales and even games that we once played as children. These students lack a foundation for reading connections and comprehension. One of the first things I do each year now, is to play the "telephone" game with the class since many have never heard of it. That is a game that comes up often in our readings and the kids don't know what it is. They can't comprehend the story or make connections if we don't play the game at the beginning of the year. It's rather startling. So many of my second grade students know common day song lyrics ( that are often times inappropriate), but they seem to lack a knowledge of the building blocks for primary learning.

Fewer and fewer of my students play outside anymore. They are a population that is tuned in to technology. It seems to make for a one sided learning experience, so I do have to agree that there are some definite "any-century skills" that we should all fight to retain.

Urbana, IL

Chaddie 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The curriculum of Waldorf schools addresses so many of the ideas that have been raised here. Waldorf teachers around the world take up the fundamental qualities and capacities of the human being and weave the development of these into a program that teaches students how to engage and learn about the world and themselves with stick, jumprope, crayon,pen,compass,microscope, musical instrument,paintbrush,knitting needle,chisel,hoe,stage curtain,calculator,laptop, etc. ... even scissors - all carefully timed to meet the students at the best stage of development so that they understand the tool and its meaning in their lives. I think when time is spent in the early grades laying this kind of wide-ranging experiential foundation, students are equipped to learn "any century skills" because they have developed the capacity to do so. Investing in this bank of knowledge is what can provide the personal resources for life-long learning, for any future activity... even those we can't imagine now.
The other primary focus of the Waldorf schools is human relationship skills - how we express ourselves, communicate, and work with one another. Recognizing that these skills are developed on the playground, the classroom, the sports field, the dance floor, the orchestra, the stage, in community service, and out in nature helps us to understand the complex nature of what is needed to teach the collaborative skills of living. Here any century skills are developed in a variety of contexts... another important aspect of developing capacities.
There is so much we could teach students these days - the list is endless and the arguments over what is essential might carry us to and fro. Fundamentally, education is about developing the capacity in young people to be able to learn anything they need to know, to experience what it means to be a human being, and [in the case of "tools"] to understand how people develop tools and choose ones appropriate to a task. Then, if they've also developed self-awareness and the capacity to care about others, students are ready to not just step out into the world, but to bring to it their own unique contribution. From the point of view of a Waldorf graduate parent - it seems to me that that is what it is all about, in any century.
Baltimore, MD

John's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

All-century skills to me are key to understanding more of the depth behind the technology. Many understand how to use a technology but many in the current generation don't know what is behind that technology. Even if is as simple as compatible colors on a color wheel.

I praise my daughter who has always been imaginative. She works daily with our grand daughter on projects and play such that at 4 years old she recieves platitudes from everyone. But best of all, she is allowed to be a little girl with a wonderful imagination, loving temperment and inquisative mind. Having been a NROTC instructor and a manager of curriculum, I see her teaching her daughter by doing those things kids should do, baking, reading, painting, informal piano lessons, playing outside, building structures only to knock them down. They are teaching her the joy of learning by using all century skills.

Even though mom and dad are tech savy, he a computer engineer and she a web designer/graphic artist, crayons and paints are more important now than a computer drawing programs or games. I look forward to watching our grand daughter progress and watching my daughter and son-in-law continue to learn about teaching.

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