If you want students to learn 21st-century skills, one approach involves giving them problems in school that resemble those they may tackle in their everyday lives. The thinking is that by solving such problems, students will learn the skills of teamwork, communication, project management, and complex problem solving. Yet, it might be difficult to convince teachers to use such time-consuming activities in their classrooms, and the research on the effectiveness of such activities is mixed at best.
Of course, the ho-hum effectiveness results might have more than a little to do with the limitations of the tests of effectiveness than the actual classroom activities. And so begins the assessment debate. Currently, most American teachers at the K-12 level and beyond, are required to teach to tests that check student performance on more academically-defined standards. These standards generally focus on knowledge that is easy to test: core facts, concepts, and procedures--knowledge that cognitive psychologists characterize as "declarative" and "procedural."
You don't have to be a psychologist to know that life does not present itself as a multiple choice test, but more as an unstructured series of problems that require a bit more than reciting vocabulary and demonstrating you can transform an equation. Proponents of teaching 21st-century skills fear that students focused strictly on proving they have learned the more academic standards will fail to learn the kinds of higher-level skills that will keep them competitive in the global economy. We all can remember those first years out of college when we realized how little we learned in school seemed to matter...
Incidentally, despite the press of standardized testing, teachers have long been encouraged to teach students higher-level skills through instructional categorization systems that hierarchically rate classroom activities according to their cognitive qualities. Bloom's Taxonomy is a well-known hierarchy. It involves rating activities that require students to apply, evaluate, argue, or synthesize knowledge as the higher-order kinds of activities. Check the tasks required on your child's state tests. You won't see too many questions that require those kinds of skills.
I have provided a link to the discussion around the problem of how to assess 21st-century skills on the blog. The blogosphere and journalism world are already batting about these ideas, noting that the so-called 21st-century skills depend on knowing the NCLB basics. There's also some concern about how expensive it would be to score tests that measure such skills. While these policy debates heat up, various efforts unfold in the educational community that may point the way toward a rapprochement between the advocates of standards-based education and 21st-century skills-based education. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has been providing skills standards for K12 subjects.
In my own work, we have taken the approach of helping community college instructors who want to engage their students in problem-based learning activities--the kind designed to teach 21st-century skills--to define the learning outcomes they seek to achieve and develop effective tools to assess student performance. Our team from the Foothill-DeAnza Community College District in Los Altos, CA, and SRI International is starting to share these materials, which were developed under a grant from the National Science Foundation. To review them, go to this link: http://elc.fhda.edu/