21st Century Skills

Minefaire Schaumburg Learning Lab Presentation

Today my ninth grade daughter is taking the PSAT test at her high school. The only thing she's happy about is that the test schedule has disrupted the normal school schedule so that she gets to go to lunch with her friends outside of school. In general that's the only ray of sunshine, the social aspects, that brightens her school day. Otherwise it's a stress-inducing academic marathon of discrete subjects, along with piles of homework and standardized tests. She is in three AP classes, which just seem to be regular classes with more homework. In my idealized classroom, there would be no grades, tests, or homework. School days would be filled with self-directed, project-based learning involving teamwork across age and subject-matter boundaries. The way I view it, the school play or musical is the ultimate expression of holistic learning, in that it incorporates reading, writing, social science, history, arts, STEM, and social-emotional skills. STEM? Well, someone needs to figure out how to make the stage lights and sound board work.

Last month, my ten-year old son was invited to give a presentation at Minefaire, a growing fan-based convention around the Minecraft open world game. For those unfamiliar, Minecraft is one of the most popular video games, especially for the middle-school crowd. It's highly likely if you know a kid who is between the ages of 5 and 12, they have probably played the game or know of it. It's also likely you won't be able to get them to stop talking about it or playing it, much to the consternation of parents everywhere. Turns out though, that this block-based 3D world where kids either figure out how to kill zombies or build fantastical creations, is also one of the more powerful educational platforms in existence today. It's just disguised as a video game.

I myself discovered this a few years ago when both my son and daughter were playing the game. Fast forward a few years and my son, shown in the picture above, is giving a high-level presentation about some interactive birthday cards he built in-game for us. He's speaking with an audience of about 50 parents and kids. This is something many adults struggle to do in their professional lives at conferences and work meetings. In the broader debates about education reform and transformation, it is often said that we in the USA are falling behind other countries in producing future workers with 21st century skills. Let me ask you dear reader; is what my son is doing above a representation of 21st century skills? He is demonstrating the ability to articulate and present complex information to a group of peers. He is adept at using technology. He is able to teach others and have the emotional maturity to keep it together during the talk. Let's ignore the content for a moment. Are the skills I just mentioned more important than knowing what the capital of Montana is? Or knowing how to simplify a calculus equation? Or memorizing the periodic table of elements? I would say yes, because all those things can be easily done by computers or found on the internet. The ability to synthesize information is something computers can't do well (yet). But our current educational system isn't optimized to teach kids these 21st century skills when it's mired in 19th century models of pedagogy.

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