Each Iowa student must graduate with the 21st century skills necessary for a productive and satisfying life in a global knowledge-based environment. Descriptions of the new global reality are plentiful, and the need for new, 21st century skills in an increasingly complex environment is well documented. In one form or another, authors cite (1) the globalization of economics; (2) the explosion of scientific and technological knowledge; (3) the increasingly international dimensions of the issues we face, (i.e. global warming and pandemic diseases); and (4) changing demographics as the major trends that have resulted in a future world much different from the one that many of us faced when we graduated from high school (Friedman, 2005 and Stewart, 2007). The trends are very clear that each Iowa student will need essential 21st century skills to lead satisfying lives in this current reality.
As Ken Kay, president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, stated, the 21st century skills set “is the ticket to economic upward mobility in the new economy” (Gewertz, 2007). Our world economy has evolved from an industrial era to an information era and is now on the way to the creativity era, while at the same time our schools are stagnant in the industrial model. The 21st century skills are key elements in supporting our youth not only in surviving but excelling in the new global environment.
"It is a world in which comfort with ideas and abstractions is the passport to a good job, in which creativity and innovation are the keys to the good life, in which high levels of education – a very different kind of education than most of us have had – are going to be the only security there is."
-New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, 2006
The Framework for 21st Century Learning stated, "We believe schools must move beyond a focus on basic competency in core subjects to promoting understanding of academic content at much higher levels by weaving 21st century interdisciplinary themes into core subjects" (2007). 21st century skills bridge the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of students from the core academic areas to real life applications. Robert Sternberg described the necessity for 21st century skills when he stated, "…When we teach only for facts, rather than for how to go beyond facts, we teach students how to get out of date… " (2008).
Descriptions of what constitute essential 21st century skills are plentiful as well. In the 2007 legislative session, the Iowa Legislature established the Iowa 21st century skills framework as
(1) employability skills
(2) financial literacy
(3) health literacy
(4) technology literacy
(5) civic literacy
Within this 21st century skill framework we must identify common strands, or learning skills that will allow students to thrive in the world of work and to be productive citizens. Tony Wagner, Harvard Graduate School of Education, labels these "survival skills" as (1) critical thinking and problem solving; (2) collaboration and leadership; (3) agility and adaptability; (4) initiative and entrepreneurialism; (5) effective oral and written communication; (6) accessing and analyzing information; and (7) curiosity and imagination. Wagner proposes that schools use academic content to teach these skills at every grade level, and be accountable for a new standard of rigor. (Wagner, 2008.)
The development of the Iowa 21st century essential concepts and skills was a collaborative process engaging the expertise of p – 16 educators, business, and industry representatives. Sources used for this work included the Framework for 21st Century Learning, from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, enGauge, and the 1991 SCANS report, What Work Requires of Schools. The committee surveyed the literature and endeavored to bring together the common elements of these frameworks. The members outlined the concepts, dispositions and habits of mind believed essential for success in the 21st century.
The reality of building capacity for the 21st century is that we do not know what the work of the future will be like (Darling-Hammond, 2007) or how technology will influence health, or the balance of financial issues. The challenge is to prepare students to think critically, to engage in mental activity or habits of mind, that "…use facts to plan, order, and work toward an end; seek meaning or explanations; to be self-reflective; and use reason to question claims and make judgments…" (Noddings, 2008). It may be that our task is not only to prepare students to "fit into the future" but to shape it. "…If the complex questions of the future are to be determined… by human beings… making one choice rather than another, we should educate youths - all of them - to join in the conversation about those choices and to influence that future…" (Meier, 2008)