Taking Note: Skills + Knowledge = 21st-Century Competencies

Sunil Iyengar, Director of the Office of Research and Analysis, National Endowment for the Arts
August 6, 2012

It’s a commonplace of most research reports that they conclude in much the same way, by stipulating that “more research must be conducted.” But the statement rings especially true when the study topic itself is cliché-ridden. In such cases, additional research can hardly do better than clarify terms and concepts, ensuring that the commonplace acquires at least common focus and definition—so that a frequently cited topic does not mean different things to different people.

These reflections were prompted by a read of the National Academies’ new report, Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century. The report, commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation, the Hewlett and MacArthur Foundations, the National Science Foundation, and a host of other funders, takes an entirely reasonable, if threadbare concept—21st-century skills development—and parses it into “three broad domains of competence.” What results is a series of skill and knowledge areas that the report rebrands as “21st-century competencies.”

Why do these competencies matter? Because, according to the report, they foster “deeper learning,” or a student’s ability to transfer knowledge and skills from one academic subject to another, so that, overall, greater expertise is achieved in each subject area.

Although the arts are not specifically mentioned in the report, the findings are relevant to understanding the strengths and limitations of integrating arts education with other school curricula. The report is fuzzy on explaining whether sustained immersion in any given subject area is more or less likely to produce transferable skills and knowledge. (From the report: “More research is needed to illuminate whether, and to what extent, competencies learned in one discipline or context of application can generalize and transfer to other disciplines or contexts.”) Yet this very question drives much of the public discussion (and sometimes controversy) about arts integration.

Listing “metacognition” as a 21st-century competency, the report concedes that “the teaching of metacognitive skills is often best accomplished in specific content areas since the ability to monitor one’s understanding is closely tied to domain-specific knowledge and expertise.” Apart from this judgment and a few similar ones, I searched in vain for a rejoinder (or, indeed, a reference) to E.D. Hirsch’s criticism of 21st-century skills development as a policy aim. The prolific educational theorist has long maintained that “core knowledge” in a host of domains, including the arts, is preferable to creative or critical thinking skills per se as a pedagogical pursuit.

“To develop the skills our students need, we need to abandon the notion that skills are separable, transferable abilities,” he has written. “Skill is knowledge. There are no shortcuts.” (Another provocative thinker in education policy reform, Diane Ravitch, has gone so far as to form a “Partnership for 19th-Century Skills.”) To be fair, the National Academies report goes a long way toward challenging the notion of 21st-century learning as strictly skills development; that’s why the authors prefer the term “competencies,” which accounts for knowledge acquisition as well.

“In contrast to a view of ’21st-century skills’ as general skills that can be applied to a range of different tasks in various civic, workplace, or family contexts, the committee views these competencies as aspects of expertise that are specific to—and interwined with—knowledge of a particular discipline or subject area.”

The strategy works as an organizing principle, but it still leaves room for debating which competencies are rooted primarily in transferable skills and which in domain knowledge. But in the grand tradition of policy-oriented research, the report’s authors are perfectly frank about the work that lies ahead.

A central problem, for example, is the scarcity of data on outcomes related to 21st-century learning. “The available research is limited and primarily correlational in nature.” In this respect, the authors note, the most richly studied area has been cognitive outcomes. Further, “to date, only a few studies have demonstrated a causal relationship between one or more 21st-century competencies and adult outcomes.” (This caveat should sound all too familiar to researchers who strive to measure the long-term impacts of arts and arts education.)

Despite these obstacles, the National Academies report identifies six “research-based teaching methods” that can be used to promote learning transfer. Again, although the arts don’t rate a mention, it’s easy to imagine their potential role in at least half of these teaching methods:

  • Use multiple and varied representations of concepts and tasks, such as diagrams, numerical and mathematical representations, and simulations, along with support to help students interpret them.
  • Teach with examples and cases, such as modeling step-by-step how students can carry out a procedure to solve a problem while explaining the reason for each step.
  • Prime student motivation by connecting topics to students’ personal lives and interests, engaging students in problem-solving, and drawing attention to the knowledge and skills students are developing and their relevance, rather than grades or scores.

In the end, perhaps the only guarantor of such methods achieving widespread use is the design and implementation of assessment tools to test for them. It’s fitting, therefore, that one of the two main entities behind this report is the Academies’ Board on Testing and Assessment (BOTA). (The study committee’s chair, incidentally, was James Pellegrino of the University of Illinois at Chicago. See here for a presentation he gave in 2010, titled “Educational Assessment: Some of What the Arts Education & Funding Communities Might Need to Know.”)

BOTA’s director is Stuart Elliott. Last February, at an Arts Endowment research roundtable on standards and assessment, Elliott warned arts educators and funders not to rush to embrace the 21st-century skills paradigm simply because it contains concepts such as “creativity.” At the event, he said: “The overall term, 21st-century skills, refers to a grab-bag.” He added: “We need to be more specific. Exactly which skills are we talking about and why are they important?”

“Many 21st-century skills need to be learned in the context of a particular content area. And it can also be challenging to transfer them to other areas.” Elliott concluded: “We need to think carefully about claims in developing 21st-century skills in the arts and other areas because it’s a hard argument to make in a solid way.”

By considering the taxonomy of skills and knowledge that make up 21st-century learning requirements, the National Academies report admittedly has not figured out how “transferable learning” relates to domain-specific knowledge. Still, the report goes a long way toward helping us talk to each other about the kinds of outcomes we want students to demonstrate. It should surprise no one that many of those outcomes align with the benefits we perceive in high-quality arts education.

This article was originally published by the National Endowment for the Arts. It is reprinted here with permission.

Image: Flickr/bonnie-brown