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Why I Embrace 21st Century Global Competencies

When I started my career, students were much more interested in creating their own topics and exploring different avenues of the overall task than they appear to be today. In my classes, particularly post-pandemic, when there is an option to create your own topic with approval, very few students select the “make your own”. I found this especially frustrating when I was teaching a gifted class. I was, mistakenly, of the belief that students would embrace freedom and be excited to come up with their own topic.

Instead, I’m seeing more and more students who are not only sticking to the suggested idea list, they are trying to copy any examples or models that are given to them. What has happened to learning and curiosity?

My theory is that we’ve moved from school being about learning to being about grading and ranking. Students are now only interested in what will give them the mark that they “need”. Students are becoming paralyzed at the thought of risk-taking in a classroom, especially if it will be recorded and are, therefore, moving to “safe”.

This is also manifesting in students attempting to repeat projects and topics. When presented with a list of 50 names to choose from, time and time again, students want to stick with the safe and familiar. It begs the question, as a Canadian student, how many projects on Terry Fox can one student complete from Kindergarten to grade 12? They are also trying to re-read books even if it isn’t for marks. If given the time for independent reading, not graded, many students come to the library looking for a book that they read in a previous grade (or had read to them) or a series that they already know and love, like Harry Potter. There doesn’t seem to be a hunger or appetite for anything new; not even the willingness to take a recommendation from another student or teacher.

At what age did curiosity and wonder die?

Did the school system, which rewards completion and mastery, kill learning for kids?

Then we layer in the anxiety suffering of this current generation. Students who are literally unable to make decisions, complete presentations, show up to class, or submit assignments because of anxiety. It’s real. I see it. Yes, some students play the “anxiety card” as a “get of jail free” but the majority who mention anxiety are really struggling. Poor mental health is real and we have a lot of teenagers who are unhealthy and not managing. 

But then we also have students who have lost touch with what is normal stress and how to manage it. Our

classrooms are filled with students who can’t be uncomfortable. As teachers, we now have to give “trigger warnings", we have to provide alternative assignments and evaluation opportunities, we have to let students sit together and only work with their preferred learning partners, and we have to have food and water available at all times.

I’m not a believer that the old ways are better. But I am seeing a dramatic shift in the landscape of learning in the secondary classroom. What are we doing that is actually preparing students for their future?  

I’m also not a believer that new is better. I do, however, hold that 21st Century Global Competencies are essential for our students and that these are the skills that need to be taught and practiced in the classroom. 

So what do we do when our students aren’t showing critical thinking skills, collaboration skills, growth mindsets, etc.?

It’s time for a revamp of our classrooms.

Curriculum largely is about content to be included in our classes but how are we delivering the materials to students that embrace these larger identified skills that are necessary for future success? Where are we explicitly teaching these skills rather than making assumptions that our learners already know how or what they are and what to do? What have we done as educators to learn how to move students along a continuum of growth in these areas? Some of us have fallen into the trap of believing they either have the skill or they don’t. All of these competencies have entry points and improvement or development that allow a student to progress.

It might be time for schools to sit down and look at creating language, rubrics, and continuums that will establish common language and expectations across all courses and curriculum. It may be time for school staff to sit down and explore what they value and what they want for their students.

School culture may have to shift in order for our students to become successful beyond the classroom. We may need to redo the mission, vision, and values of our schools to get to a place where we care about more than the one course where we encounter the learner and focus on centering the success of our learners.

If we embrace global competencies, we may rebuild the joy of learning in our students.

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