Yes, you can teach 21st Century Skills without technology!

Ah, skills for the 21st Century!  When I hear “21st Century” anything – I imagine exciting and futuristic stuff like computers and technology.  Unfortunately, the concept of 21st Century skills is 20140706-094754-35274597.jpgactually pretty technology-lite!  Let’s look at some basic definitions/frameworks for 21st Century skills – then we can look at the role technology can play in getting students to practice, apply, and actually learn to use these skills beyond the classroom.  By the way, you do realize that the 21st Century is now 14 years old – we are more than 1/7 of the way through the 21st century already!

From various experiences I have a loose concept of 21st Century skills.  To me, they are somewhere between STEM (iSTEM, or even STEaM) processes, PBL or LDC practices, and the old school “soft skills” that they used to emphasize in career education programs.  I see 21st Century skills as a parallel curriculum of; communication, collaboration, team work, problem solving, planning, thinking critically, and being able to use a variety of tools (not ALWAYS technology) in context of a real world problem/situation/simulation.  In addition to this 21st Century curriculum, there is content knowledge and specific topics/concepts relating to the fields of study.  I am not the only one with a “dynamic” or “loose-y goose-y” definition of 21st Century skills…  Here are a few top hits that offer differing lists, emphasis, or arrangements – but you’ll get the gist of what  these skills are:

This is from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.  This is a pretty comprehensive list and I think many of these skills could be broken down more.

This is from the Partnership for 21st Century skills website.  Another comprehensive list – but you get the picture.

So, now that we have a summary definition of 21st Century skills (or at least a general overview), lets try to think about a unit plan of project that really uses the 21st Century skills.  To make my point, I am going to try to engage as many skills as I can without over-emphasizing student use of technology (or as little as possible). But, don’t expect me to go all “cave paintings and smoke signals” to get my point across.  🙂


Topic:  What was the root cause of the Civil War?

I want to teach about the different causes for the Civil War.  The kids have some prior knowledge of the topic already – they know it may involve slavery and economics – and they know the North “won”.  I am going to step back from “lecturing” on the topic and let students explore, collaborate, and develop their own theory/position with lots of support.  Then, we are going to publish an article and/or present the findings to a local audience.  We may even turn it into a brief play.  Through my process, I want to capitalize on their questions and wonderings about the causes.  Some of these questions might lead us to VERY new places – that is where the 21st Century skills come to fruition.

Let students collect reading selections from a variety of sources (they could go to the library and find actual books and articles or even search the web).  I should be able to find many primary sources from the period.  They need to read and comprehend these sources.  This can take the form of group work or group reading and summarization.

20140706-094754-35274697.jpgAfter reading the various selections and primary sources, I want them to re-read and classify all of this information.  Collect this information in a notebook or on notecards. They could even go on a field trip to visit a Civil War re-enactment to get different perspectives.

Groups would try to determine what the author cites as the reasons for the war, focus on the author’s perspective.  Label or “tag” everything for sorting out later.  We may even need to designate whether it is a “major” or “minor” cause.  This will require lots of discussion and even some debate.  Looking at the frameworks that others have used might be helpful in a mini-lesson. They could make their “major/minor” causes more complicated or more simple – it will depend on their decisions.  

Students could work with others and their sources to create some kind of organizer/framework for analyzing all of this information.  See if there are any trends or patterns emerging in the sources.  My students could try to quantify the sources – perhaps using a map to correlate between the location and the perspective (does opinion change depending on location)?  We could use technology to create this graphic or good old fashioned paper and colored pencils.  We might look for other resources/examples as models to help us create our own summary of findings.  The existing research can take the form of a mini-lesson.  This may be another author’s summary or some existing research about their topic.  

This group approach might lead us into different mini-searches for specific information.  This is all part of the process used in 21st Century skills.  We will need to collaborate and work together to gather al of this under one general question.  Plus, we may “spin off” into our own more narrow questions – we can use the group work to provide some background.

Once we have answered our main question, or developed new questions for future research, or actually chased one of our favorite questions down to discover something new – we are ready to put it together into some kind of “package” or “format”.  Each approach might require a mini-lesson to help them be able to “do it”.

My students can write a paper (handwritten from one of the defined “perspectives” in the type of a letter from the 1850’s or typed up using technology).  They could also create a play, perhaps using the “brother vs brother” analogy to detail of the causes for the war from different sides and viewpoints.  Maybe the play will take place of a dinner and the two brothers will discuss which side they should choose.  This could be videotaped (using technology) or presented in front of an actual audience – perhaps even the community.  They could even write a short “children’s book” to outline the major causes – so that a 4th grader could understand.  This could be similar to historical fiction or a metaphor – depending on which communicates the best.  Students might want a mini-lesson on the different styles of presentations.

My students might create an incredible graphs, chart, or map that shows their in depth analysis on the different viewpoints.  They would need to write or present a summary so someone “unfamiliar” might be able to understand the information.

In the end, I want the students to create something to communicate their learning/opinion/finding to others.  This could be spread across a community by putting copies/artifacts at the local grocery store or even the local post office – or it could involve meeting with local representatives of history organization.


To me, this would be an exemplary 21st Century skills lesson.  This could all be done through handwritten work, letters or phone calls, and using resources found in a library or local archive (heck, even resources could be copied or mailed to the school from other sites).  Technology could be used at a minimum – limited to looking something up on the internet or simply use a typewriter or computer to type up a paper.  At a maximum, students could use technology exclusively to find resources and examples.  The class could watch YouTube videos for mini-lessons as the information comes up in their research.  They could get additional perspectives/resources from experts on Twitter – or any one else who studies this issue.  Students could Skype with a prevalent historian on this topic.  Students could create a Twitter group or a blog to post findings or just journal as they discover things.  The class could capture, edit, and publish great multimedia sources to present their findings to others in a variety of ways.


So, keep this kind of “extreme” approach in mind when planning major projects emphasizing 21st Century skills.  Keeping it LOW-TECH CAN BE DONE and the learning is still VERY VALUABLE. At the same time, there is little doubt that technology can “kick up the excitement” about doing this project and allows our kids to interact with a wider variety of people and different media in the larger context of the world – brought to us by technology.

The core of “21st Century skills” is the process to collaborate, read and analyze, organize, solve problems, write for a purpose, and communicate findings to an authentic audience – it doesn’t have to involve technology to do that.




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