If you’ve spent any time around education in the last decade, you have probably heard about 21st Century Skills. Although the Framework developed by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning has multiple facets, most often mentioned are the learning skills of Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Creativity, known collectively as the “4 C’s.”

It is no coincidence that there is overlap with my own framework for nurturing a problem solving culture in the classroom. If our goal in education is to create the leaders and problem solvers of the future, we need to ensure that we go beyond content delivery and provide experiences where students learn these 21st century skills.

Recent events highlight the critical importance of making this a priority. Real world problems require complex thinking and sophisticated understanding of relationships. In my observations of how people attack problems, both in the world and in the classroom, I have seen four bad habits that get in the way of developing 21st century skills in any meaningful way.

Jumping to Solutions

Over and over again, when a problem arises, I have witnessed people responding almost instantaneously with their solution. Frequently the solution is presented as the only viable option, and no other possibilities are considered. Whether it’s students designing a device to protect an egg from a high fall (here’s one version I particularly like from NASA) or a community trying to prevent mass shootings, we jump immediately from recognizing the existence of a problem to implementing the intuitive solution.

I believe the way we deliver our K-12 curriculum promotes this kind of thinking. There are few opportunities for real problem solving. Instead, we present facts and algorithms as pre-packaged chunks for students to consume and later recall. We occasionally tell the story of how the facts and algorithms came to exist, but rarely let students experience that process themselves. When we teach history, for example, as an inevitable sequence of events instead of showing the messy and time-consuming complexities of making decisions and considering alternatives, students may believe that there must be one right answer to every situation. They will then either pick one from whatever happens to be instinctively obvious to them at the moment, or they will wait for someone else to show them the answer key.

We need to begin teaching students about the additional steps between and beyond recognizing a problem and implementing a solution:

  1. Clearly define the problem
  2. Analyze and understand the problem and its context
  3. Developing multiple solution alternatives
  4. Analyze the solutions and select one
  5. Implement or test the solution
  6. Evaluate the outcome
  7. Repeat the cycle

Risk and Loss Avoidance

Related to our desire for instant solutions is our tendency to pick the options that involve the least personal risk or loss, even if they are the least effective. “I’m all for preventing global warming as long as I don’t have to pay more for electricity.” “I want an A on this paper, as long as I don’t have to give up my video games or quit the soccer team.” This artificially limits our options when we’re developing solution alternatives.

Teach students how to really analyze solution alternatives and recognize potential long-term benefits from a short-term risk. Show them how to identify and distinguish needs from wants. Help them learn how to do deeper research about the implications and consequences of the alternatives.

Appropriating Opinions

Because we have been trained to accept what we’re told without critique or analysis, we treat all media as a source of authority. In an age when anyone can publish anything, this is dangerous. One symptom is the proliferation of fake or satirical news articles shared as fact. No, a man playing the Pokemon GO app did not cause a major traffic accident. A more serious symptom is that many people appropriate opinions expressed on social and traditional media as their own. Psychologists have shown that when the people we connect with have the same opinions as we do, those opinions are significantly resistant to change. The nature of social media in particular promotes the sharing of opinions disguised as unambiguous fact.

Schools should spend more time teaching how to parse the difference between fact and opinion, and in analyzing opinions. Learning to question the source, recognize bias and hidden assumptions, fact-check information, and consider alternative explanations and possibilities will help students form their own opinions instead of merely adopting those of others

Shallow Listening

In order to recognize opinions and analyze them, it’s necessary to really listen to and understand other people. Too often we hear little of that they are really saying as we focus on formulating our own response. A great deal of conflict arises because we bring our own assumptions to a relationship and don’t truly understand from the other person’s perspective.

This week I observed this in a summer class I’m teaching. Two students who are collaborating on a project had two different ideas about what their end product should be. The first student described his idea about solving a particular engineering design problem. The other student interrupted him and explained his solution. When I asked the second student to tell me what he thought about the first solution, he just looked at me blankly. I probed further: “What specifically is it about his design that you think isn’t going to work well?” The blank stare continued for a moment, then he said, “Mine is better because….” The second student hadn’t listened well enough to make even a single thoughtful statement about the first solution.

If we spend more time understanding how the brain listens and teaching active listening strategies, students will begin to listen more deeply.

Addressing these four barriers to 21st century skill development will go a long way towards improving outcomes in schools. What other obstacles do you see in schools and in society that we should consider as we help students become better critical thinkers and problem solvers? Share your ideas in the comments.

Image credit: Barrier by Rae Allen (https://www.flickr.com/photos/raeallen/27533649/).