Problem Solving: A Source of Renewal for 21st Century Skills

KRowellI’m so proud that this guest post comes from a former student who I taught back in 5th and 6th grades. Today, Katherine Rowell is a member of the 2013 graduating class of Innovation Academy Charter School in Tyngsboro, Massachusetts, and a passionate advocate for high quality education. She plans to begin her studies this fall at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, MA with a major in History and minor in Education. She hopes to become a high school history teacher in the Boston area after earning her bachelor’s degree, and anticipates attending graduate school for a Master’s degree in Education. This article was written for her Senior Project. 


In the early 2000s, the future of the 21st century skills movement in education seemed bright and full of promise. The 21st century skills philosophy addressed the preparation of students for this modern, ever-changing age of technology and innovation through their schooling, and promised to provide students with the skills they need to thrive as global citizens and as members of the future workforce. Over a decade later, however, it seems that the 21st century skills movement has made little actual progress in classrooms. Although I will be graduating from a very innovation-focused charter school this June, I have noticed that 21st century skills are still not a fully integrated part of even my school’s curricula — and not for lack of trying.

In his Washington Post article “The Latest Doomed Pedagogical Fad: 21st-Century Skills”, outspoken 21st century skills critic Jay Mathews outlines some of the problems with the 21st century skills movement, which I agree are perhaps the most detrimental to its success. While Mathews acknowledges that the movement’s ambitions to prepare students for the uncertain modern world are admirable, he criticizes the 21st century skills movement for its lack of concrete guidance for teachers, and its insistence on a broad-sweeping overhaul of teaching methodology and subject matter. In addition, I have found that many additional criticisms of the philosophy are well-founded; its emphasis on skills rather than knowledge, the undefined nature of some of its key elements like “creativity” and “innovation,” and the exorbitant amount of commitment it requires of each student and teacher all make it incredibly difficult to actually implement the 21st century skills philosophy in the classroom.

The 21st century skills movement seems to suffer from what Mathews calls “all-at-once syndrome,” meaning that it tries to do too much, too quickly — a common pitfall of many reform movements. However, I would not suggest that reformers abandon the idea of 21st century skills simply for its ambition and occasional overreach. It is important that educators and reformers continue to work towards the goals of the movement, because (as Linda Krulock and Elizabeth Hofreuter-Landini wrote in their 2011 article in The Intelligencer) “there is agreement among all researchers that these skills of collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking are necessary and must be integrated into our classrooms,” yet debate around how to best make these skills more accessible continues.

From my research and personal experience as a student, it seems that a more focused way to pursue the successful integration of 21st century skills might be to concentrate on one crucial aspect of that philosophy: problem solving. The heart of teaching 21st century skills is preparing students for the workplace, and according to the Center for Public Education, the ability to problem solve is one of the most sought-after traits in prospective employees competing for a position. Additionally, many of the various elements of 21st century skills are simply products of problem solving, such as critical thinking and innovation. Under the 21st century skills philosophy, group work is strongly encouraged so that students may learn to effectively collaborate with their peers, and teaching students to problem solve as individuals would give them the foundation necessary to cultivate that skill. Other elements, such as “globalization” and the ability to take on unprecedented global issues of the 21st century, can also be taught effectively and enhanced with the integration of problem solving-based activities and projects. For example, students in a history course I am taking were recently asked to examine the complex issue of aid in Africa, research the benefits and challenges posed by different types of aid, and individually construct solutions which could potentially remedy the issues faced by aid workers and organizations working to provide effective aid to Africa. This is just one example of promoting the development of students’ problem solving skills while encouraging them to take on complicated, real-world global issues.              

Although the 21st century skills movement has a way to go before its practices become widely accepted and implemented in public education, shifting the movement’s focus inwards to problem solving skills could certainly accelerate that process and provide the movement with a new way to make progress.

~Katherine Rowell

2 replies »

  1. That article was very impressive! 🙂 It’s fascinating what needs to be learned for the future! – Lovinia ☺

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