Mfi Sept22 Blogimage

Where do kids learn the most critical 21st century skills?

Last week a friend forwarded me an article from Slate about the students at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School who have emerged as new leaders of a pro-gun control movement. I had remarked that I was struck by their poise, clear communication, and ability to work together. These kids look like seasoned professionals. If one of them showed up to interview wherever you work, you know they’d get hired (I would definitely hire them).  The article, by Dahlia Lithwick, explains that these young people were beneficiaries of a school environment rich in extracurriculars–a “full education.” These student leaders are the drama, debate, and journalism kids.

There’s a new, if not yet sufficiently widespread, understanding that extracurricular activities, far from being “extra,” are where some really important learning happens. At MFI, we believe that the skills kids most need to be successful in the 21st century are the “6 Cs:” collaboration, communication, creativity, content, critical thinking, and confidence. In drama, students practice communication skills and creativity, work with other students, and gain confidence through the achievement of creating a performance with an authentic audience. In journalism, students are trained to ask questions, listen meaningfully to the responses, communicate effectively, and think critically. In debate, young people delve deeply into content and practice thinking about a topic from multiple angles, develop skill in communicating their thoughts, and work with debate partners. In all of these environments, developing a real competency and seeing personal growth leads to higher levels of confidence.

This isn’t to say that these skills couldn’t be taught in a classroom. They can, and they should be! In fact, organizing schooling around teaching these broader skills, rather than narrowly focusing on standardized test scores, is the foundational precept of the education policy reforms suggested in our policy agenda, Improving student outcomes from education, birth to college.

But in the meantime, in an educational environment where what happens in the classroom is ever more circumscribed around what can be assessed via standardized tests, students are leaning on extracurricular programs for the development of critical skills.

The big problem here is that as we focus more and more on content and standardized test scores to the exclusion of other competencies, our schools are shedding their extracurricular programs and the “specials” that are taught as classes—art, music, journalism, etc. This is the most true in the least affluent districts. Kids are further behind on basic math and literacy skills, so all the resources go toward boosting those test scores.

Affluent families make up for the decline in robust offerings through private schools or through pay-to-play programming. Obviously that doesn’t work for every family. So we have yet another example of how affluent students are given the opportunities to develop critical skills, while the non-affluent miss out. We have to do better by all of our kids.

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Sarah Szurpicki

Sarah is a policy associate for Michigan Future, Inc. and partner at New Solutions Group, LLC, a consulting firm devoted to smart, collaborative, innovative approaches for organizations serving the public good.

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