21st Century skills: A confidence booster for college-bound students

In 2002, a coalition of corporate leaders representing organizations such as the AOL Time Warner Foundation, Apple, Cisco, Dell and Microsoft joined forces with the U.S. Department of Education and the National Education Association to develop the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P-21) and its Framework for 21st Century Learning.

The P-21 Framework acknowledges the importance of mastery of core subjects such as English, reading and language arts, world languages, arts, mathematics, economics, science, geography, history and government and civics. But P-21’s Framework also prioritizes the integration of learning and innovation skills that will boost a student’s (and future employee’s) ability to engage in what the partnership calls the 4cs: creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication.

In my most recent blog , I discussed Roberta Michnick Golinkoff’s and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek’s Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children, a book that describes how American schools often miss the mark because they train students with a 20th century emphasis on content alone instead of a 21st century focus on broader skills. Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek build upon P-21’s 4cs by explicitly adding content mastery (which is assumed in the Partnership’s framework) and another important skill: Confidence.

While many people think confidence is an innate personality trait, Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek believe confidence is like a muscle that can be massaged by parents and educators and flexed by students who gain self-esteem from knowing they worked hard for an educational achievement. While it may seem counter-intuitive, parents and educators who celebrate students’ intelligence may do more harm than good. Such praise reinforces the perception that learning ability is about fixed intelligence rather than effort. As a result, when some students encounter tough academic challenges, instead of focusing on overcoming them through hard work, they assume they simply aren’t smart enough. Conversely, giving students strategies to persist and overcome adversity can build their confidence.

Struggles with academic confidence can be exacerbated by socio-economic factors. In a 2014 New York Times article, author Paul Tough describes how common collegiate academic stumbles have very little long-term impact on the psyches of affluent college students but can be paralyzing for low income and first-generation college students, who often absorb messages that their failures are evidence that they don’t belong or aren’t smart enough for college. Tough describes a successful intervention program at the University of Texas-Austin that is designed to arm at-risk students with a growth mindset, or the belief that hard work can trump a person’s perceived innate intellectual abilities.

At Michigan Future Inc., we believe policy makers who really want to create a more prosperous state need to radically change how K-12 education is delivered in Michigan, with the goal of preparing every high school graduate for college and life success. So instead of offering teaching and learning that is solely focused on students’ performance on high-stakes tests, Michigan’s K-12 schools should be designed to teach them to master academic content and to be able to use content to collaborate, communicate with others, and create. This learner-centered approach – along with constant growth-mindset reinforcement – can help students gain the confidence they will need to succeed in college and life.

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