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I Just Want My Kid to be Happy . . . and Successful
By Bernie Trilling,
Co-Author with Charles Fadel of 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times

As the new school year cranks into gear, parents everywhere are caught in a swirl of emotions -- hopes, anxieties, relief, fears, pride, worry . . . and wants.

You hear them on back-to-school nights:

"I just want my kid to be happy."

"I want my son to be motivated, to stay in school."

"I want the best for my kid -- to get into a good college."

"I want my son to be ready to work in a good job."

"I want her to be confident and successful, prepared for her future."

Happy, motivated, college-bound, work-ready and prepped for success -- this is what parents want for their kids and from their schools.

But what does "success" really mean in today's wildly shifting, flatter, green-challenged world?

What are we readying our kids for -- what kind of work, what kind of lifestyle?

What do they really need to learn now for a successful future?

First, as parents, we have to toss out our mental "rear view mirrors" of education past, and look straight into our children's future. The future our kids will inhabit is a far cry from the world their parents grew up in.

Just think of what kids have in their pockets and backpacks today:

Cell phones linking them to friends anywhere in the world; a library-size collection of tunes on a keychain MP3 player; instant answers to their questions a search-click away; a mini-studio for photos, voice and video of life's media moments to share with family and friends.

It's light-years from the paperbacks, comic books, pocket transistor radios, and cassette-tape Walkmans of parents' school days. And its light-years from where technology will be 20 years from now.

Now think of today's jobs (and today's painful lack of them), and tomorrow's work:

Manufacturing jobs gone offshore; service work on a steep rise, more being outsourced; much more work demanding complex thinking and creative tinkering; high-tech tools used in almost all lines of work; never-before-seen jobs in brand new industries; global corporations, global products, global online marketing, sales and service, and global competition for your job.

Not at all like yesteryear's one-career-for-life position in the local company.

So what do our children now need to learn for a good life in the 21st century?

There is growing agreement worldwide, from educators, business and government leaders (see for example www.p21.org), that the formula for success in our times involves fusing the "3Rs" -- the traditional basic knowledge-and-skills of reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic and other subjects like science and social studies -- with the "4Cs":

  • Critical thinking and problem-solving
  • Creative thinking and innovating
  • Communicating
  • Collaborating

To build these 4C skills students must put their learning to work, tackling real-life problems, working in groups, crafting deeply researched answers and innovative solutions, socially communicating and collaborating online, creating all sorts of digital media messages, and being more self-directed and a terrific team player at the same time.

How can our schools do all of this when they're still struggling to get everyone past the 3Rs bar?

How do we move from yesterday's industrial, one-size-fits-all, assembly line education system to meeting today's demands for a personalized, information-knowledge-innovation age, 21st century approach to learning?

This is, without a doubt, the biggest education challenge of the century, and therefore our century's biggest economic and social challenge.

There are wonderful examples of schools and networks of schools across the US, the UK, Finland, Singapore, and other countries, that have shifted their learning models to better prepare students for 21st century success.

These schools are taking a "deeper learning" approach where more of the learning comes from active, real-world projects that reach high levels of student engagement and achievement. Examples of these schools include:

Individual schools across the country, like:

  • Catalina Foothills High School in Tucson, AZ
Clusters of schools, like these CA schools:
  • High Tech High schools (San Diego)
  • Envision schools (San Francisco)
National and international network of schools:
  • Big Picture Learning schools
  • Expeditionary Learning schools
  • New Tech Network schools
  • EdVisions schools
  • Asia Society's International Studies schools
  • International Baccalaureate schools

As a parent there are five important things you can do to help your schools and your children in this time of educational transition:

  1. Offer to share your own expertise or passion for your work or hobby by taking a group of students to your workplace and showing them what your work world is like, or by helping to organize and support a group student project related to your work, skill or hobby.

  2. Encourage your teachers to do (and your principal and school board to support) more learning and service projects that deal with real world issues (like energy use, disaster relief, poverty, health, etc.).

  3. Actively support your child's interests, hobbies and passions, (like music, skateboarding, art, inventing, etc.) and help them build both their knowledge and their 4C skills while pursuing their passion. Also let your teachers know more about your child's interests and discuss how their motivation can be incorporated into other school learning experiences.

  4. Try (and it's often a real struggle) to steer your child's use of technology at home toward online reading, researching and creating things related to their passions (like making a video with friends, or a web page biography of someone who shares their passion).

  5. Read up on economic and workforce trends (like The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman), on what motivates us to learn (like Mindset, by Carol Dweck), on the skills most needed for our times (like our book, 21st Century Skills by Trilling and Fadel), and on schools on the leading edge of education (like Education Nation by Milton Chen). Share what you learn with your kids.

Moving our schools toward spending more time on what our students need for their success is our century's great challenge.

But what parent wouldn't do what they could to have their kids be successful . . . and happy too?

© 2010 Bernie Trilling, co-author with Charles Fadel of 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times