To paraphrase U.S. President Bill Clinton’s famous election mantra “it’s the economy, stupid”, my answer to what should be taught to students in the 21st century is:  it’s the three R’s, stupid.

I don’t mean this in the tradition of conservative educators who periodically rise up in the middle of a progressive education moment and declare that the education system must get back to basics, that kids need to learn to read and to do their numbers. Still, I am strong in the belief that children should  learn to read at an early age. And this means being read to before attending primary school. I am painfully aware of the “Matthew Effect” where students who have not mastered reading in the early primary years are unlikely to ever catch up. Nevertheless, the bye- gone days of “See Dick run” and See Jane run”  of the traditional children’s readers do not fulfill the demands of the 21th century where problems like climate change, the  threat of nuclear disaster, and air and water pollution must be solved through collective ingenuity and collective agreement.

So I am not in favor of just teaching Johnny to read “See Jane run”,  or in mathematics  class for Johnny to learn simply by rote. My position is that children must be coached in asking questions and then seeking answers both individually and collectively.  So, Johnny needs to be coached to ask:  “Where is Jane  running and why is she going there?  Why isn’t Jane walking? What is the condition of the path she is running on? Is it safe?  What does Jane look like?  Is she happy?  After wondering about these questions  a child should be able to consult her or his peers to find out what they are wondering about.  Similarly, in math class practical problems  involving a student’s daily life need to be the norm.

I realize that these arguments have  been raging for  centuries with the volume being turned up considerably  at this dawn of the 21st century.  What is different now is that with the benefit of cognitive science we know more about how to go about coaching students on how to go about problem solving.

We know more about how the mind makes associations and more about how students reach a deep understanding  of a subject and the problems associated with that subject. As teachers, we learn to help our students improve  meta-cognition, that is how they go about thinking about subject or problem. In sum, students should be helped to develop strategies on how to think in order to solve a problem.  In reading, for example, we have a group of strategies that can be taught to dramatically increase reading comprehension.

I am deliberately using the word coaching instead of teaching simply because we sometimes understand the word teaching to mean lecturing, a one way communication from teacher to student. I am of the school that this method is highly ineffective for many, perhaps most, learning.  Much more effective, is the teacher learning with the student and helping the student teach themselves or each other.  This goes  back to what Socrates believed: we learn best when we discover the answers ourselves.

This approach to learning  translates into the 21st classroom looking and feeling much different from  the traditional classroom that has the teacher in front of the class and the student  lined up in a rows waiting to be taught.  A more congenial configuration for the 21st century is a flexible seating arrangement where students can quickly work in pairs or groups  or go to separate tables where they can work on projects.  The teacher is much more a participant in the learning process, not the fountain of all knowledge. Learning and questions are shared by everyone in the class.  One label used to identify this type of learning and classroom is called student centered learning. Part of this process is broken into other rubrics called project based learning, inquiry based learning,  peer based learning and activity based learning just to mention a few.  In all these types of learning a common feature  is what some refer to as the scientific method approach.  Put in another way, using deductive reasoning. The process starts with framing the question or problem to be solved; making observations; forming a hypotheses; making logical deductions and then testing these deductions or conducting an experiment.  In short, while it is important what is taught (the curriculum) it is equally important how we coach (teach) students in the 21 century, that is, how students go about learning.

So, let’s get to the heart of the matter:  what should be the core, universal learning competencies we want future generations to have.

You know from my opening salvo, that common sense tells us that knowing how to read, I mean really read, is the essential skill to be mastered and should be mastered thoroughly in primary education.  And I have touched on what real reading means: i.e. deep understanding.  Perhaps you can think of this as the floor to one’s education. We build from there.

By dwelling on reading, I did not mean to ignore the other essential skills needed in the 21st century. If we continue to use the analogy of building a house, we can think of working together as the skill needed to actually plan and put together the house along with the scientific and math skills to make sure all is plumb and well-fitting.

Thus, of  particular importance are what some call life skills and what I call social skills—being able to get along and cooperate with peers and superiors to solve problems and accomplish tasks.  I include in this skill set leadership.  How do we teach leadership?  The partial answer is we provide opportunities for practice starting at an early age. Previously, I mentioned a classroom that is student centered and in that context, the teacher uses project based learning.  Groups that take on complicated projects need to put personal skills to work and these groups must have leadership the group can rely on to successfully complete the project.

This is the information and digital age, yet  I deliberately mentioned first and foremost  gaining the basic skills of reading and writing in the 21st century and acquiring  social skills.

Digital learning follows and has a high place in learning competencies future generations of learners must have.  I continue to believe it is worthwhile to introduce primary school children to computers and computer programs; however, it is in the post primary school years that I think digital learning is critical.  This is the time in a young person’s life when he or she must search for information outside their immediate experience and those people and learning materials students have immediate access to..  It is on the world wide web and many other digital tools where many of these answers can be found.

The International Baccalaureate  three programmes of international education for students aged 3 to 19  represents to date one of the best summations of what international learning standards in the 21st century should look like.  It is a system that should be studied carefully before entering in a newer paradigm.

What I have attempted in this short space it to give the reader an introduction to some of my basic thinking  about what the most important learning competencies for the 21 century are and how those competencies should be learned.