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'Deeper learning' skills needed, report finds

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James Pellegrino

"There's no question that we have a lot of work to do to improve the conditions of learning for all students,” says UIC researcher James Pellegrino.

 UIC Photo Services

Problem-solving, critical thinking, and communication — known as "21st-century competencies" — need more integration within the K-12 curriculum, according to a new report from a blue-ribbon committee chaired by a UIC researcher.

The National Research Council's report, "Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century," describes how these skills foster learning in mathematics, English and science — and success at work and in life.

The report is the work of a committee of national experts in education, psychology and economics chaired by James Pellegrino, co-director of the UIC Learning Sciences Research Institute. It clarifies the cognitive, intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies needed for success in adulthood.

"The fundamental issue we highlight is that of transfer of knowledge and skills — which is not a new issue, but one that has taken on special relevance in contemporary society," said Pellegrino, distinguished professor of psychology and education. "Transfer doesn't come easily. It depends on well-designed instruction that supports the process of deeper learning."

The report describes deeper learning as the process through which a person develops the ability to take what was learned in one situation and apply it to new situations.

The committee identified three broad categories of 21st-century competencies: the cognitive domain of thinking and reasoning skills; the intrapersonal domain, which involves self-management of emotions and behavior; and the interpersonal domain of expressing information and interpreting and acting upon messages appropriately.

Despite much current interest in the competency domains, the body of research linking these skills to outcomes in education, career achievement and health does not yet show causality, the committee found. More evidence — based on improved study designs — is needed.

Nevertheless, the report concludes that competencies in the cognitive domain do strongly correlate with positive educational, health and career outcomes.

Among the intra- and interpersonal competencies, conscientiousness — the state of being organized, responsible, and hard-working — correlated most strongly with desirable adult outcomes. Antisocial behavior was negatively associated with these outcomes.

The number of years a person spends in school is a strong predictor of one's adult earnings, health, and civic engagement — suggesting that schooling develops a broad combination of skills representing the three domains. The report suggests that disparities in educational attainment could potentially be lessened with a greater focus on developing the 21st-century competencies in K-12 curriculum and instruction.

The report calls for state and federal policies and programs that support deeper learning.

Educators should go beyond instruction based on the memorization of facts and procedures — and reduce the focus on standardized tests.

To support deeper learning and the development of transferable knowledge, the committee also recommends that teachers:

• Use multiple and varied representations of concepts and tasks

• Encourage elaboration, questioning and explanation

• Engage learners in challenging tasks

• Teach with carefully selected examples and cases

•  Prime student motivation by going beyond assigning grades or scores.

• Use "formative" assessments of students' progress for possible adjustments to teaching and learning strategies.

"Our analyses reveal that the new common core standards in English language arts and mathematics, and the new framework for science education, are focused on developing disciplinary competencies that are both meaningful and useful for answering questions, solving problems and applying one's knowledge," Pellegrino said.

"Teaching in accord with the goals of the common core standards and science framework will be a challenge, as will be assessing the intended learning outcomes, but the long-term benefits of instruction and assessment that support deeper learning should be substantial," he said.

"There's no question that we have a lot of work to do to improve the conditions of learning for all students."


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