At some point in the past couple of years we turned a corner into strange territory where secondary schools, apparently even “college prep” secondary schools, need to devote themselves to producing skilled workers for the 21st-century labor force. Luckily, we have been given multiple lists of these workers’ desirable qualities to shoot for, often involving words starting with “C.”
These lists, specious as I find their instrumental origins most days, mostly make good sense. Who doesn’t want kids to be critical thinkers and good communicators and collaborators? Who would scoff at creativity as a quality to strive for? Claims that these are exclusively “21st century” skills seem crazy to me; in what historical era were they not highly valued? I would call them timeless skills, but I guess we live in a time—perhaps like most—when the exigencies we feel seem exceptional.
Now, as the season of sentimental films and Peace on Earth and Good Will Unto All People approaches, I’ve been thinking about a different set of qualities, equally timeless and arguably equally important when manifest in students, workers, and family and friends.
I’m not a man of any specific faith, although I use a “C” word to describe the fir tree that we string with colored lights in our living room to tempt our cats each December. Rest assured that this is not one of the qualities I’m going to recommend; rather, my spiritual side is a sentimental one, based largely on memories of kindnesses past and my primitive understandings of such old time expressions of faith as the Social Gospel and Liberation Theology. I’m also pretty big on the generous teachings of the Buddha.
As 2012 winds down I’d like to propose my own Six C’s for 21st-Century Learning. I think that these are every bit as crucial to effective workplace function, personal happiness, and civic engagement as any others I have read about. I can also guarantee that they are the outgrowth of the kind of educational experiences everyone reading this blog longs to create; like the other C collections, they require some serious intentionality and fine, committed teaching.
So here goes:
*CURIOSITY. I would like to think this goes without saying. I’m thinking largely about intellectual curiosity, curiosity about the world and its people, cultures, ideas, “things,” and the actions and interactions of all of these. Real curiosity is a capacity for sustained engagement and comes with the belief that pursuing an interest can yield satisfaction. There is, as well, a kind of personal and moral curiosity that is just as important and just as compelling.
*CIRCUMSPECTION. The capacity to experience things—including one’s own thoughts, words, and deeds—from multiple perspectives, to project points of view from different vantage points and understand authentically what it means to walk a mile in another’s shoes. This—the shoe thing—is one of the explicit lessons that was taught me as a kid by my late grandmother, and it has been a lasting gift whenever I’ve actually had the wit to recall and apply it.
*COMPASSION. The ability—and in all of these I would want to say the predilection or disposition, perhaps ideally even a compulsion—to empathize, to respond to the world and all things in and of it with a kind of personal and emotional generosity that sustains and deepens the learnings that accompany circumspection—and enriches the experience of others.
*COMPUNCTION. Knowing one’s own values and personal ethos to the point that moral decision-making comes from a solid, central place, a kind of personal rubric that defines right action in a world in which sometimes it seems as though all standards are elastic and that anything goes. I think of, say, David Petraeus as an individual for whom a lack of compunction proved both destructive to a career and damaging to the enterprise he led.
*COURAGE. To follow one’s heart, one’s dreams, and one’s aspirations—and not to follow these if they could do harm. Our workplaces and world need more individuals with the courage to stand up for their beliefs or to walk away from situations that their compunctions, circumspect consideration, or compassion tell them to reject. Sometimes it’s simply the courage to try new things, to take those intellectual and personal risks with which we educators so want our students to engage.
*COMMUNITY. We work hard to create communities—of practice, of learners, of believers, of players, of worker bees—in our schools, but the greatest capacities we can build in our students are the disposition to seek community and the capacity to create it. The highest functioning teams in any endeavor from classrooms to boardrooms to war rooms are often described by their members as being somehow “like family”—intensely close in mutual understanding; bonded around values, purpose, and even ritual; in every way “all for one and one for all.” This is what we seek and value most deeply as humans, the reason we get teary when Bedford Falls comes together in support of George Bailey or when Old Fezziwig transforms his warehouse into a party scene for young Ebenezer Scrooge and his coworkers. We yearn for community, and we want desperately for our students not only to live it but to know how to create and appreciate it. If we like spiritual terms, I would go so far as to say, perhaps, that to be in positive community is to be in something akin to what I was once taught is a “state of grace.”
Six C’s for the 21st century, yes. But I like to think, as I settle in for my personal holiday festival of reading, viewing, and communing this season, that they are Six C’s for All Time, sanctified by tradition and validated by experience. I hope you they make sense to you.
How schools and teachers make these happen—or whatever you would call creating educational environments and experiences in which they develop—is a whole other set of speculations, for another time.