Literacy Forum: Learning in the 21st Century, in Ways New and Old

The Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven sponsored a forum Wednesday, February 16, with the theme of “21st Century Learning.” The event, held at the New Haven Public Library’s Wilson branch in the Hill, included as main speaker Marion Martinez, associate commissioner for teaching, learning, and instructional leadership at the State Department of Education.  City librarian Christopher Korenowsky made welcoming remarks.

Curtis Hill, who is on the Literacy Coalition board as well as founding executive director of Concepts for Adaptive Learning, spoke on behalf of the Coalition and its new website, at, which was launched with support from the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.

In her presentation on “Engaging 21st Century Learners,” Marion Martinez emphasized that this is “not an isolated part of the curriculum” but rather should be “integrated with” instruction in various core academic subjects. She spoke of skills such as collaboration, the role of new technologies, the need to foster students’ “deep understanding” of academic material and the importance of engaging them regardless of their age, grade, or existing level of proficiency.  Her presentation itself included multiple YouTube clips – depicting teachers, students, and an example of a promising initiative of the Riverside School in the state of Gujarat in India.  Together, these examples illustrated the promise of new technologies, suggesting how much more can be done to capture students’ attention and to enhance their knowledge and skills for school and for life.

Drawing upon the Framework for 21st Century Learning offered by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, she addressed not only “core subjects” in the academic disciplines but also needs such as “global awareness” and financial literacy; skills like “innovation” and “critical thinking”; and “21st century education support systems”—standards, assessments, curriculum, instruction, and learning environments. 

Some of this transcends time and place as ideals for educators and learners to pursue, now with new tools and challenges.

Surveying Literature on 21st Century Learning, and Local Literacy Resources

The context for the February 16 presentation includes such works as a 2010 volume on 21st Century Skills: Rethinking How Students Learn (James Bellanca and Ron Brandt, editors). Chapter 2 of that book features Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who maintains, “Twenty-first-century students need a deeper understanding of the core concepts in the disciplines than they receive now. In addition, students need to be able to design, evaluate, and manage their own work. Students need to be able to frame, investigate, and solve problems using a wide range of information resources and digital tools.” (1)

In chapter 4, on “The Role of Professional Learning Communities in Advancing 21st Century Skills,” Richard DuFour and Rebecca DuFour argue: “The 21st century skills framework…calls for schools to eschew shallow coverage of many topics and focus instead on helping students to acquire a deep understanding of the knowledge and skills necessary for success in work and in life.”

Douglas Reeves, in chapter 14, believes “the nature of testing – with its standardized conditions, secrecy, and individual results – is antithetical to the understanding, exploration, creativity, and sharing that are the hallmarks of a new framework for assessment. Thus, teachers and school leaders need a different set of tools to determine whether or not students are learning in light of 21st century essential skills. In particular, we need practical ways to assess students in the following three ways: 1. In variable rather than standardized conditions; 2. As teams rather than as individuals; 3. With assessments that are public rather than secret.”

The movement has skeptics.  Education writer Jay Mathews of the Washington Post, who in a January 2009 article calls 21st-century skills “the latest doomed pedagogical fad,” says: “Granted, the 21st-century skills idea has important business and political advocates.  … It calls for students to learn to think and work creatively and collaboratively. There is nothing wrong with that. Young Plato and his classmates did the same thing in ancient Greece. But I see little guidance for classroom teachers in 21st-century skills materials. How are millions of students still struggling to acquire 19th-century skills in reading, writing and math supposed to learn this stuff?... I get nervous whenever I hear of some brilliant new teaching method that is going to sweep our students into a new century, wise beyond their years. It takes hard work to teach this stuff, and even harder work, by poorly motivated adolescents, to learn it.”

Aiming to counter the kind of criticism that Jay Mathews makes, Douglas Reeves stresses, “Assessment of 21st century skills requires content knowledge. Students will continue to learn vocabulary, be able to perform calculations without electronic assistance, speak in complete sentences, and support their assertions with evidence.” But according to Reeves, “learning is the first step, not the end goal.” He differentiates among learning, understanding, exploration, creativity, and sharing. He contends that “our assessments must support rather than punish errors. Errors are evidence that the students are taking risks and engaging difficult material in a creative manner.”

Elena Silva – in a November 2008 Education Sector report on “Measuring Skills for the 21st Century” writes: “While many policymakers…have emphasized the need for schools to, first and foremost, teach the basics, learning science—an interdisciplinary field that includes cognitive science, educational psychology, information science, and neuroscience—suggests that the best learning occurs when basic skills are taught in combination with complex thinking skills. Decades of research reveals that there is, in fact, no reason to separate the acquisition of learning core content and basic skills like reading and computation from more advanced analytical and thinking skills, even in the earliest grades.” (2)

The relation of education and economic forces is significant, the challenges many and complicated.

In their 2008 book The Race between Education and Technology, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz of Harvard argue “three main types of policies are needed to increase the growth rate of U.S. educational attainment and the relative supply of college workers. The first policy is to create greater access to quality pre-school education for children from disadvantaged families. [Here Goldin and Katz echo fellow economist James Heckman on the centrality of early learning.] The second is to rekindle some of the virtues of American education and improve the operation of K-12 schooling so that more kids graduate from high school and are ready for college.  The third is to make financial aid sufficiently generous and transparent so that those who are college ready can complete a four-year college degree or gain marketable skills at a community college. … These policies, furthermore, complement each other.” (3) 

In the afterword of 21st Century Skills: Rethinking How Students Learn, Andy Hargreaves of Boston College invokes Daniel Bell’s “knowledge society” and Peter Drucker’s “knowledge workers” as influential ideas. Hargreaves warns, too, that “the 21st century skills agenda…harbors the following dangers: 1. It may overstate the advanced nature of the skills required in the new economy; 2. It does not really address the imperatives of social justice and increased equality; 3. In practice, it sometimes compromises 21st century ideals by maintaining…time-pressured performance goals related to standardized testing; 4. Its emphasis on speed and flexibility can lead to superficial engagements and interactions.”

Hargreaves hails the example of Finland, with its “inspiring mission of creativity and inclusiveness. This attracts and keeps highly qualified and publicly respected teachers on whom the country’s future depends. In cultures of trust, cooperation, and responsibility, these teachers design curricula together in each municipality within broad national guidelines, and care for all the children in their schools – not just those in their own grades and classes. Schools also collaborate together for the benefit of the cities and communities they serve.” Hargreaves calls for an approach that “doesn’t only build public confidence in education through improved results” but one that [in the spirit of the Literacy Coalition and many other such collaborative endeavors] “builds community with parents and others in relationships of active and engaged trust through extended school days, paid community appointments, and the kind of robust community organizing that President Obama has made famous.” (4)

Many modern observers, in addition to Jay Mathews, recall the ancient Greeks in recognizing the timeless merits of certain approaches.

Tony Wagner of Harvard, on page 255 of his book The Global Achievement Gap (2008), explicitly acknowledges the essential value of Socratic questioning/teaching. Wagner – also citing Einstein’s injunction that “imagination is more important than knowledge” – labels as the global achievement gap “the gap between what even our best suburban, urban, and rural public schools are teaching and testing versus what all students will need to succeed as learners, workers, and citizens in today’s global knowledge economy.” (p. 8) Wagner concludes, “If all students are to acquire the new skills for success in the twenty-first century, the change I describe must be systemic, and it must start in individual living rooms and classrooms, in school PTA and faculty meetings and district central offices. I believe it begins with a change of mind and heart – a change that comes about through adults learning together.” (5)

Among the adults learning together at the February 16 forum were several of Christopher Korenowsky’s colleagues from the Public Library, the Fair Haven branch of which last year hosted a Family Literacy Forum

Also participating February 16 were the New Haven Public Schools’ coordinator of education technology and its (retired) former supervisor of bilingual and ESL instruction, parents, grandparents, students from Southern Connecticut State and Yale universities, Coalition board members, current and prospective literacy volunteers working with both children and adults, and colleagues from several nonprofits.

Members of the audience and the speaker discussed challenges of literacy and numeracy learning – in school and in the broader community – and the role of technology both in instruction and in the workplace. 

One theme was the balance between ensuring students’ and workers’ fundamental literacy skills and engaging their appetites for more challenging material and applications. This is a perhaps inevitable tension that, as suggested above, arises in the education literature and must be continually confronted. The dichotomy may be false; as Linda Darling-Hammond reports, “If you listen to great teachers, their answer about basic skills and thinking skills is always both/and, not either/or. These effective teachers balance how and what they teach.”

Supporting and helping to connect the reading and learning that occur at home, in school, in preparation for the workforce, and on the job will remain crucial.

Neighbors are invited to visit the Literacy Resource Center on Winchester Avenue in Newhallville in space at 4 Science Park donated by Science Park Development Corporation.  The Literacy Resource Center, or LRC, represents a partnership among Concepts for Adaptive Learning, the Coalition, New Haven Reads, Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven, and the Economic Development Corporation.

You can help by:

*Reading in the home, promoted by libraries such as the New Haven Free Public Library — and involving grandparents as well as parents, and free books from sources including Read to Grow and the New Haven Reads Book Bank;

*Encouraging friends, family, and others to seek literacy assistance whenever useful;

*Volunteer tutoring and mentoring, including through New Haven Reads, Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven, the New Haven Public School Foundation, and the Jewish Coalition for Literacy;

*Bolstering literacy in other ways, such as through donations of money — whether directly, via the Community Foundation or the United Way — or of books and by advocating and voting.

Waiting lists among learners at providers including Junta for Progressive Action, New Haven Reads, and Literacy Volunteers demonstrate the strong demand for their services, compared with the services they are currently able to offer, due to an insufficient number of volunteers and/or of dollars for professional staff.

Participants in the February 16 event and prior such occasions, such as a spring 2010 Family Literacy Forum and fall 2009 forum, came from New Haven public schools as well as a wide range of other organizations. Here is a partial list, including some already mentioned:

* Concepts for Adaptive Learning (, which equips and trains parents in New Haven and other Connecticut cities to use computers to support their and their children’s learning;
* Coordinating Council for Children in Crisis (4Cs), with services including a Teen Outreach Program;
* Jewish Coalition for Literacy, a project of the Jewish Community Relations Council (, which brings volunteer tutors into several New Haven public schools;
* Junta for Progressive Action (, which offers English as a second language, family support, and workforce preparation services;
* Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven (, which serves adults;
* New Haven Reads and its Book Bank ( — which offers free books and tutoring;
* Read to Grow, which emphasizes early literacy and gives books to parents of newborns (
* Regional Workforce Alliance (
* Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute (, a partnership between Yale and the New Haven Public Schools that offers professional development to district teachers in a collegial setting, with the resulting curricular resources available online to parents and students as well as teachers.

The Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven is a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization whose mission is to serve as a clearinghouse to promote, support and advance literacy for people of all ages in our region. 

With support from the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven (and with professional design services provided at a discounted rate by New Haven-based firm Group C Inc.) the Coalition has a new website at:

See that site for information on free events, resources, and ways to get involved in pursuit of a region of readers.


Earlier articles on the Coalition:


(1) Linda Darling-Hammond continues: “Students need to develop more complex cognitive abilities so that they can find, analyze, and use information for a range of purposes, including the development of new products and ideas. Students need to collaborate and communicate so that they can take advantage of each other’s knowledge and expertise. Their communication abilities must include writing and speaking in world languages, as well as using mathematical symbols.” She says, “If you listen to great teachers, their answer about basic skills and thinking skills is always both/and, not either/or. These effective teachers balance how and what they teach. They prepare children both for decoding and for comprehending text. They ask students to build basic vocabulary and to understand literature, draw inferences, and use information for novel purposes. In math, these teachers teach students both how to compute math facts and how to reason, think, and communicate mathematically. In science, they prepare students both to understand key concepts in science and to engage in scientific investigation.”

(2) Elena Silva further believes that “standing in the way of incorporating 21st century skills into teaching and learning are widespread concerns about measurement. The cost, time demands, and difficulty in scoring tests of these less easily quantified skills have slowed the adoption of such tests, as have concerns among civil rights advocates that these tests would erode progress toward ensuring common standards of learning for all students. Collectively, these concerns derailed efforts in the late 1990s to move toward the use of performance-based assessments such as portfolios, exhibitions, and projects. … There is, then, no need for more tests to measure advanced skills. Rather, there is a need for better tests that measure more of the skills students’ need to succeed today.”

(3) Reflecting on historical patterns, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz conclude, “As technological change races forward, demands for skills – some new and some old – are altered.  If the workforce can rapidly make the adjustment, then economic growth is enhanced without greatly exacerbating inequality of economic outcomes.  If, on the other hand, the skills that are currently demanded are produced slowly and if the workforce is less flexible in its skill set, then growth is slowed and inequality widens.  Those who can make the adjustments as well as those who gain the new skills are rewarded.  Others are left behind.  It is, therefore, imperative to know what new skills will be demanded in the future.  We emphasize that such a prediction is fraught with difficulties. … The skills that are in greatest demand today are the analytical ones.  But globalization had produced a new challenge.  Today skills, no matter how complex, that can be exported through outsourcing or offshoring are vulnerable. … Skills for which a computer program can substitute are also in danger. … Having desired skills for which there are only imperfect (domestic or international) substitutes provides the greatest security.  Thus, we see great demand today for the highly analytical individual who can think abstractly and who understands such disciplines as finance, nanotechnology, and cellular biology in a deep, not routine, manner.  We have also seen an increased demand for those who provide skilled in-person services, such as nurses and other medical specialists.  College is no longer an automatic ticket to success.  Rather, degrees in particular fields and advanced training in certain areas are now exceedingly important.  Interpersonal skills, possibly garnered from being in diverse college peer groups and interacting with educated people, also matter a lot.”

(4) Andy Hargreaves concludes: “Twenty-first century skills require 21st-century schools. Mindful teaching and learning; increased innovation and curriculum flexibility; learning that is personally customized and also connected to students’ wider life projects; evidence-informed rather than data-driven improvement; shared improvement targets; prudent accountability by samples on measures that match knowledge society objectives; energizing networks that connect schools to each other; and systemic leadership through which leaders assist weaker neighbors in the service of a greater common good – these are just some of the strategies that will gives us the best 21st century schools that will develop the most challenging set of 21st century skills.”

(5) Tony Wagner lists seven “survival skills”: critical thinking and problem-solving, “collaboration across networks and leading by influence,” agility and adaptability, initiative and entrepreneurialism, effective oral and written communication, accessing and analyzing information, curiosity and imagination. Wagner is interested in “redefining rigor”; he examines case studies to conclude that “the ‘basics’ and the Seven Survival Skills can be taught together.” (p. 252) Elsewhere Wagner refers to stimulating student motivation as “the holy grail” of education. He says, “there is a profound disconnect between what students are taught and tested on in most high schools today and how they are expected to learn, versus what the world will demand of them as adults and what motivates them to do their best.” (p. 264) He asks, “What do we need to do in our schools to motivate students to be curious and imaginative, and to enjoy learning for its own sake? How do we ensure that every student has an adult advocate in his or her school who knows the student well? How do we both support our educators and hold them more accountable for results? What changes are needed in how educators are trained, how they work together in schools, and how they are supervised and evaluated in order to enable them to continuously improve?”

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