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21st Century Workforce Readiness

Posted Mar 12 2009 4:28pm

I had the opportunity recently to facilitate a group of business, education, political and community leaders in a discussion about developing a workforce ready group of graduates in the 21st Century.

I was given the task of relaying the experience. I have decided to share with you to see if you agree or disagree with these leaders' ideas and action steps and why. I encourage you to read and weigh in in the comment section below. I look forward to your responses.

Executive Summary



Newport News Public Schools is moving quickly to address learning in the 21 st century, its barriers and its possibilities, and kicked things off for 2009 with a 21 st Century Leading and Learning Conference.

As a precursor to the conference, held Jan. 9-10, 2009 at Heritage High School, global and regional leaders in education, business and religious organizations met to brainstorm together 21 st century learning concepts in a Global ThinkTank.


An electronic global panel discussion kicked off the day’s events with an impressive group of thought leaders from Scotland, Thailand, and the U.S. logging in to Elluminate, a webinar software platform, to share their ideas and answer questions . Bios of the guest speakers can be found here. An archive of the conversation that took place can be found here.


In the following facilitated discussions, leaders were given a chance to voice their opinions about what they saw as barriers to implementation of 21 st Century workforce readiness and a re-culturing of our curriculum to meet the needs of today’s changing student.



Through the economic lens, business leaders expressed a need for 21 st century students to not only be prepared for the technology of the changing world, but to still grasp soft skills needed in the workforce, such as problem solving and leadership skills.

Education leaders saw disconnect between teacher preparation programs and the changing learning environment. High stakes testing was seen as another barrier to learning in the 21 st century.

“That accountability hinders the changes in curriculum and teaching practices needed to impact instruction, problem solving, literacy…”


“If pass rates are high, teachers/students feel a certain sense of fulfillment, but the SOLs are a minimum competency assessment. They are not enough to prepare kids for the future.”


A major theme from the breakout sessions was the disconnect between education and relevance.

“Students need to have the tie in – that what they are learning has relevance to the career they choose.”


“When kids fall in love with learning it’s because they see the relevance.”


Leaders in the sessions admitted fear as a big barrier to 21 st century learning – the fear of change, of trying something new. This fear hinders the modeling necessary in 21 st century learning.

“Everyone needs to model from top down. . . .Principals model to teachers, teachers model to students, etc.”


After the facilitated discussions, leaders were asked to come up with proactive recommendations to the barriers addressed. From this long list, leaders filtered and organized their recommendations under different categories and then ranked the categories by the most important in their opinion. Some of the top ranked categories included leadership development, cultural awareness, professional/teacher development, partnerships/community involvement and student curriculum.

Empowering educators through leadership development, building relationships and cultural awareness, training and modeling were some of the most recommended steps to overcoming the barriers.


Out of the discussions recommended action statements emerged:


- Inventory the technological skills already available in the division to identify and address gaps.  

- Ask students to teach the teachers how they use technology and how they see these tools being used in a classroom.

- Allow teacher experts to train other teachers so there is no additional cost involved in the training. The business community can also provide in-kind support by providing training in these technologies.

- Build cultural awareness and infuse relevance into our instruction by teaching educators and students the facts of our global economy and community.  

- Teach educators the importance of and how to build their own online personal learning networks as a 21 st Century networking literacy leveraged for student growth.

- Teach students how to develop their own personal learning networks and discriminate information value and organization.

- Use technology to access and examine current events from various world perspectives through original sources and global connections.

- Teach the whole child by using inquiry driven approaches that reexamine curriculum through a 21 st Century lens.


- Work on belief systems, so that they produce citizens who can meet the challenges of this world with confidence and embrace all its people with compassion.


- Develop leadership networks that collaboratively function as professional learning communities to address and solve barriers to learning. These networks would include administrators, teachers, school staff, community and business leaders, and student leaders in the district, state and world.

Nobel Peace Prize Nominee Lead a Group
In addition to the facilitated focus groups that addressed 21 st Century issues, one group of community leaders also had the privilege of interviewing a special guest and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Rebiya Kadeer. A copy of the transcript of her interview can be found in Appendix E.

To review all data collected at the Global ThinkTank please refer to the following appendices:

Appendix A – Participants List- Removed

Appendix B – Round Robin Discussions

Appendix C – Categorization of Ideas

Appendix D – Crafts of Recommendations

Appendix E – Interview with Rebiya Kadeer

Appendix F – Panel Discussion Archive

Appendix B – Round Robin Discussions



After breaking down into groups, participants engaged in round robin discussions of the barriers to 21 st century learning. They responded to the question, “Thinking in terms of the skills, knowledge, abilities and opportunities needed to prepare today’s students for the 21 st century workforce – what are the barriers that are currently keeping this from happening in our classroom and community?” One participant acted as scribe for the group, recording responses, while another facilitated the discussion. The notes from these discussions are reprinted below.


Group A



Round Robin Notes:




Financial Constraints are a barrier especially when we look at the technology budget.  




There is not enough investment from all of our organizations.   Exposure and experiences are another part of 21 st century that our students are not getting.   Critical and Creative thinking is a big part of children’s learning.


We got away from the basic skills.   We still need to be able to read, write and do multiplication tables.   Attitudes start at home and are nurtured at school regarding the importance of learning. No matter whether their disposition is to go to college or not, these skills are important and you are not a failure if you don’t go to college.   And students ought not be stigmatized because they want to be a carpenter.   We ought to help kids know what they want to do and then help them do it and not stigmatize them if that means they don’t go to college.


We are only allowing kids that can’t do to go to vocational classes.  


NNPS has the burden of raising children because of societal issues.   So now schools have to be responsible for social development too.


Skills, Attitude and Disposition don’t cost a lot of money.


We underestimate kids’ ability to learn.   Expectations build the attitude that is needed.  


There needs to be a better cultural awareness across schools and business and finances need to be available.   Students need to be geared towards their interests not just college.   Tools to help students know their interests are needed and the finances to provide them need to be there.  


You can’t just work with the students and then send them back out in the community.   It needs to be a community effort.  


Young people have built their own community through technology.   Social networking, texting, etc.    We need to pick up on the skills our kids have and build on that with kids.  


As an instructor and parent, I am dealing with fear, not knowing what the kids are doing.   Amazement at kids’ ability to write a report, listen to iTunes and   text all at the same time.   How uncomfortable are educators and parents.  


Importance of educating our community…


Money is a problem.   We don’t have enough equipment.   Teachers are afraid that they are going to break the equipment.   They have to have critical thinking skills.   We are bad about the SOL’s but they have to be able to think.   It is more than rote memorization.  




Consensus Issues:   Money issues, Critical Thinking, Tapping into the knowledge base of students around technology.


Group B




I asked the question in the classroom of how our bureaucracy hinders us.   “Every school should be looked at as an independent franchise.”   So students and staff in the building has a sense of ownership.   Mediocre has become acceptable in this country.   I’m a stickler for more independent in the public structure.   Empower the individual school.


The current structure is interrupting the learning potential.


I’m coming from a different background.   I’m new to education.   “My insight is four years out of high school.   I wish I had this in my high school.   Why didn’t we have smart boards in high school or college?”   A lot of school board members are stuck in how school s use to be.   If we focus on that point that people are still involved in this process.   Teachers and students will be more willing to learn. A fear of learning something new seems to prevent the progression of the 21 st century concept.   A Student’s perspective.


Kids who start of in school are excited in the elementary level and by the time they get to high school they are brain dead.   “Why am I learning this?” Teachers have technology in front of them, but they don’t have the role models to know how to use it in the workforce arena because the have nothing to relate to. “We have to train our teachers to learn and teach in a different way.”   Relationship, relevance and investment.   When kids fall in love with learning it’s because they see the relevance.


A lot of what kids learn in the old way of learning is not relevant to what is happening in the real world.   It doesn’t mean necessary learning technology it means teaching kids so it’s meaningful. “We tend to teach kids how we were taught.”   Change is feared. Our perspective is what limits our growth.   One of the largest bearers is not teaching kids collaboratively.  


“For us to see this type of education is amazing.   We do not sit and discuss education in China.   In US a child can study any subject they chose.   That is not the case in China.    The Chinese education system only praises the Chinese government.”   Embrace change! American students should understand how fortunate they are and become global citizens to see how they can make the world a better place.   Later I was in prison for speaking about lack of human rights in education.   It is very important for me to let the children know in America how fortunate they are.


Besides the global competitive gap we need to get our kids to understand the global haves and have-nots.   We have to compete and support in service projects, awareness projects, etc.


Change is the wall that we need to overcome. “If we introduce it the right way it enables one to overcome the obstacles.”   Everyone needs to model from top down. . . .Principals model to teachers, teachers model to students, etc.


What points of consensus emerged in the discussion? The need to learn, teach, train and communicate not only within our community but throughout the world.


On which points were the participants’ responses divided?   none


On which points did participants reveal a wide range of responses?   Student learning, cultural awareness, exposure and appropriate modeling, best practices


Group C


In the classroom, too much emphasis on lower levels of learning due to standardized testing occurring- incredible peer pressure for kids to fit in instead of being individuals. “Kids need knowledge” but we teach facts, but not how they connect to their world.”


A barrier for SPED pop is transition. I like European out of the box thinking. “Keep the bar up, but we know were the students is heading.” Look at the child’s ability and go that track. Train them so they are vocationally sound by the time they exit school (rather than pushing them to be college bound – when we know they may not be).  


A barrier I see is a conformative mentality. We have lost the sense of being an individual. It is not sportsmanship or working as a team. WE have lost a sense of civility. We are not working in teams or offering assistance. Emphasis on SOLs, NCLB, - schools, teachers, principals are evaluated on how kids score on a mc test – critical thinking skills is missing. “The soft-skills of team-work and problem solving need to be part of our education to be ready for the work force.   We need situational leaders in addition to supervisors, etc. Know when to lead, when to step back, be cross-functional”


Barriers:   homelife – a major part for students who don’t have the support structures at home = community issue


School issue = playing the blame game on parents/community


Not all children learn the same way – we teach like they only learn one way. We teach in the same classroom environment as the one from the civil war. We need to convert the methodology of teaching to using the tools kids use today. = relevance!


Kids don’t believe their teachers care about them. So many distractions/baggage in the classroom. Teachers need to be thoughtful and think in terms to being able to relate to a particular student who is different or struggling…the teacher is influential –one of the most influential people in children’s lives. Engagement between teacher and student is critical piece. All the kids aren’t likeable – but they are all human beings, need to have a future. I am not casting aspersions on all teachers, but teachers need to get into the lives of kids – go beyond the content.


Kids cannot relate what they are doing in the classroom that day to the future. There needs to be a connection – this is why dropouts occur. Serious systemic challenges


Serious concern with the SOLs being the end all, be all of education. And it shouldn’t be.   If pass rates are high – teachers/students feel a certain sense of fulfillment – but the SOLs are a minimum competency assessment – they are not enough to prepare kids for the future.


Not enough articulation between colleges and public schools – teacher prep programs. 1 st year teachers often enter the teaching field ill prepared for the reality of teaching and learning in the 21 st century. There is also a disconnect in the classroom in the classroom to the real world = relevance.   There is no questions about the fact that we have different societal practices as before but we cannot let community “situations” interfere with teaching kids.


Global, 21 st century is exciting, but we have to pedal furiously like ducks on a pond.


Lack of training, experiences and connectedness between teacher prep training and teaching reality.


From a SPED perspective, one of the barriers is isolation. If you are the only teacher certified in a certain disability in a building, it can be very isolating.    The emulation exercise could be an interesting way to connect people via technology.


Lost sight of vocational side of education (for SPED students). Unrealistic expectations for students based on their abilities.


The preparation of elementary school teacher = 20 hours of elementary ed. We only test knowledge, not can the teach the knowledge. Does that teacher know how to communicate to that kid and teach him?


Deficit model – we cannot give up on the children, let them drop out and it becomes a community problem.




Teacher quality is critical – do they know the content? Do they know the pedagogy?


Key barriers


“Trust, communication, team work, caring and vision are missing”.   Issues: “we can’t give up on kids”


We can predict a roadmap of a student (in school, in community) – we see it coming – there needs to be something we can do to prevent it from happening.


Prisons predict future jail population based on 3 rd grade reading pass rates of the SOL.


Most issues were agreed upon by all----


Group D


Barriers to 21st Century Learning




Guiding Question: Thinking in terms of the skills, knowledge, abilities and the opportunities needed to prepared today’s student for the 21 st century workforce, what are the barriers that are currently keeping this from happening in our classrooms and community?


Respondent 1:


Part of barrier in our community – most of the businesses in our community are not global minded at this time – fear if school system goes ahead, businesses are not going to be ready for the students when they come out of school, her company builds buildings and the global market doesn’t impact what they do on a daily basis – is a progressive student going to be satisfied with what her company has to offer,” I can see there being problems”, students coming out today seeing everything as flexible time as opposed to working standard hours – doesn’t feel there is currently a demand for a supply of technologically advanced students – are they going to be more attracted outside the city of NN – not opposed to what the education system is doing just afraid of the outcomes


Respondent 2:


Colleges and university teaching 1950’s education – works with leadership and universities to redesign teacher and leadership programs – colleges and universities not training teachers to teach in 21 st cent mindset – works with school division leaders as well – just redesigned the principal leadership program – school districts are far ahead of colleges and universities – until we get colleges and univ.’s in line with school divisions, were not going to get there


Respondent 3:


One barrier is our history and educational bureaucracy – not preparing teachers as we are preparing students – 21 st cent. Learning is larger than just the tools – values and work ethic – that is part of the 21 st century skill set as soft skills – schools are still subscribing to minimum competency based standards that is scary concept– economy is a barrier to the success of 21 c learning over the net few years


Respondent 4:


– this area loosing many of its best and brightest – the numbers support that concept that there isn’t as much of a demand – we loose a percentage of our brightest college candidates to other states because the jobs aren’t here – while we focus so much on the tools of technology, there is a loss of values, social skills, personal interactions, teaching respect, but we can’t loose sight of trying to help our students learn how to get along – the heart of how we learn to move our schools forward


Respondent 5:


Education is critical to him – rapid technological advances – cultural lag in applicants that come forward, technology advances exponentially and inversely with students who can use them, analytical abilities not there, lack of motivation – problem with work ethic – no long term goal setting – need to have desire to excel and overcome learning shortfalls, lack of emphasis on why a solid education is important, students need to have the tie in of what they are learning has relevance to the career they choose, need to have long term goals and objectives instilled in kids early, HS diploma doesn’t guarantee students have the skill sets to perform the tasks, students having difficulty passing national exams, goes back to elementary school and the parental support system – we need to look globally, technology is just a small sliver – more emphasis needs to be placed on the soft and human skills – need to have long term objectives and goals, need to realize that college is not a universal goal


Respondent 6:


-emphasis on values and work ethic cant be overstated, starts in preschool with the early education and early intervention, spend years trying to catch up, in many cases they don’t have parents who are educated and realize the importance of all of these skills, reading comprehension and math are critically important need to have other skills before you can really use the technology, people who don’t have the confidence to learn the technology are always playing catch up need to be able to play catch up through self-directed learning, we need to be teaching are children make sure you have enough money to make good decision


Respondent 7:


Key barriers – high stakes accountability testing, when you look at needed competencies that accountability hinders the changes in curriculum and teaching practices needed to impact instruction, problem solving, literacy numeracy, people are beginning to see the importance of that


What about the children who are not going to need 21 st century learning sk

Appendix C – Categorization


After a round robin discussion of barriers to 21 st century learning, participants tackled the task of coming up with proactive solutions and steps to addressing those barriers. They were asked to think in terms of the questions: What’s working now? What’s missing? What can individuals/organizations do? And other innovative ideas not related to overcoming barriers.


Participants then paired up to discuss their steps and find common ideas. After sharing in pairs, participants organized their ideas with sticky notes under different categories, from leadership development to finance and budget issues, among others. After the steps were categorized, participants voted which categories were most important or pressing. These ideas and categories, as well as the weight each category received, are reprinted below.


Leadership Development - 16 Dots


·          Empowerment

·          Great leadership team

·          What about kids who won’t need the tech (21 st ) skills to make it in life?

·          Basic skill sets missing: 1. Reading comprehension 2. Math skills 3. Analytical capability

How to motivate students? Need to have desire to overcome

·          Communicate, trust, teamwork

·          Leaders should be able to identify with subordinated as peers

·          Rapid technological advances- cultural log to utilize the advances need to have students

Cultural Awareness - 26 Dots


·          Relationship building

·          Give students an understanding of world

·          Cultural awareness between teachers and students who all “other”

·          Involvement in local and global community

·          Engage stakeholders in global conversations with other cultures to learn from each other

·          Solutions: 1. Create pen-pals in other countries 2. Websites/email/chat with foreign students live under dictatorship countries 3. Teach students about the unfortunate situation of children in other countries 4. Invite representative of foreign student groups to speak on campus 5. Visit the countries of less fortunate children 6.create a textbook on the lives of third world children

Professional Development/ Teacher Development - 27 Dots


·          Training

·          Professional development is learning differently

·          Individuals do- pair with each other to learn new strategies

·          Missing- knowledge of new ways of teaching

·          Teacher internships in business

·          Professional development that is on-going

·          Continue to focus on ways to develop good teachers

·          Teach adults how to be willing to accept empowerment

·          Top-down modeling

·          Overcoming barriers bring higher ed teacher prep programs into 21 st century

·          Teacher training that models that “one size does not fit all”

·          Create teacher candidate residencies in classes of highly effective teachers known for 21 st century skill teaching

·          Must start with the teachers

·          Professional development commit to lifelong learning

·          Develop appropriate professional learning programs for educators

Partnerships/ Community Involvement - 15 Dots


·          Effectively integrating community based programs into schools (mentors)

·          Community participation in schools- let students know what employers expect

·          Higher ed partnering with school districts to solve problems through data collection, analysis and research. Using college students in a clinical model and fieldwork based learning.

·          Increase utilization of social workers and community workers in collaboration with educators

·          Community partnerships are working

·          Invite community members to solution focused meetings

·          Increase community partnerships

·          Build more business partnerships

Student Curriculum - 18 Dots


·          Reprioritize education goals- career goals. Focus on students interests, abilities vs. only “college” goals

·          More class time

·          School-wide global awareness projects

·          Use other tools of assessments (e.g. something different from SOLs) that don’t bog down actual creative teaching- make classroom learning fascinating not repetitive.

·          Basic computer classes in elementary schools

·          Allow students to “educate” students

·          Development of career pathways

·          Expose our students to the human network by giving them a chance to interact with others and the world around them including the use of technology of course but also giving them the chance to see the outside world physically not only on a screen

·          Continue efforts toward differentiation of technological learning

·          Distribute lap tops to students

·          Let kids finish course as they learn it and do something more

Critical Thinking - 10 Dots


·          We need to teach critical thinking skills

·          Focus on lifelong vs. finite/terminal degrees

Engagement of Legislators/ Policy Makers - 9 Dots


·          Work with state legislators and policy makers to change ideas and needs of schools to prepare students

Parents - 8 Dots


·          Increase parental involvement

·          As individuals- learn what’s new- pay attention engage in the unknown

·          Encourage parents to keep in touch with teachers all of time when things are going right or not

·          Telephone call from each teacher to each parent at the beginning of the year

·          Parent involvement

Data Driven Decision Making - 5 Dots


·          Collection of data- not good at analyzing the data

·          Missing- assessments that truly measure what’s important- critical thinking

·          Allow more “independence” for schools

Collaboration - 7 Dots


·          Organizations, educators and community leaders must be open to what works for individuals

·          Teach openness-be open to new ideas

·          Business leaders to help contribute to school computers

·          Create action plans centered around skills needed for success in a society

Finance/Budget - 4 Dots


·          To look at the budget differently

·          Rally public support for our public school initiatives for 21 st century technology

External Resources - 4 Dots

·          Apprentice programs

·          Get rid of textbooks

·          Lap tops to be signed out just like books

Character Development (Soft Skills) - 2 Dots

·          Missing: Soft skills, etc, needed in place? Early development and continued emphasis

·          What’s needed? Etiquette classes as a “required” elective

Early Childhood Education - 2 Dots


·          More early childhood education

Set the Stage-Defining


·          Acceptance of change

·          “21 st century learning” needs to be defined so that everyone can understand exactly what it is without misunderstanding. Misunderstanding=fear=conflict=not productive. Must understand in order to implement and be successful.

·          Reduce the fear by giving a global definition of 21 st century learning

Relevance - 15 Dots


·          Real world education. Relating curriculum to jobs.

·          Organizations make their needs as employers known- join the conversation- help shape the education of their future work force

·          Establish a career emersion program to highlight career opportunities in a non college career path- i.e. Fire Cadet Program

·          Making teaching relevant to today’s learner. i.e. technology/flexible schedules

·          What do/will business need? Now and for the next 100 years!

Communication - 11 Dots


·          Explore learning through collaboration with and without use of technology

·          Effort of teachers/administrators

·          School districts are working together and sharing ideas

·          Open line of communication parent/teacher

·          Now? Kids can “text” 24/7 and think it is the best way to communicate

·          Proliferation of virtual schools

·          Communication between the community and school

·          Home visits

Appendix D – Crafting of Recommendations




As a final activity, participants again formed their groups to craft specific recommendations for the school system to address barriers to 21 st century learning. Each group’s notes and recommendations from this discussion are reprinted below. Group B interviewed Rebiya Kadeer at the conference and their notes are included in Appendix E.


Group A


Inventory the technological skills already available in the division so that you can then identify the gaps.  

Have students teach the teachers how they use technologies and how they see these tools used in a classroom.

Allow teacher experts to train other teachers so that there is no additional cost involved in the training.   Also, the business community can provide in kind support by providing training in these technologies.

Group C


Cultural Awareness:

Build cultural awareness by teaching educators and students the facts of our global economy/community and infuse relevance into our instruction.

Teach teachers understand how to build their own personal learning online networks so it can them be disseminated to the students.

Teach students how to develop their own personal learning networks – discriminate information

Use current technology to examine current events from various world perspectives.   – ie. Change up the URLs to see what other countries’ perspectives are about the same issue.

Clash of values – disenfranchisement – look beneath the jacket – from disadvantaged to ‘different”

Teach the whole child….

Work on belief systems – can every child learn

Group D


Leadership network,

recognizing leadership qualities

community leadership

educational leadership



Develop leadership network that includes administrators, teachers, school staff, community and business leaders, and student leaders; that collaboratively function as professional learning communities to address and solve barriers to learning

Action Steps – Option I


Research current models of PLC’s and compare information             

Develop a school and/or district leadership team

Develop a clear communication system to share information, etc. with all stakeholders

Empower leadership team members and distribute leadership responsibilities

Build capacity within the school/district that encourages and ensures sustainability

Action Steps – Option I


Identify the stakeholders in the school community who should be invited to participate in the network.

Identify barriers to the target

Empower members of the network to lead data collection analyze the results to network and all stakeholders

Provide recommendations/approaches to solve the problem or remove the barrier

Appendix E – Rebiya Kadeer


Rebiya Kadeer, Chinese businesswoman and political activist, attended the conference and participants had a chance to work with her in a small group. Participants interviewed Kadeer, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, about her life, which included being tried and imprisoned in 1999 until 2005 when the United States pressured for her release. The following are notes from that discussion.


Concept: Reform

We would die for freedom in China.   I think that’s why your people take things for granted.   We take nothing for grant in my culture.   It’s a very unique culture.   We have our own music.   In our culture women are trained to cook.   We have respect for animals and we have stories related to these animals imbedded in our culture.  

The Chinese government could wipe us all out.   People would be detained if they learned a foreign language.   By being multi-cultural students can learn about any cultural.   They have the opportunity and privilege.   There are less then 1,000 Uyghurs in this country.   The government separated their people throughout China to keep them from forming strength.   Her two sons are in prison because of what she is doing in this country.   All her grandchildren were kicked out of school.   In China the entire family is punished when one family member does something wrong.  

Were you limited because of tracking or because you are a female?   I was limited because of my families’ social class.  

The government strips you naked of your freedom, your religion, your rights to force you to become Chinese.   The Chinese government is trying to wipe out our language.

Professors, teachers, professionals were fired and forced to become janitors or unemployed because they could not speak or teach in Chinese.

How was she able to create a business?   When the former Chinese president was in place he allowed for a few lower class citizens become business owners in an attempt to become wealthy.


Appendix F – Panel Discussion




An electronic global panel discussion kicked off the day’s events with an impressive group of thought leaders from Scotland, Thailand, and the U.S. logging in to Elluminate, a webinar software platform, to share their ideas and answer questions.



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