Core Competencies for the 21st Century – Rhyming History

Written by: Jordan Tinney

Published On: November 15th 2011

Almost 20 years ago Ernest Boyer spoke to the Association for Supervision and  Curriculum Development (ASCD) on the topic of core competencies for the 21st century. Ernest was President of the Carnegie Foundation, the very institution which created the “Carnegie  Unit”, what we know today as the credit system for universities. Boyer looked back on the inappropriateness of breaking learning into small discreet chunks and looked ahead to what core competencies should we be teaching as we approached the 21st century. As the BC Education Plan is unveiled, a question at the heart of the plan is what new competencies will prepare students for the future? In his speech titled “In Search of Community” Ernest Boyer said the following and much is still relevant today.

Core Competencies for the 21st Century – or a curriculum to become an educated person

  • The life-cycle – understanding nutrition, health, wellness and the miracle of birth
    and aging. A curriculum that includes understanding the human body, caring for
    oneself and caring for one other life form as part of an ongoing learning
    project. Learning not only about life, but an appreciation for its fragility.
  • Language – not only to read, but to write with clarity, to listen with accuracy and
    empathy, and be able to speak articulately. Understanding that “language is a sacred trust” and “truth is the obligation we assume when we are empowered with the use of words.” Boyer also saw mathematics as a language of symbols and the same principles of fluency in a language as above applied to mathematics.
  • Appreciation for creativity and the arts – children have an innate desire to be creative and expressive. This must be fostered and refined as a language that is cross-cultural. Being sensitive and responsive to the universal language of the Arts is a core competency of being human.
  • Learning across time and cultures – learning about your roots as a way to understand your past and learning about other cultures to understand your future. Seeing the connections that exist across cultures and across time and the common bonds and struggles we have faced as individuals, nations, and societies.
  • Learning about membership in institutions – the social web of connections that exist in our lives. The groups in which we participate shape our lives and  culture. Learning about other social institutions and groups in other cultures as an appreciation for human interconnectedness. Understanding the dynamics of groups and institutions and how to work within these unique cultures.
  • Producing, consuming, conserving – learning that it takes time, effort, and craftsmanship to build something and that things worth building are work caring for and conserving. These connections extend to the natural world where we learn that water doesn’t come from a tap and electricity doesn’t come from the plug on the wall. Caring for our planet and understanding consumption and production are central to comprehending a sustainable life and planet.

Boyer said that these core competencies should be taught by great teachers. Teachers who were not only well informed, but they relate what they know to the readiness of the   students. They are learners themselves and are authentic, open, honest human beings. Great teachers don’t just teach curriculum, they teach themselves. Students learn about core human values by the integrity, honesty and openness of great teachers.

And finally, Boyer said that students learn by contributing to society. A practical, relevant and meaningful community service project should be part of every student’s life. This project helps students see their own personal connection to the world beyond school.

Given at a time when the Internet was in full expansion, it is curious to reflect on what Ernest said in his speech. Facebook wouldn’t come for 11 years, YouTube for 12. It truly would be another decade before social networking became a main part of the Internet. Many of Boyer’s competencies fit with technology (learning across cultures and time and understanding our membership in groups and institutions) and are only enhanced by the ability to access information and reach beyond.

When we look at current lists of core competencies today, many contain similar threads to Boyer’s. I wanted to share the above in that whatever competencies we create should stand the test of time. As Mark Twain said “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” While the above list may not be exactly what we need today, looking back and reflecting on previous efforts to design core competencies can indeed inform our future. Boyer wrote his speech looking for characteristics that are at the core of human existence. He looked for “connections to be found.” Whatever we adopt as a set of core competencies, I’m sure they will indeed bind us together by looking at what we all have in common.