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The 21st Century Skill Set

(Draft Version to be edited soon.)

The following is provided to give readers some idea of how 21st Century learning skills are developed in an OPERI pilot program.

Analytical reading skill, the ability to effectively interpret manuals, is the most empowering of learning skills. It is the ability to follow the steps in something like an IKEA instruction booklet and actually finish putting together a piece of furniture feeling like you did it right. This skill can be developed with a math course. A math textbook is essentially a manual, and students who acquire the skill to interpret it will have developed the ability to teach themselves just about anything.

The primary curriculum for a student studying math in an OPERI pilot is therefore not the math – it’s analytical reading. The student is given the math syllabus and a textbook then told, “Go for it.” This alone gives a powerful message. It helps to transfer the responsibility for learning from the teacher to the learner.

The story of a college math instructor is useful for conveying the level of analytical reading skill a learner should aim to acquire. The instructor was assigned to teach a course on an area of math he had not previously studied. The dean of the college had been teaching the course, but he needed his time for other things. The course had a textbook and the teacher was expected to work through it keeping a lecture ahead of the students.

During the first week of the course, there was an explanation in the textbook that the instructor could simply not grasp and after rereading it time and again, and puzzling over it to the point of insanity, he finally went to the dean for help. Within a couple of days, suffering the same frustration with another explanation, he was back with the dean getting more help and feeling like a total incompetent.

In a couple of days he found himself stumped again by a textbook explanation, but the thought of going to the dean again for help was nauseating. He imagined the dean thinking, “I might as well continue teaching the course to the students myself rather than teaching the teacher to teach it.”

Desperate to avoid revisiting the dean, he went to the library. Often more than one publisher produces a textbook to match a course syllabus and he was hoping to find a different book for his course that explained things differently. With luck he found two, signed them out for the duration of his course, and headed home to tackle his latest learning problem.

In one of the newly acquired textbooks he found an explanation that he understood. His initial thought was that the original textbook had done a bad job of explaining the concept and he reread it to see where it had gone so wrong. He surprisingly found that the explanation was fine, actually better, he thought, than the one he first understood. This was his moment of EUREKA! The moment of discovering that his thinking was far from flexible. He had to train himself to be a more agile thinker, to be able to look at things from more angles, preferably all angles, and so he began his own course. He consciously worked at building his analytical reading skills in order to grasp the math he had to explain to his students.

From this we see how “give a man a fish or teach him how to fish” applies to learning. The instructor kept going into class and giving his students fish while at home he was teaching himself how to fish. We also get an idea from this story how the development of analytical reading skills and critical thinking skills go hand-in-hand.

By giving students math textbooks and saying, “go for it,” the teacher in an OPERI program is essentially telling the students to learn how to fish, but the students are not abandoned. If they get stumped, they can go to the teacher, but the teacher doesn’t give them a fish. He concentrates on the fishing skill asking the student to explain where a textbook explanation becomes confusing and then working with him to expand his ability to look at things from different angles. In the process the math concept becomes understood, but the math is not the important thing. It just makes a good subject for learning an important thing.

When the teacher sits helping a student in this fashion, he will be able to assess if the student’s learning problem is from a lack of analytical reading skill or a lack of prerequisite math knowledge. If it is the latter, the necessary remediation would be done.

Other skills that students in an OPERI program would develop through a math course are:

  1. effective time management to ensure completion of the course requirements and the pacing of learning to maximizes the assimilation of math concepts,
  2. the ability to evaluate oneself, to know when you thoroughly know something,
  3. the ability to keep concepts fresh and to how to refresh and review for final exams.

These three points also reflect that the responsibility for learning is shifted from the teacher to the learner, which is where it needs to be for lifelong learning.

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