Think back to what made you successful in college and career. In my case, what comes to mind are the ability to think critically, ask deep questions and apply lessons from the classroom to real-world settings.These are all so-called 21st century skills that are increasingly essential for children to learn—and to use as a means for success in both college and career.Now, imagine if children could learn these skills as early as kindergarten. While college and career readiness may seem like a far-off proposition for our nation’s 5-year-olds, the education they get now is crucial to their future success.Researchers point to the 48 percent of disadvantaged children across the United States who enter kindergarten with a learning gap. One in 10 elementary school students who were “far off track” in reading and math in a 2012 study were able to meet on-track college readiness benchmarks by eighth grade.Deeper understandingTake one of the schools in my district, Katherine Smith Elementary in a San Jose, California, neighborhood that has dealt with persistent socioeconomic barriers.We have begun to overcome these obstacles, building partnerships with New Tech Network and the Buck Institute of Education to bolster our teachers’ use of project-based learning.In the process, it also became a Partnership for 21st Century Learning Exemplar School, leveraging P21’s supports to effectively embed collaboration, creativity, communication and critical thinking (the four C’s) into our kindergartners’ curricula.As a result of this project-based work, educators have the chance to not only teach kindergartners basic skills in math, reading and science, but to also present the opportunities to apply those skills in real-world settings.Consider how kindergartners may not just learn about the problem of stray animals, but also to use their logical reasoning skills to collaboratively develop preventative solutions, which they present to their teachers and community leaders.Consider how kindergartners may not only sound out their letters, but also demonstrate an early interest in reading by creating videos on how they would teach that concept to preschoolers and others in the community.Learning communitiesThis type of learning is at the core of a 21st century classroom, prompting students to build off of each other’s ideas, create collaboratively and offer constructive feedback. In the process, kindergartners can form the basis for how they will approach issues and conflicts in their lives. And our educators have embraced the approach.Through a Critical Friends exercise embedded in professional development, they show their peers what deeper learning, effective collaboration and rigorous problem-solving look like—and then all educators model the successful practices to their students.Teachers make effective use of professional learning communities to build projects and share critical feedback. In 21st century, project-based instruction, it is critical to not only use the concrete measures of student achievement but also those qualitative assessments of school climate.Conduct a Youth Truth Survey, which measures students’ perceptions of what they are learning, how they are challenged and their relationships with peers. These insights allow educators to adapt their instruction to support an innovative learning culture.Broad investment in project-based learning and assessment produces a 21st century learning community that emphasizes application and collaboration. In this type of classroom, students as early as kindergarten use the four Cs to tackle complex problems and prepare for success in college and career.As project-based learning gains traction—even in kindergarten—college and career readiness for our nation’s 5-year-olds may not seem like such a far-off proposition.
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