Educating 21st century learners

03/21/2011  |  Susanne Beck
STEM Education

Test scores confirm that America’s students are falling behind their international counterparts in vital “fields of the future” such as science, technology, engineering, and math, collectively often referred to as the STEM subjects. Girls, in particular, are underrepresented and are entering the STEM fields in disproportionately limited numbers, depriving the country of talent and ingenuity that is critical to our nation’s long-term economic standing. What can we do in the face of such a challenge? How can we prepare our students to be truly competitive in the 21st century?

21st Century Skills

When you hear people talk about what we need to do — as a country, as educators, as parents — to appropriately educate 21st century learners, so they are equipped to be competitive in the next century, they tend to focus on what the skills the future will demand of today’s learners, the necessary content knowledge they will need, or the attributes that being successful contributors to the work environment of the next millennium will call for.

For example, The Partnership for 21st Century Skills identifies the following skills as necessary for this generation of students to possess to be successful in the workplace.

  • Information technology literacy (which involves using problem-solving tools to manage complexity and to think critically).
  • Communication skills (to access, manage, integrate, evaluate, and communicate information).
  • Interpersonal and self-direction skills (to enhance productivity and personal development).
  • Economic and business literacy (to understand the role of business in the economy).
  • Global awareness (to learn from and work collaboratively with individuals representing diverse cultures and religions to empathetically address global issues).

Some of our most provocative and critical educational voices express deep concern that we are far from successfully developing many of these skills in today’s students. One of the more thoughtful among those recently has been Scott McLeod, an Associate Professor in the Educational Administration program at Iowa State University, who wrote a book called Dangerously Irrelevant. The essence of his book is that what we teach, the way we teach, and the learners we are producing, is all perilously out of touch with what will be required to stay competitive, individually and nationally, as we move into the next millennium.

The Girls’ School Model of Success

There is an irony here for girls’ schools which for decades, because of their single gender nature alone, have been considered the same: dangerously irrelevant. Yet, these educational institutions have been, and are anything but, irrelevant. These are the very ones that have focused on the aspects of learning and development identified by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills — and have been doing so for years, far ahead of the overwhelming majority of their peers.

Why have girls’ schools done this? Because everything they do reflects and supports how girls learn best and what girls need to be competitive themselves.

Educating the Individual Girl

So how do you educate the individual girl? The answer is that you take the 21st century skill identifiers and create environments in which girls can thrive. In terms of pedagogy and methods, that means building a learning environment that supports girls’ inherent preferences towards collaboration, oral and written communication, and interpersonal and relationship skills.

It may mean reconfiguring classrooms and social spaces to encourage and promote creative thinking and collaboration. For example, some girls’ schools have even created “tinkering” stations in their hallways to engage girls’ interest in design and spatial abilities. Or, it may mean, as educational institutions, we emphasize certain fields and related career paths where women have been grossly underrepresented — areas like STEM, business, and finance.

Record of Success

The good news is that there is clear evidence that girls’ schools are making a difference, closing the gap and creating a highly effective bridge to the 21st century. The National Coalition of Girls’ Schools sees first hand — and has research to prove — that girls’ school graduates have an edge when it comes to STEM.

A peer-reviewed 2009 UCLA and National Coalition of Girls’ Schools research study identified the effectiveness of girls’ schools. The results showed the statistically significant edge girls’ school graduates have over their coed peers.

Compared to their coed peers, the study proved that graduates of girls’ schools have more confidence in their math and computer abilities and study longer hours. They are more likely to pursue careers in engineering, engage in political discussions, keep current with political affairs, and see college as a stepping-stone to graduate school.

What is particularly striking are the results related to 21st century skills:

  • Ten percent more girls’ school graduates rate their confidence in math and computer abilities high at the start of college compared to their peers from coed schools.
  • Girls’ school graduates are three times more likely than their coed peers to consider pursuing a career in engineering
  • Female graduates of girls’ schools are more likely than their coed counterparts to report that they frequently discuss politics in class and with friends; 58 percent compared to 48 percent in coed schools.
  • As the UCLA study points out, girls’ schools alums rate themselves more successful and engaged in exactly those areas in which male students have historically surpassed them — math, computers, engineering, and politics.

Focusing on More Than STEM

There is little doubt that when thinking ahead, STEM-related skills are key. As such, the coalition applauds the hard work going on in our member schools in this area. However, it is also important to remember that 21st century skills are not just defined solely by knowledge of academic content. What girls will need — and what we, as educators, parents, mentors, and role models need to reinforce — is broader, more subtle.

Thinking back to the skills identified in the Partnership for the 21st Century Skills, not all of them relate to traditional subject matter. Communication and personal development are also highlighted. In an age where response time is fast and information overload is a given, we need to continue to create the capacity and the time for reflection and processing, not impulsiveness and immediate satisfaction. We need to move beyond academics to leadership. We need to consider how we are training girls to think in a world without boundaries.

We want to unleash our girls, so that not only do they grow intellectually, but also socially and developmentally. We want to educate girls not just to be scholars, but also to be engaged leaders in their communities and in the world. We want to provide them with the right tools to be lifelong learners and problem solvers. Critical thinking is a difficult skill to teach. With girls, we can channel what we know they have — a desire to make the world a better place — and guide them, so that they can take a lead role in actually doing that.

The Power of an All-Girls’ Environment

As a coalition, we’re often asked why girls’ schools are necessary in a time when many girls are outperforming boys on standardized tests and when girls are going to college in greater numbers. But, the truth is that while we’ve made great strides, women continue to be underrepresented in key areas of leadership. The corporate and political worlds continue to be led by men — likewise, finance, medicine and academia.

We’re also often asked how girls can be prepared to be out in the world with men if they are in a seemingly isolated environment. The truth is, they are far from isolated. How could anyone be in such an interconnected world? And beyond that, for the time they are there, very often during years of critical personal and intellectual development, girls find a single sex environment actually fortifies them. Gloria Steinem, a well-known feminist, captures this well. She says that the longer girls stay in an all girls environment the more time they have to become stronger and more confident. So, that when they move beyond school and make their way in the world, they are in a position of power to face the challenges which come their way. History has proven her right. And the future, with all the new challenges that it will hold, will do the same.

The National Coalition of Girls’ Schools is a leading advocate for girls’ education with a distinct commitment to the transformative power of all girls’ schools. The coalition acts at the forefront of educational thought, collaborating and connecting globally with individuals, schools, and organizations dedicated to empowering girls to be influential contributors to the world.

Susanne Beck is Executive Director of the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools. For more information visit
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