Voices in Education

Teaching and Learning for the Twenty-First Century
In the book-turned-movie The Martian, Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, an astronaut who gets stranded on Mars and then is later rescued. Viral blog posts have suggested that had this really happened, it would have taken about $200 billion to rescue him. What they do not mention, however, is that even $200 trillion would not have been enough, were it not for some critical competencies displayed by Watney’s fellow astronauts, scientists, and Watney himself.

Using Cognitive, Interpersonal, and Intrapersonal Competencies

The cognitive competencies, which include not only critical thinking but creativity and innovation, deployed in the rescue mission are obvious: Watney’s knowledge as a botanist serves him well as he innovates to produce life on Mars, and NASA and JPL’s combined technical creativity finds a way to communicate with him and also brings him home. But the intrapersonal competencies exercised by Watney in monitoring and marshaling his emotions to work up the hope, motivation, and determination to survive against all odds are remarkable. Equally critical are the interpersonal competencies exercised by Watney’s fellow crew members on the space shuttle and the American and Chinese scientists, as they tap into their professional and personal responsibilities, and cooperative and teamwork abilities, to bring him home. Money alone would never have been enough to solve problems none of them had seen before, much less had been taught to solve—indeed, cognitive abilities also would not have been enough. 

A Study of Six Nations

When we wrote our book, Teaching and Learning for the Twenty-First Century: Educational Goals, Policies, and Curricula from Six Nations, we were not looking to find ways to educate students so that they could rescue fellow astronauts should they become stranded on Mars. However, we were looking to see how education systems in six countries—Chile, China, India, Mexico, Singapore, and the United States—were defining, prioritizing, and supporting the kinds of competencies needed in the twenty-first century as outlined by the National Research Council’s recent report, Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century, in which researchers outline three broad domains of competencies they saw as being critical to thrive in the twenty-first century—cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal—as I describe in the applied example of The Martian above. 

What we found as we interviewed educational stakeholders in these countries and as we analyzed curriculum frameworks was that most of the education systems focus more on developing the cognitive competencies and less on the intrapersonal and the interpersonal competencies, and that there was little theoretical and research-based knowledge about how these three competencies might be taught and learned together. We don’t have to use the made-up example of The Martian; even as researchers, we had to draw on and exercise competencies in all three categories, in the process of collaborating with more than a dozen researchers in six countries over a period of eighteen months to design, execute, and write about our study. 

Indeed, we all use these competencies all the time, in our working, personal, and civic lives, yet we found that education systems, even as they recognized the need to broaden their goals and purposes and included them in varying degrees to their curriculum frameworks, lagged behind in the implementation and in the practice of teaching and learning to execute these broader aspirations. In other words, a coherent approach to link policy, practice, and preparation1  of teachers is currently lacking in many of our school systems.    

A Systems-Based Approach to Teaching and Learning

The Martian was the result of a thought experiment: What would it take to rescue a man stranded on Mars? I wonder if we could also engage in a thought experiment: What would it take to employ a systems-based approach to teaching and learning in the twenty-first century, in which practice, policy, and preparation are aligned to encourage and support teachers and students to not just emphasize the development of cognitive competencies but also interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Examine the professional standards for teachers and for teacher preparation in your city, state, or country: How many of them ask teachers to practice interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies as well as cognitive competencies? 

2. Examine the learning standards for students: How many of them ask students to learn cognitive and interpersonal competencies as well as intrapersonal competencies? (We conduct this kind of analysis in our book, particularly in the chapter about the US and Massachusetts.)

3. Examine a typical student’s daily or weekly schedule at school: How much time is devoted to students engaging in cognitive versus interpersonal versus intrapersonal activities?

4. Can you describe an example of a school activity that asks students to develop their competencies in all three domains?

5. Examine a typical teacher’s daily, weekly, or yearly professional development activities: How much time is devoted to teachers engaging in professional development activities that foster the learning and teaching of cognitive versus interpersonal versus intrapersonal competencies?

6. Examine a district’s budget: How much money is being spent to develop the capacities of administrators’, teachers’, and students’ cognitive versus interpersonal versus intrapersonal competencies?

Then ask: How are the students of today being prepared to have the competencies necessary to create the kind of future they want for themselves, their countries, and their world—including the ability to rescue you, should you end up being left behind in a dust storm on Mars?  

1We thank Professor Sing Kong Lee at the National Institute of Education at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, who, during many formal and informal conversations, explained the three-pronged framework of practice-policy-preparation that he uses to think about and organize the work of education in Singapore.  

About the Author: Connie K. Chung is the research director of the Global Education Innovation Initiative at  the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE).

Fernando M. Reimers is the Ford Foundation Professor of Practice in International Education and the director of the Global Education Innovation Initiative and the International Education Policy Program at HGSE.