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National Research Council (US) Board on Science Education. Exploring the Intersection of Science Education and 21st Century Skills: A Workshop Summary. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2010.

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Exploring the Intersection of Science Education and 21st Century Skills: A Workshop Summary.

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3Adolescents’ Developing Capacity for 21st Century Skills

This chapter discusses adolescents’ cognitive and social development and the role of high-quality science instruction in fostering their development of 21st century skills. A commissioned paper on this topic explores one of the workshop guiding questions: What is the state of research on children’s and adolescents’ developing ability to tackle complex tasks in the context of science education? The chapter summarizes the paper, the response, and the ensuing discussion. It also summarizes small-group discussions of the first three workshop sessions.


Educational psychologists Eric Anderman (Ohio State University) and Gale Sinatra (University of Nevada, Las Vegas) discussed adolescents’ cognitive abilities related to the five 21st century skills, highlighting approaches science educators can use to create social learning contexts that foster these skills (Anderman and Sinatra, 2009). Anderman began by saying that he and Sinatra hoped to convince the audience of the importance of helping science teachers understand how adolescents learn, what skills they possess and lack, and what makes them unique. He said they also hoped to convince the audience that, if high school students have bad experiences in science classrooms, this will turn them off from advancing in science studies and from entering science careers.

Adolescents’ emerging cognitive abilities present unique challenges and opportunities for science educators, Anderman said. However, secondary science teachers, who often have a strong background in a science, such as biology or chemistry, may not have an equally strong background in adolescent development. As a result, teachers may be unsure of what motivates their students and how they engage in scientific inquiry. At the same time, the depth and breadth of science classes expand at the high school level, offering students greater opportunities to build on their elementary and secondary science knowledge, to enroll in multiple courses, and to take specialized classes, such as anatomy and environmental science.


Sinatra explained that the good news from the research is that adolescents have the capacity to think and reason adaptively about science. However, this ability must be fostered and supported by teachers, peers, and learning environments. Even if teachers provide the required levels of support, many high school students lack the base of rich, interconnected science knowledge that is necessary for adaptive reasoning. Students’ lack of content knowledge is partly due to the weakness of current science curriculum materials, which often aim to introduce many different science topics, rather than treating a few concepts in depth (Vogel, 2007).

Sinatra said that adaptability requires not only a rich knowledge base, but also the willingness to engage in effortful thinking and to consider alternative points of view or to engage in scientific argumentation. Some students are low in what social psychologists call “need for cognition;” that is, they do not necessarily seek or enjoy opportunities to engage in effortful thinking (Cacioppo et al., 1996). Students also vary in their degree of openness to new ideas and in their beliefs about the nature of knowledge, and these factors influence the likelihood that a given student will experience a change in his or her knowledge base and be willing to engage in scientific argumentation.

Sinatra said that developing adaptable thinking in science requires that students are willing to have their ideas publicly challenged, although such challenges can be psychologically uncomfortable during adolescence, when young people are very sensitive to the perceptions of their peer groups. In some cases, a challenge to one’s point of view can even be seen as a threat to identity. For example, if students identify themselves as belonging to a group that believes in creationism, it may be difficult to learn about evolution. These social and psychological concerns can lead students to avoid adaptive thinking about scientific concepts and processes. Sinatra said that the hallmarks of adaptability include both recognizing the need to change one’s thinking and also the willingness to change it, based on one’s view of scientific knowledge as subject to change on the basis of new evidence.

Complex Communication

Anderman observed that communication is critical in science, as scientific investigations are increasingly conducted by team members who must communicate clearly and effectively with each other. While arguing that adolescents are capable of communicating effectively about abstract concepts, he cautioned against the assumption that they will “naturally” learn communication skills. Written communication in science is a complex psychological process, he said, requiring self-regulation (recognizing one’s own strengths and weaknesses as a learner and applying effective learning strategies); construction of complex sentences; adopting a scientific style; and self-confidence both in science and as a writer. As a result, science teachers must be well prepared in order to help students develop skills in science writing.

Effective science teachers incorporate techniques into their instruction that facilitate the development of oral communication skills. One useful cooperative learning technique is referred to in the literature as “jigsaw” (Slavin, 1995). In jigsaw, each member of a group is responsible for becoming an expert in a particular area. That expert then reports back and teaches the other members of the group about the specific topic. In this manner, students scaffold and support each other’s communication as they learn the necessary information.

Nonroutine Problem Solving

Sinatra noted that, because most scientific problems worth solving are ill structured, they require nonroutine problem solving or what is often referred to as “thinking outside the box.” Successful problem solving, she said, requires a strong base of relevant knowledge and both “the skill and the will” (Paris, Lipson, and Wixson, 1983). Although many adolescents have the skill (the reasoning, metacognitive, and self-regulatory skills necessary to solve science problems), fewer have the will (the motivation to approach difficult problems and to persist toward a solution).

Sinatra explained that science instruction can be designed to support these skills, motives, and dispositions by providing practice in solving problems connected to student interests. She cautioned against engaging students in “overly simplistic inquiry tasks,” referring to Arthur Eisenkraft’s earlier comments about the very different ways that science teachers understand inquiry (see Chapter 1). If students develop a sense that science is not very complex, she said, this could reduce their motivation to approach and persist in solving nonroutine science problems.


Anderman observed that there is a large body of research literature on what psychologists call self-regulation and what most people would call self-control. The literature includes studies focusing on how adolescents learn to control, regulate, and monitor their use of various learning strategies (Zimmerman, 2000). As with adaptability and complex communication skills, the research indicates not only that adolescents are capable of self-management in their learning, but also that this skill does not develop naturally, in the absence of teaching and coaching. One element of self-management, Anderman said, is self-efficacy, or the confidence that one has the capacity to engage in and complete a learning task (Schunk and Zimmerman, 2008). Confidence is extremely important for self-management of learning in science subjects (Greene and Azevedo, 2007).

Anderman explained that research has begun to identify instructional strategies that build students’ self-management in learning. Teachers can model self-regulated learning strategies (Pintrich, 2000; Zimmerman, 2000, 2001) and provide students with some autonomy. They can encourage students to evaluate the quality of their own work, providing opportunities for students to go back and correct any earlier errors (Pintrich and Schunk, 2002; Schunk and Ertmer, 1999).

Systems Thinking

Sinatra began by paraphrasing Chi’s (2005) definition of complex systems as “systems with multiple component parts and processes that interact in ways that give rise to emergent phenomena.” For example, Sinatra said, consider the V-shaped pattern of birds in flight. The pattern is the result of each bird seeking the path of least resistance; it is not predictable from examining the flight mechanics of individual birds but can be understood only from examining the interaction of the birds’ individual actions (Chi, 2005). Addressing complex scientific problems, such as predicting the effects of a pandemic, forecasting tornados, or understanding the decline in the bee population, requires systems thinking.

Although the research indicates that adolescents have the capacity for systems thinking, it also illuminates the difficulty they have in understanding emergent systems, even when they are given specific, directed instruction. One promising approach to supporting student understanding of systems is the use of computer simulations (Jackson et al., 1996).

Creating Adaptive Motivational Contexts in Science Classrooms

Anderman said that science teachers’ small daily decisions can increase students’ motivation to develop 21st century skills in the context of science learning. The tasks they give to students, the ways they group students, the amount of choice and types of rewards they provide, and the expectations they have for students all have profound effects on motivation (Anderman and Anderman, 2009). Teachers’ everyday discourse in science classrooms also influences whether students view the goal of science class primarily in terms of performance—i.e., getting a good grade—or in terms of really learning and mastering science (Maehr and Midgley, 1996). Students whose goal is mastery are more likely to enroll in further science classes. The bottom line, he said, is that students who have bad experiences in science classes are likely to rule out science as a career.

Teachers also influence student goals through assessment practices. The types of assessments given are “completely predictive of cognitive engagement,” Anderman said. Assessments focused on sorting out students based on ability lead to problems, including increased cheating (Anderman et al., 1998) and students’ placing a lower value on science (Anderman et al., 2001). Tests that stress memorization of facts lead to less cognitive engagement than tests that are focused on solving real-world problems and that build upon prior knowledge (Dole and Sinatra, 1998). When teachers focus on the external motivation of tests, they often decrease intrinsic motivation, he said.

Sinatra concluded the presentation by offering a list of recommendations to strengthen development of 21st century skills in high school science:

  1. Foster productive learning environments;
  2. Promote active engagement based on connections to students’ personal interests and career goals;
  3. Develop requisite knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for science literacy and to support nascent science career choices;
  4. Capitalize on learning progressions by revisiting earlier content in more depth;
  5. Promote an inquiry and problem-based learning approach to science instruction;
  6. Use assessments that focus on higher order learning;1 and
  7. Provide professional development for secondary science inservice and preservice teachers that includes adolescent development and motivation.

Commenting on the list, Sinatra observed that connecting to students’ personal interests is especially important to motivate adolescents. The third recommendation—building knowledge and positive dispositions toward science learning—is critical, given that today’s students, the “Google generation,” are accustomed to instantly accessing vast amounts of information. The fourth recommendation, she said, reflects the fact that high school provides an opportunity to build on earlier learning, on adolescent students’ growing cognitive capabilities, and on teachers’ expertise, which is generally greater than at the elementary school level. Next, promoting inquiry and problem-based reasoning are promising methods to capitalize on adolescents’ growing adaptability, complex communication, and other 21st century skills. Finally, she urged that professional development for secondary science teachers include information about adolescent development and motivation.

Respondent Susan Koba (science education consultant) asked Anderman and Sinatra about implementing these suggestions: How can the goals be made accessible for teachers, especially in school districts that aren’t engaged in partnerships with colleges and universities, and so lack support and access to the most recent research?

Anderman responded that administrators’ support was the most important factor in implementing the suggested improvements in teaching practice. For schools and districts not near higher education institutions, he said, there is good research-based information on science teaching available on the Internet. He acknowledged that it is a challenge to translate that information into changes in classroom teaching.

Sinatra added that all seven of their ideas for improvement are related to teacher professional development. She expressed the view that long-term, sustained, supported teacher professional development is the key to implementing the suggestions, adding that she would like to see a greater emphasis on professionalization of teachers.


In response to questions, Anderman said that, if the principal supports innovation and supports teachers in taking risks and trying different approaches to instruction, then teachers will change their teaching practices. He said that teachers in other countries have more time to collaborate in lesson planning and reflection. In some countries, he said, teachers spend only 35 percent of their day with the students, allowing time to talk with one another and learn together. In the United States, team teaching is often implemented in order to provide time for such collaborative learning, but in reality, he said, this does not yield the time needed to support teachers in planning and reflecting on their lessons.

Koba added that, in schools in which administrators support innovation, teachers form learning communities; they study cases of teaching practice and examine student work to develop their skills. Observing that good video case studies are available, she said the problem is the lack of consistent support systems and access to the best research. Sinatra added that technology can assist in teacher professional development. Although teachers are sometimes isolated in their classrooms, they often have computers with Internet access, allowing them to communicate with scientists and other science teachers and to obtain real-time support. Sinatra described a classroom at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, that is equipped with multiple microphones and cameras, so that preservice teachers can observe everything, from the teacher leading the class to an individual student’s paper. After watching short periods of instruction, the students can stop and discuss their observations. In addition, the teacher in the classroom can contact the students who are observing to ask their opinions about an activity or segment of instruction that has just taken place.

In response to a question about undergraduate science instruction, Sinatra noted that biology professors are not often given instruction in teaching and may not have much prior teaching experience, so they may not always be good role models for how to teach. Anderman added that the university pulls faculty members in different directions and does not reward them for devoting extra time to improving their teaching, trying more creative approaches, or observing their colleagues’ classes.

Kenneth Kay asked about terminology. He noted that “self-management/self-development” is different from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills’ term, “self-direction,” and that Anderman and Sinatra had introduced yet another term, “self-regulation.” He asked if it was possible to agree on a shared system of naming this and other 21st century skills in a way that would be understandable to students, parents, and employers. Sinatra replied that it was unlikely that everyone would agree on a common term, because different disciplines have their own histories of developing and defining terms. However, she said that it was possible to improve understanding of the common elements underlying the different terms.

Anderman added that it takes 10 to 20 years for people in the single field of educational psychology to agree on how to define a term, although the problem of focusing on terminology isn’t unique to this field. He agreed with Kay that it is very important to communicate with parents in language they can understand, for example, by avoiding terms like “self-regulation.” The challenge, he said, is to ensure that when talking with parents about these skills, everyone is talking about the same concepts.

In response to a question about stages of development of 21st century skills, Anderman said that their paper focused on adolescents as requested. He cautioned that trying to develop these skills only in grades 9 through 12 would not lead to the outcomes desired by employers. Instead, he said, development of these skills should begin at age 5 or even younger and should continue throughout elementary, middle, and high school. Such a process of continuous development would require major changes in science teaching, he noted.

Sinatra cautioned against thinking that 21st century skills are something an individual either has entirely or lacks completely. Elementary students may begin to develop the rudiments of these skills, and adolescents can develop them more fully, a first-year teacher in a master’s program will develop them even more fully, and an expert teacher may possess even higher levels of the skills.


Workshop participants were divided into small groups of 8–12 people to discuss what they had learned and what they still wanted to know about the topics addressed in the three preceding sessions.

Moderator William Sandoval (University of California, Los Angeles) invited each reporter to briefly summarize the group’s report. Susan Albertine (American Association of Colleges and Universities) said that, through a rich discussion, her group learned that they need to take a systems perspective on development of 21st century skills from prekindergarten through graduate school. Following an initial lack of clarity about how to define such a systems perspective, they agreed that they were focusing on developing young people’s skills over a long trajectory of years in all curriculum areas, not only science. Albertine said the group agreed about the importance of 21st century skills in broad terms, but people began to disagree when they moved into specific questions, such as the difference between self-management and self-regulation. This group would like to learn how to bridge the gap between classroom realities and the research and policy on 21st century skills and how to move beyond discussion toward creating systemic change.

Douglas Oliver (American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Foundation) reported that his group learned that children and youth “probably have a greater capacity for developing 21st century skills than we older folks have.” The group also learned that business support for 21st century skills could be helpful in leading reform of science education and that demand for these skills creates demand for higher level teaching skills and more independent students. The group would like to know how 21st century skills may promote education reform that has been discussed for two decades. Group members also asked how policy makers can influence implementation of 21st century skills in the school curriculum.

Ines Cifuentes (American Geophysical Union) said her group learned that business is very clear about its demand for 21st century skills, although some business representatives prefer the term “competencies” rather than “skills.” At the same time, however, the group learned that the five skills used as a framework for the workshop are not well understood or agreed on. Finally, because they see 21st century skills as important for the nation, they learned that it is important to identify leverage points at which they can have an impact on developing these skills. Cifuentes also raised several questions. First, the group would like to know if science is uniquely positioned to develop these skills and, if so, whether learning these skills would actually support students’ learning of science. Second, she noted that the group was unclear about what problem 21st century skills might solve. If everyone had these five skills, she asked, what problem would be solved?

Gina Schatteman (National Institutes of Health) reported that her group learned that science is an excellent vehicle for developing 21st century skills, although they believed there was no strong evidence for this view. The group also learned that discussions like this should include practitioners, after realizing that many group members were former teachers but none was currently teaching. Third, they learned that, in order to develop students’ capacities for 21st century skills, it is important to sustain their natural wonder and interest. This group would like to know how to redesign educational standards for depth and relevance and how to design metrics for 21st century skills. The group suggested a longitudinal study to assess whether students were truly learning 21st century skills and later transferring them to the workplace. Schatteman said that, like other groups, hers would like to know how to apply a systems approach to analyzing and implementing development of 21st century skills.

Sinatra reported that her group learned that, because children’s activities today are often highly structured by parents, they have fewer opportunities to develop self-management or self-regulation skills. Still, young people have many technology skills that they use to learn through social networking on the Internet, and this could be an asset in developing 21st century skills. The group also thought that environmental concerns, such as climate change, could motivate students to engage in deep science learning. Sinatra also reported several questions from the group:

  • What will emerge from the thinking of today’s students, which is very different from the thinking of previous generations?
  • What level of science knowledge and skill is necessary for the general population?
  • Should there be a more explicit connection between understanding of the nature of science and development of 21st century skills?
  • How will adolescents’ use of technology to access and share information affect their view of intellectual property?

Brian Jones (JBS International) said participants in his group were surprised to learn about the report indicating that employers view science knowledge as less valuable than 21st century skills (Casner-Lotto and Barrington, 2006). The group also learned that these skills may be difficult to assess. Finally, participants learned about the importance of self-development and systems thinking. Jones reported that the group would like to know about equity issues that should be addressed in the teaching of 21st century skills. Participants noted the focus on adolescents’ unique capabilities and constraints in learning and asked what other groups—defined by gender, age, race, language skills, and/or socioeconomic status—might have special capabilities and constraints that should be considered when teaching 21st century skills.

Reflecting on the group reports, Sandoval observed that many of the groups discussed the importance of systems thinking, based on their view of education as a complex system that is difficult to understand. He described the groups’ calls to identify key stakeholders or leverage points, in order to drive change, as very important, asking which facets or components of the education system are most amenable to change. Surveying the room, Sandoval noted that, although representatives of many components of the education system were present, there were still “some real gaps in who is here and who is not here.” He observed that the attendees did not reflect the diversity of the United States, leading him to pose questions about who “owns” 21st century skills and whose purposes the skills might serve, if they were widely acquired.

A second theme Sandoval observed frequently in the reports was uncertainty about how to operationally define the five skills, so that they can be easily recognized and so that student learning of the skills can be measured by appropriate assessments. Arguing that it is very important to determine how to assess these skills, he posed the rhetorical questions, “How do we do that? What’s a smart way of doing that?”

A final common theme in the reports, Sandoval said, was that, although the workshop focused on science education, this is not the only school subject in which these skills can be learned and practiced.



The term “higher order learning” refers to Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy of learning objectives. In this taxonomy, the lower levels (or orders) include recall, comprehension, and application of information, and the higher levels (or orders) include analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

Copyright © 2010, National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK32685


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