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21st century learning stories

Pamela-Nippolt.jpgWhat lessons do you take from a story about two best friends graduating from Stillwater High School this week -- one of them an artist with autism who seldom speaks, the other headed for a local community college? Their steady and unwavering lifelong friendship across their differences bridged them through childhood to their walk across the graduation stage this month.

This story by Mary Divine of the Saint Paul Pioneer Press centers on two young men who formed a bond that has seen them through the years and over many successful "outcomes".

Youth-serving professionals wanting to make a difference by advancing "21st century learning" can take a lesson directly from young people like these boys. According to Robert Sternberg of Cornell University,
"Successful individuals are those who have "creative skills to produce a vision for how they intend to make the world a better place for everyone; analytical intellectual skills, to assess their vision and those of others; practical intellectual skills, to carry out their vision and persuade people of its value; and wisdom, to ensure that their vision is not a selfish one."
What can we as youth development cat-and-duck-best-friends.jpgprofessionals learn from these two young men? No single achievement or benchmark of success distinguishes either boy's life to this point. Neither mentions a program or experience or mentor that helped carve their path .... except, perhaps, the other. They both have parents who had the vision for that first play date. But even so, there was a second play date, and a twentieth, and so on. Perhaps this is a path that could be taken by any young person, provided someone has the vision to see it.
What place do youth programs play in supporting youth to make choices to commit their time and hearts for true collaboration and a commitment to others? In youth development buzzwords, the ability to navigate in one's family, community and, yes, the world is known as a collection of "21st century learning skills." We measure them with survey items like "I can make positive choices." Or "I am able to communicate my ideas to others."
But are we missing something essential in our understanding about what leads young people to be prepared? To be capable of changing the world? Our current "collective impact" largesse and our "soft skill" narrowing of what the world most needs for and from our youngest members may just have set the bar too low.
Take time to read this story if you want a gentle reminder of what youth are doing to change the world. Every young person has the potential and right to be remarkable and to do amazing things.
These stories make the buzzwords real. Do you have a story of 21st century learning in your program? I want to hear it!
-- Pamela Larson Nippolt, evaluation and research specialist

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  1. Great story! Thank you Pam. I feel it is not easy to measure 21st learning skills, especially by using survey. For example, how to measure creative thinking?
    I have a friend like to read but only read the books that she likes. She did not do well at school because she does not like to read textbooks. Yet, is she not creative ? Well, she writes plays.

  2. Pam Larson NippoltJune 6, 2014 at 5:08 AM

    Hui Hui, Thank you for the story about your creative friend. I think you are pointing out that young people are making contributions in many ways that often go “unmeasured” or that don’t fit into our indicators or signs for success. So often, these same youth are seen as falling off the path of what we have pre-determined is the best pathway toward success and workforce readiness. What would the world be like without youth who follow their passions? From a STEM Education perspective, what is the role of youth programs to engage youth and their strengths when they do not “meet standards” or cannot meet standards (for example, do not want to read materials from the curriculum)?

  3. Pam, thank you so much for sharing this beautiful story. The thing I find so moving about it is that what it is really about is two young people being open enough and vulnerable enough to allow themselves to really connect, to get beyond the perceived barriers of difference and to really become deeply connected at the heart. This is something I see playing out repeatedly in our 4-H programs, and I agree with Hui-Hui that this is something that is hard to measure. Yet this sort of transformational relationship, and the way that it sets young people up in the future to look at people who are different than themselves by seeking common ground, is one of the best skills we can equip them with. This was precisely the goal of our recent pilot Cultural Exchange, as well.

  4. Pam Larson NippoltJune 9, 2014 at 8:01 AM

    Kathryn – The example that you give about the Cultural Exchange is right on track. Thank you for making that connection to this story. The cultural exchange – which involved Metro area youth and Fond du Lac youth traveling to each community to learn about cultures and communities – is one of the ways that you have applied the 4-H Youth Development program model and the We Connect curriculum in a way that “sets the stage” for this kind of transformational relationship building. I look forward to the youth stories connected with this work so that we can let others know more about their experiences. What successes and challenges have you had in getting the youth stories documented?

  5. Pam, I appreciate your thoughts. I, too, have noticed in my work the narrowing focus on outcomes that are easy to measure and more academic in nature. There is the expression "you do what you measure" and I think there is some truth to that. As funders, collective impact networks and other stakeholders determine outcomes, stories like these can help us think bigger. These types of outcomes will also require different, innovative evaluation methods. I think that is an exciting opportunity for the field of program evaluation!