Twenty-First Century Skills in Art Education
Joni H. Hough
University of North Carolina at Charlotte
According to the National Task Force on the Arts in Education (2009), the National Center for Education Statistics shows that in the last thirty years, schools in the United States have dropped from international leaders to lagging behind many industrialized countries in every subject. “Twenty-first century skills” has become a buzz phrase in education as a way to improve schools in the United States and regain standing as an international education leader. Delacruz (2009) states that,
“…technology is ubiquitous…kids and families, students and communities are plugged in, cued to the latest electronic developments and diversions, ready to creatively adapt them to their own purposes. Schools and policy makers are increasingly focused on what teachers need to know about and do with technology” (p. 13).
Policy makers are quickly trying to integrate these skills into education standards. For example, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (n.d.), North Carolina is in the middle of a five year process of completely reworking all K-12 curriculum standards, student testing assessment strategies, and school accountability programs to improve their alignment with twenty-first century skills.
While students will need to be fluent in the use of a variety of technological devises to succeed in the twenty-first century, and teaching those skills is vital to students’ futures, technology is not an all-encompassing answer. According to Bassett (2005), great twenty-first century schools, “…will expect proficiency, fluency, multicultural literacy, and high-quality performance by students in a variety of areas” (p. 77). Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2009) is more in depth in defining twenty-first century skills. They divide twenty-first century skills into four categories: Core Subjects and Twenty-First Century Themes, Life and Career Skills, Learning and Innovation Skills, and Information, Media, and Technology Skills.
The core subjects include traditional subjects like English/language arts, world languages, arts, math, economics, science, geography, history, and civics. However, Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2009) advocates weaving twenty-first century themes into the core subjects. These include: global awareness, financial, economic, business, and entrepreneurial literacy, civic literacy, health literacy, and environmental literacy.
They also promote skills in learning and innovation. These include creativity and innovation, meaning creative thinking, working creatively with others, and implementing innovations. Critical thinking and problem solving are stressed, which includes using effective reasoning, using systems thinking, making judgments and decisions, and solving problems. Communication and collaboration skills are also encouraged. This consists of communicating clearly and accurately in a variety of formats and collaborating with diverse people in a respectful manner (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2009).
Further, Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2009) emphasizes information, media, and technology skills. This includes accessing, evaluating, using, and managing information, analyzing media and creating media products, applying technology effectively as a tool for researching, organizing, evaluating, and communicating information, and understanding the ethical and legal issues related to using technology
Finally, Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2009) encourages the teaching of life and career skills that students need in the twenty-first century. These include the ability to be flexible and adapt to changes, manage goals and time effectively, work independently, and be a self-directed learner, work effectively with others in diverse teams, manage projects and produce results, as well as guide, lead, and be responsible to others.
These are invaluable skills that students must have to succeed in the future, but they are also skills students need to learn now. According to the National Art Education Association’s [NAEA] report, Learning in a Visual Age: The Critical Importance of Visual Arts Education (2009),
“Every day, American young people spend more than four hours watching television, DVDs or videos; one hour using a computer; and 49 minutes playing video games. In many cases, youths are engaged in two or more of these activities at the same time. Little wonder this era has become known as the ‘digital age,’ and Americans born after 1980 have become known as ‘digital natives’” (p. 3).
Freedman (2000) further iterates that,
“…a shift in the cultural sphere-above all, the emergence of an all-encompassing visual culture-has fundamentally transformed the nature of political discourse, social interaction, and cultural identity. Visual culture is expanding, as is the realm of the visual arts. This realm includes fine art, television, film and video, computer technology, fashion photography, advertising, and so on. The increasing pervasiveness of such forms of visual culture, and the freedom with which these forms cross traditional borders, can be seen in the use of fine art in advertising, realistic computer generated characters in films, and video museum exhibitions” (p. 315-316).
According to Delacruz (2009),
“…the democratizing impact of the Internet phenomenon no less profound and transformative of human civilization and consciousness as the invention of the printing press. The potential of technology includes its ability to compress time and space, to form virtual communities in cyberspace, and to facilitate creativity, cultural production, collaboration, and resource sharing among individuals in worldwide networks. But that potential is also confounded by problems and dangers: the digital divide, privatization and commercialization of the Internet and its contents, loss of privacy, copyright restrictions that limit access and uses of information, censorship, fear of litigation, and cyber-bullying and Internet sexual predators” (p. 14).
With students bombarded with so much mass media and visual culture, it is imperative that they learn to assess and evaluate the information they are consuming now. Students need to learn how to protect their privacy and the privacy of others. Through age-appropriate instruction for students and education for parents, students will learn how to safely navigate new technologies and have access to a world that was unimaginable a few decades ago. According to Freedman (2000),
“From my social perspective, it is the responsibility of our field to address the issues and problems of student experience with visual culture. Unlike the strongest traditions of our field, which have focused heavily on promoting an appreciation of the visual arts of the past, art education from this perspective is concerned with taking a more critical stance and addressing the increasingly difficult challenges of the visual arts in the future” (325).
This is no longer some far off future that educators have to prepare for. It is students’ lives now.
Unfortunately, there are drawbacks to new technologies that cannot be overcome as easily as teaching visual culture to students. Delacruz (2009) states,
“Two of the most striking aspects of the electronic revolution are that kids are leading the way and that schools are lagging behind. Schools are incompatible with students' current ways of working with new technologies. Schools' computers are slower, less capable, less interesting, and less accessible to today s media-savvy youth. School culture also truncates teacher innovation, and for many reasons: teacher resistance to top-down mandates, poor school technology infrastructures, ill-conceived or inadequate technology professional development opportunities and incentives and standardization and restrictive school and community mores and expectations. Art teachers' utilization of new digital media in innovative ways is far from common practice” (p. 14).
While Delacruz is correct that many students are more media savvy than their teachers, this is not the case for all students. Jenkins, Purishotma, Clinton, Weigel, and Robinson (n.d.) state that many of the programs in schools to teach twenty-first century skills do not “…address the fundamental inequalities in young people’s access to new media technologies and the opportunities for participation they represent (what we call the participation gap)” (p. 12).
In addressing the participation gap, Jenkins, et al (n.d.), continue on to say,
“Expanding access to computers will help bridge some of the gaps between digital haves and have nots, but only in a context in which free wi-fi is coupled with new educational initiatives to help youth and adults learn how to use those tools effectively” (p. 13).
Regrettably, many teachers and schools do not have the resources for these initiatives. Even the teachers who can or do want to employ newer technologies do not have administrative or technical support. Delacruz (2009) points out,
“It’s not merely because teachers are resistant to change, although teacher resistance continues to be an impediment. Technology introduces new-world thinking onto an old-world system of top-down, teacher-centered curriculum delivery systems and prescriptive educative content. Old world schooling prizes the standardization of predictable learning goals and an assessment system designed for easy measurement of performance on nationalized, norm-referenced tests rather than a real desire to understand what students really think, know, care about, or are able to do. In such a system, the more unusual the classroom teacher's technology innovation, the less likely it is to be supported in schools” (p. 14).
With no computer access at home, outdated computer at school, and limited support from administration for teachers, where are underprivileged students to go to gain access to new technologies? Local libraries should be an answer. However, as Jenkins et al (n.d.) state,
“What a person can accomplish with an outdated machine in a public library with mandatory filtering software and no opportunity for storage or transmission pales in comparison to what person can accomplish with a home computer with unfettered Internet access, high bandwidth, and continuous connectivity. (Current legislation to block access to social networking software in schools and public libraries will further widen the participation gap.) The school system’s inability to close this participation gap has negative consequences for everyone involved. On the one hand, those youth who are most advanced in media literacies are often stripped of their technologies and robbed of their best techniques for learning in an effort to ensure a uniform experience for all in the classroom. On the other hand, many youth who have had no exposure to these new kinds of participatory cultures outside school find themselves struggling to keep up with their peers” (p. 13).
In this case, schools are doing a disservice to all students. With all of the recent budget cuts to many school systems around the country, closing the participatory gap does not seem likely in the near future.
While art educators cannot address all of the skills students need for the twenty-first century, there are some that art education already addresses. In fact, the lessons students learn from the arts are essential for their success. For example, Hetland and Winner state in the NAEA (2009) report, Learning in a Visual Age: The Critical Importance of Visual Arts Education,
“While students in art classes learn techniques specific to art, such as how to draw, how to mix paint, or how to center a pot, they’re also taught a remarkable array of mental habits not emphasized elsewhere in schools. These habits include observing, envisioning, innovating, and reflecting…though far more difficult to quantify on a test than reading comprehension or math computation, each has a high value as a learning tool, both in school and elsewhere in life” (p. 5).
The same report further states, “visual arts instruction also helps students learn to value diverse perspectives and cultures, something that is increasingly important in a global society” (p. 7). In addition, Gude (2009) states, “through artworks, students absorb the perceptions of others— situated in other times and places, embodied in other races, genders, ages, classes, and abilities” (p.4).
While most visual arts classes attend to some twenty-first century skills, a Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB) classroom addresses even more. Douglas (2009) points out that in a choice-based art class, students develop and expand learning and innovation skills, technology skills, and life and career skills, which are key skills according to Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2009).
Under the learning and innovation skills category, students learn critical thinking and problem solving skills by finding and solving their own artistic problems and by using a variety of learning strategies, including inquiry, divergent thinking, play, experimentation, planning ahead, reflection and evaluation. Students develop creativity and innovation because intrinsically motivated students respond to problems in original and imaginative ways. Also, the predictability of studio centers allows students to refine their ideas over time, giving depth to their work that cannot be achieved in a planned three day lesson. Students learn to communicate their ideas through their artist’s statement that accompanies their work in art shows. They also learn to communicate their needs because they are motivated to do well because their work is self-directed. Moreover, students learn to work together based on common goals and peers learn to help each other as some students become “experts” in certain areas (Douglas, 2009).
In a TAB classroom, students and teachers utilize technology in a variety of ways. Teachers use technology to present information to the whole class, small groups, or to work individually with students. Students use computers to research ideas, find visual examples, and to expand concepts. Students also document and comment on their work in digital portfolios. Students also use technology for creating art. Students use digital photography, image manipulation, animation, and other graphic programs to make their art (Douglas, 2009).
Opportunities for students to learn life and career skill are abundant in the TAB classroom. Students learn to be flexible and adaptable because every class begins with a demonstration or discussion of a new concept, idea, or technique, students learn to work with the materials that are available to them, and TAB teachers model these skills by responding to students’ new ideas and artistic processes. Students take initiative by setting up their materials, beginning work, and putting away their materials at the end of class without teacher assistance. They are self-directed because they are intrinsically motivated because they are making their own work with their own personal context. Social skills are learned through collaborative work with classmates. Negotiations occur as students navigate shared materials and space. Students learn about their own styles and perspectives as well as the styles and perspectives of other students through discussions of ongoing and completed work. Students also learn about other cultures through whole class demonstrations and discussions, as well as when it is relevant to their work or a small group in the class. Students are expected to be productive by coming to class with ideas or a willingness to experiment with new materials. Because student work is self-directed, they are held accountable for their progress. Although, the teacher organizes the classroom environment, it is students’ responsibility to maintain it by taking care of materials, and keeping studio center clean and organized. Students take on leadership roles by helping peers, helping curate exhibits, or even designing new studio centers (Douglas 2009).
It is vital that art educators teach as many twenty-first century skills as possible. Not only is it of utmost importance to students, but is also an additional tool for art advocacy. It is also crucial that art educators work with colleagues in other subject areas to insure that all twenty-first century skills are addressed so that all students can reach their personal and professional goals in the present and in their futures.
Bassett, P. F. (2005). Reengineering schools for the 21st century. [Electronic Version]. The
Phi Delta Kappan 87(1), 76-78, 83.
Delacruz, E. M. (2009). Art education aims in the age of new media: Moving toward global civil
society. [Electronic Version]. Art Education 62(5), 13-18.
Douglas, K. (2009). Teaching for artistic behavior supports 21st century skills. Retrieved from
Freedman, K. (2000). Social perspectives on art education in the U.S.: Teaching visual culture in
a democracy. [Electronic Version]. Studies in Art Education 41(4), 314-329.
Gude, O. (2009). Art education for democratic life. [Electronic Version]. Art Education 62(6), 6-
Jenkins, H., Purishotma, R, Clinton, K, Weigel, M, & Robinson, A. J. (n.d.). Confronting the
challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century. Retrieved from
Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2009). P21 framework definitions. Retrieved from
National Art Education Association. (2009). Learning in a visual age: The critical importance of
visual arts education. Retrieved from http://www.arteducators.org/learning/learning-in-a-visual-age/NAEA_LVA_09.pdf
National Task Force on the Arts in Education. (2009). Arts at the core: Recommendations for
advising the state of arts education in the 21st century. Retrieved from
North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (n.d.). ACRE: Accountability and curriculum
reform effort. Retrieved from http://www.ncpublicschools.org/acre/