Engaging Students in 21st Century Skills through Non-Formal Learning

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Virginia Tech

National reforms, such as the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), Common Core State Standards Mathematical Practices (CCSMP), and Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P-21) challenge educators to provide students with dynamic learning experiences that address the needs of learners in today's society. These new standards represent a paradigm shift away from the meticulous content memorization of many state standards, toward more dynamic measures addressing the whole learner. To truly develop the leaders, innovators and thinkers of tomorrow, educators are beginning to look beyond the traditional schoolhouse walls to intertwine intentionally designed non-formal learning experiences within formal education. These non-formal experiences serve to connect seemingly disparate skills and knowledge through real-life, hands-on, minds-on learning. Embracing partnerships with individuals and organizations beyond the classroom fosters an environment seamlessly connecting life, work, and school.

Although the importance of student engagement in 21st century skills is at the forefront of current educational reforms, little has been done to assess this engagement. While standards such as Common Core State Standards and NGSS have measures in place for domain-specific 21st century skills, aside from PISA's cross-curricular problem solving test, there are few resources to measure non-domain specific engagement in these skills. Without a viable measure, detractors can argue that the term 21st century skills is meaningless and it distracts students from learning core content. Bridging the divide between skills and content is essential to build support for skills that reach far beyond isolated subject-matter knowledge. Engaging students in these skills through non-formal learning, and measuring the extent of student engagement in these skills will drive the development of future opportunities for students to hone them in creative ways.

The purpose of this study was to measure student engagement in 21st century skills while they participate in a non-formal learning experience. Once a viable measurement was developed, it was utilized to measure student percent of engagement in each specific 21st century Learning and Innovation skill (creativity and innovation, critical thinking, problem solving), Life and Career skill (flexibility and adaptability, initiative, self-direction and productivity, leadership, responsibility and accountability), and Socio-Cultural skill (communication and collaboration) while students participated in the intentionally designed non-formal learning experience of orienteering. The study also described what characterizes a viable non-formal learning experience facilitating student engagement in 21st century skills.

Analysis of data revealed the non-formal learning experience of orienteering engages students in 21st century Learning and Innovation Skills, Life and Career Skills and Socio-Cultural Skills. Specifically, communication and collaboration, critical thinking skills and initiative, self-direction and productivity comprise the largest student engagement. Engagement in leadership, responsibility and accountability, problem solving, and flexibility and adaptability are also evident. This particular non-formal learning experience facilitates very little student engagement of creativity and innovation. While not generalizable to a larger population, this study confirms that students immersed in a non-formal learning activity will become engaged in essential 21st century skills for school, life and work, therefore, this type of learning is a valuable part of instructional time within the formal instructional day and beyond.

Non-formal Education, Informal Education, Experiential Learning, Outdoor Learning, 21st Century Skills, Essential Skills, Integrative STEM Education, Orienteering