30 Nov 21st Century Skills – Back to School Basics for Our Changing Profession
Our family recently embarked on an educational journey when we put our son into an online homeschooling program. In my job as an interpreter, trainer, and advocate for our profession, my days are already focused on finding the most effective educational tools and resources for interpreters to do their work. Still, it was new information for me when I realized that embedded in most homeschooling curriculums are teaching strategies and resources to impart students with the recently coined term: “21st Century Skills.”
After two seconds thought, it made complete sense. Any school curriculum seeking to be relevant and effective in positioning students for success in our modern economy has to address the utterly transformed labor landscape into which they will be graduating.
Two seconds more thought made me sit up straight and think, wait a minute, I need those skills too! In fact, our entire profession is desperately trying to find ways to help interpreters adjust to the rapid changes reshaping the very structure of how we do business.
This effort is often hampered by the fact that interpreting is a greying profession, with too few members of younger generations making their way into our field. A recent study on the interpreting marketplace found that more than half of interpreters in the US are 48 years or older, and only 6% are under the age of 28, “indicating that this profession is not one that is typically embarked upon by students fresh out of high school or college.”
Interpreting is caught in tsunami currents of technological and social change that are sweeping away whole industries in a matter of years and replacing them with structures never before seen in human history. Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel, authors of 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in our Times, state:
This monumental shift from Industrial Age production to that of the Knowledge Age economy—information-driven, globally networked—is as world-changing and life-altering as the shift from the Agrarian to the Industrial Age three hundred and ﬁfty years ago.
In a similar vein, Michael Saylor, author of The Mobile Wave, asserts that we are in the midst of a societal transformation in which whole industries will go from the tangible to the digital. News and print media, the music industry, and medical care, are all examples of professions literally being converted to software, now existing as digital bits of information with no physical substance, relayed via an increasing array of mobile devices.
According to Saylor:
“The transformational power ahead is the confluence of two major technological currents: the universal access to mobile computing and the pervasive use of social networks…Understand the wave, and you can ride it. Refuse to adjust, and you will be swallowed.”
But how then, do we “understand the wave…and ride it,” as Saylor says?
Most interpreters were educated in a time dominated by paper and pencil. We came into a profession where our work models required our physical presence to help facilitate communication between parties who spoke different languages. In a seeming heartbeat, all that is changing. Now we might be interpreting through a computer screen, on a telephone, over a video unit, or even using a smart phone application.
Enter 21st Century Skills.
The phrase refers to a growing global movement that seeks to identify and then train today’s students with the skills needed to succeed in an economy that has moved away from reliance on “routine and manual skills” to one “with high demands for complex communicating and thinking skills.”
In addition to the traditional 3 Rs, Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmatic, this movement has identified the following broad skill set key to surviving in our changing world:
- Information Literacy
- Creativity and Innovation
- Collaboration and Problem Solving
- Communication, and Responsible Leadership.
The table below, taken from The Partnership for 21st Century Skills website, outlines the broad range of personal, technological, and cognitive skills identified as critical to excelling in this new Information Age. The website provides detailed descriptions of each of these more general categories, and they are worth a closer look.
It doesn’t take too much digging to realize that these concepts are as relevant to the 50-year old practicing interpreter as they are to the 15-year old aspiring journalist.
In studying the skill definitions in more detail, two, in particular, stood out to me as critically important for our profession.
Under Communication, the Partnership states that students should be able to:
- Utilize multiple media and technologies, and know how to judge their effectiveness a priori as well as assess their impact
- Communicate effectively in diverse environments (including multi-lingual)
And under Media Literacy, it highlights the need to know how to create media products by:
- Understanding and utilizing the most appropriate media creation tools, characteristics and conventions
- Understanding and effectively utilizing the most appropriate expressions and interpretations in diverse, multi-cultural environments.
A quick perusal of recent interpreting conference themes from around the world reveals a profession actively grappling with the need to stay on top of the tsunami wave of change and not drown in it. All too often, we do this by talking only to and amongst ourselves, forgetting to lift our heads and scan the horizon for others who may be tackling the same issues.
As it turns out, we need look no farther than our local elementary school. The 21st Century Skills Framework offers our profession a surfboard from which to starting riding the wave in the direction we dictate, rather than being swept along powerlessly into a changed labor landscape we have no ability to effect.
As my son begins his homeschooling journey, I’ll be sitting right next to him, working on my own 21st century skills.
 The Interpreting Marketplace: A Study of Interpreting in North America, by Nataly Kelly, Robert G. Stewart, and Vijayalaxmi Hedge, p. 9, 2010, © Common Sense Advisory, Inc.
 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times by Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel, p. 3, October 2009, Jossey-Bass.
 The Mobile Wave: How Mobile Intelligence Will Change Everything by Michael Saylor, Preface, 2012
 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times by Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel, p. 9, October 2009, Jossey-Bass.