Over the last months, I have read a variety of books and articles indicating that the “traffic patterns” of our family life are evolving. Scientists have mapped the location of family members in homes and have discovered that modern families use space in different ways than families one or two generations ago. In the past, families spent time together (working, eating, studying, watching television, hanging-out). Houses were smaller, there was one television in the home, and children had fewer structured activities. Ethnologists suggest that family space was used collaboratively and verbal interactions (greetings and conversations) accompanied this collaborative use of space.
Today, ethnologists tell us, family traffic patterns in the home have evolved. Today’s family members orbit one another, without pausing to interact. They are seldom in the same room, and when they do come together, they pass one another with little verbal, visual, or physical interaction. Children have televisions in their bedrooms, parents are attached permanently to work through cell phones, and young children are absorbed with video and computer games. Family members slip by one another, entertaining themselves, educating themselves, meeting others, and working in virtual worlds.
I accompanied a group of educators on a learning tour where we visited a variety of innovative educational programs. Before our expedition, a colleague emailed the group to let people know that he had set up a blog to collect our thoughts and ideas as we examined these programs. As we travelled from site to site, a portion of the group focused on their Blackberry and iPhone devices as they uploaded their impressions and ideas to this website. It became apparent that the opportunity for real-time conversation and dialogue had been co-opted by a virtual world and a virtual reality. Like the traffic patterns in our homes, our conversations orbited one another. It appeared that our ideas and collective inspirations slipped past one another to meet somewhere in another world.
It has become obvious that who we are as families, educators, and citizens is evolving in the 21st century. It becomes equally obvious that who students are, and the skills they will need to thrive, are also evolving. The drive to define and refine what these skills are is important work. A variety of educators define them as the competencies students must have to move forward into the future, including technology use, problem-solving skills, a capacity for teamwork, and the development of well-rounded life skills. Others focus on the orientations students need to operate effectively as citizens. These orientations include the earlier list, but also include wider capacities such as imagination, adaptability, and entrepreneurialism. Still other educators define 21st century skills as social, media, and web literacies, focusing on the technological connective capacities of process, data analysis, and social media use.
Many years ago I had a conversation with an elder of the Bluebird clan on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona. He was the last descendant of the Bluebird clan and the last “keeper” of his people’s memory. He shared with me his struggle over the death of this knowledge. When I asked why he didn’t make records, manuscripts, or documents of his knowledge, he told me about his conception of story and personhood, suggesting that stories are created at moments of intersection. Without collaborative communication (interjection, imagination) the “magic” of story was lost.
Educators within Aboriginal, new immigrant, and other traditionally marginalized groups offer alternative conceptions of what 21st century skills look like. In Reclaiming Youth at Risk, Brentro, Brokenleg and Van Bockern outline an Aboriginal model of child development, student resiliency, and 21st century skills. They describe the importance of belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity as a framework for preparing students for life. The Canadian Council on Learning’s exploration of Aboriginal success similarly outlines a framework that emphasizes connective capacities, including community context, experience, story, culture, and communal activity.
It can be argued that the skills we define as important for our students describe our conception of personhood. An emphasis on technological, individual, or connective capacities each describes different futures for our children. Increasingly – in family, in life, in schools – we slip past one another. We orbit one another, plugged into virtual and singular worlds. When schools talk about 21st century skills, they highlight individual capacities with a cursory nod to teamwork and collaboration. I wonder if pursuing the connective capacities highlighted by alternative voices will bring us to richer places as schools and society – and help us recapture the magic of lives in which collaborative communication defines peoples and knowledge.
 L. Brendtro, M. Brokenleg and S. Van Bockern, Reclaiming Youth at Risk (Bloomington, IN: The Solution Tree, 2002).
 Redefining How Success is Measured in First Nations, Inuit and Métis Learning (Canadian Council on Learning, 2007).