Learning 21st Century Skills in Unexpected Ways

Last week, I saw school kids in grades 1-7 learn lessons in history,  geography, social studies, financial literacy, problem solving, storytelling, cleverness, community, and career skills.

They learned these lessons through dance.

After enrolling my six year old in a one week dance camp, I have to admit: I wasn’t too enthusiastic when I heard that the theme of that week’s camp would be Cinderella. The passive, teary-eyed stepdaughter who seems to want nothing out of life other than marrying a prince, in my opinion, doesn’t seem like the best role model for girls. What I didn’t know is that the story of Cinderella is different around the world.

After five days of camp, run by a NY-based artistic company BOLD Arts, parents were invited to attend a recital on a Friday afternoon. The performance began with a surprise, as the instructors opened the show by saying: “The Cinderella story is not new. In fact, for hundreds of years, many countries and many cultures have had a Cinderella-like story. This week, the students learned 10 of these stories.”

And from these simple tales emerged an amazing range of life lessons. From Mexico to China, from Ireland to Persia, through dance, students told these stories of courageous, independent, and resilient women, that have been passed down for centuries. These ancient stories featured protagonists who were demonstrating what we refer to as twenty-first century skills like teamwork, problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity to overcome obstacles. It was a history lesson in the form of experiential learning: it was empowering, it taught the commonalities that connect all of us while celebrating cultural differences, and it was fun. The students were teaching the adults.

In my house, the story of Yeh-Shen, a Cinderella-like character from China that dates to the T’ang Dynasty (618-907 AD), has become a new favorite. Yeh-Shen’s “fairy godmother” is, instead, a magical fish who gives her the tools and encouragement to attend the local festival. Perhaps what’s most important is that through this tale, a dialogue is opened about Chinese culture, art, respect for the elderly, empathy and connection to animals, and the lesson that through hard work one can achieve their dreams. After watching a video of the Yeh-Shen story a few times, I asked my six year old what obstacles Yeh-Shen had to overcome, and she said: “her stepmother was stopping her from going to the festival.” When I asked: “What did Yeh-Shen do?” Her response was: “She didn’t give up.” Bingo.

In the end, what’s remarkable is that students can learn these valuable twenty-first century skills from such simple stories and exercises. From art to wellness to music to financial literacy,  programs like these provide students with a unique and special opportunity to learn real-world skills. When supplemental curriculum, often facilitated through generous corporate social responsibility programs, can merge the gap in today’s standard school system, children discover a world beyond the classroom. They learn about cultural awareness and tolerance, to think critically, to collaborate, and they build character through seemingly unrelated topics, like dance and the story of Cinderella. Educators and parents should embrace these valuable teachable moments that enable them to shape young minds into productive citizens and leaders of tomorrow.