Guest Column

Practicing 21st-Century Skills Back in the ’80s


Is the dialogue about 21st-century skills a new conversation? I believe not.

We are just now framing the vocabulary to describe and define what many of our teachers do intuitively and what one particular organization has been doing since the early 1980s.

Creativity, innovation, collaboration, life skills, information technology. These certainly are not new terms to those of us involved in Destination ImagiNation, or DI ( These terms reflect actions embedded in this wonderful extracurricular program in which student teams take on a challenge, research it, design solutions, cast the solution into a story that relays the message, add music, use technology and apply research results. Then each team performs the solution story within eight minutes.

Imagine this: A five-student elementary school team slowly unfolds and raises six-by-eight-foot flattened wood frames they have created, and the set of their skit takes shape as the young moderator begins the story. Famous literary figures appear in their own milieu created by the intricate swivel of screens to change the backdrop. The audience gets caught up as the characters come together to solve a “DI-lemma.”

Or consider this: A half dozen teenagers crowd around a table with straws, tin foil, rubber bands and a couple of mailing labels. They are tasked to build a tower as tall as possible that must rest on a beach ball without falling. This task must be accomplished within five minutes. This is a typical DI instant challenge.

In my experiences with the DI teams over the years, I have found concrete evidence of what children can do, unexpected outcomes to problem resolution, emotional responses to student work, and stories about how the teams formed, worked together and transformed ideas. Students experience failed attempts, redesign and teamwork. They are evaluated on their successes. And every challenge links to our national education standards.

A Working Vocabulary
Destination ImagiNation definitely reflects 21st-century skills in action as described in the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Participants engage in creative problem solving, applying content to produce solutions. In today’s world of expanding knowledge, we cannot possibly teach all the content, so we must train students in the processes for finding, integrating, transferring and applying knowledge in an authentic experience.

Using research to support the solution, using technology to enhance the process of resolution and presentation, using teamwork to extract and apply the individual skills in the various tasks and the final product, these student teams have been purposefully integrating 21st-century skills into an authentic learning and problem-solving experience.

Back in the 1980s and ’90s, we were engaging students in transformational, hands-on learning through authentic activities and encouraging and supporting the exercise of innovation, creativity, problem solving, critical thinking and collaboration. The education community is just now catching up to what Destination ImagiNation has been enabling for nearly three decades.

The ideas framed by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and given urgency by President Obama are lent a working vocabulary through the activities of Destination ImagiNation. So we don’t need to start back at the beginning. If we look at what is happening in the thousands of schools running DI programs, we will find students already engaged in integrating 21st-century skills into their work. As we seek to embed these skills into core academics, we should look at how that happens for the students in the Destination ImagiNation program. These are the desired skills in action.

My Commitment
When I started with Destination ImagiNation in 1983 as a volunteer appraiser for the competition’s world finals in Akron, Ohio, I was blown away by the demonstration of talent, creativity and problem-solving ability of the participating youngsters. Since that initial experience, I have continued to be involved personally in the program’s continuous growth. The value to participants is substantial, and I actively support Destination ImagiNation wherever I work, including the district where I’m the superintendent today. I now serve on the organization’s international board of trustees.

Today, in our commitment to prepare students for success in the 21st century, I believe the experiences offered through participation in Destination ImagiNation are right on target and aligned with what we need students to learn and be able to do.

Nancy Wingenbach is superintendent of the Orange City Schools in Pepper Pike, Ohio, and a member of the board of education in the Highland School District in Medina County, Ohio. E-mail: