January 7, 2009

21st Century Skills

Jay Mathews has a good editorial on the inanity of the latest education fad, teaching 21st Century skills.

Granted, the 21st-century skills idea has important business and political advocates, including President-elect Barack Obama. It calls for students to learn to think and work creatively and collaboratively. There is nothing wrong with that. Young Plato and his classmates did the same thing in ancient Greece. But I see little guidance for classroom teachers in 21st-century skills materials. How are millions of students still struggling to acquire 19th-century skills in reading, writing and math supposed to learn this stuff?

There are ways, some teachers tell me. Tim Burgess, a physics and chemistry teacher in Alabama, said he tried coaxing students to think for themselves. He laid out clues and let students sort them out together -- and it worked. "Suddenly, it became clear how 21st-century thinking was far more important than the mounds of content we were expected to force-feed our victims (I mean students)," Burgess said.



The 21st Century skills movement is nothing more than an excuse for continuing not to teach content under the mistaken belief that if you teach students how to think (i.e., how to learn how to learn), content becomes irrelevant internet access.

Unfortunately that's not the way it works. Critical thinking skills are domain specific. If you want to think critically about the American Civil War you unfortunately need to know a lot of stuff about American history, European History, military history, the American Civil Wat itself, and lots of other bring stuff like that.

This doesn't necessarily mean that students need to spend lots of time memorizing minutiae, but they at least know enough general knowledge to be able to pass those silly internet tests that embarrassingly show that today's (and yesterday's) students don't, in fact, know this stuff. There must be some sort of mental framework in place for Google or Wikipedia to be useful.

Instantaneous access to information doesn't guarantee that one will know what to do with the information after it's located.

Although, I think there is one useful 21st Century skill that students should be taught: how to set the time on their VCR's to lose that technological incompetence badge of shame: 12:00.

Or maybe not.

(That lame ending joke is actually a good example of what I'm talking about. It depended upon my knowing a few pieces of minutiae: 1. That there is an annoying blinking HTML tag (something I've known for some time) and that VCRs are no longer being manufactured (something I learned last week). And my being able to quickly retrieve those facts in real time as an example of obsolete skills, the importance of knowing facts, and critical thinking (the ability to synthesize those facts to make the joke) to end the post. The other point is that a good comedian should never have to explain his jokes. I leave it up to you to deconstruct that one in the comments.)

Update 1: Apparently, IE doesn't properly display the BLINK HTML tag. That's probably a good thing. Use your imagination.

Update 2: Willingham beat me to the punch. "But these 21st-century skills require deep understanding of subject matter, a fact that these reports acknowledge, albeit briefly. As I have emphasized elsewhere, gaining a deep understanding is, not surprisingly, hard. Shallow understanding requires knowing some facts. Deep understanding requires knowing the facts AND knowing how they fit together, seeing the whole. It’s simply harder. And skills like “analysis” and “critical thinking” are tied to content; you analyze history differently than you analyze literature, a point I’ve emphasized here. If you don’t think that most of our students are gaining very deep knowledge of core subjects—and you shouldn’t—then there is not much point in calling for more emphasis on analysis and critical thinking unless you take the content problem seriously. You can’t have one without the other."

Update 3:

31 comments:

Downes said...

> Critical thinking skills are domain specific.

This is false.

From the very source you cite:

> Critical thinking is effective
in that it avoids common pitfalls,
such as seeing only one side of an
issue, discounting new evidence
that disconfirms your ideas, rea-
soning from passion rather than
logic, failing to support statements
with evidence, and so on.

What makes these *common* pitfalls is that they exist *independently* of domain or discipline,and the habits of attending to them - that is, critical thinking - is therefore *also* independent of domain or discipline.

> If you want to think critically about the American Civil War you unfortunately need to know a lot of stuff about American history

Not so. Let me give you an example.

Suppose some history article said:

"If Custer's misunderstanding of Sioux culture had led him astray, then we would expect him to take the Dakota trail, not the Nebraska train. And he did take the Dakota trail, marching into the heart of Sioux territory. So his error was not a military blunder, it was a cultural blunder. He misunderstood Sioux culture."

Sounds great, right? This may or may not be historically accurate. Who knows? The reader would have to look it up.

But a person equipped with critical thinking skills does not need to know one whit of American history to know that the inference is a bad one. He or she would recognize the argument form called 'affirming the consequent' (If A then B, B, therefore A) and would know not to trust the author's assertion that Custer did not understand Sioux culture.

There is a range of common forms of reasoning and inference, and these are as well known and well supported as mathematics. You wouldn't say that American history uses a special mathematics that operates only within the domain of that discipline. Nor would you say that it uses a special sort of reasoning.

It is unclear to me what the political motivations are for the assertion that critical thinking skills are domain specific. But some people - this blog included - evidently have a significant stake in it. But it's a false assertion. And so whatever body of thought rests on this premise is also unsupported.

KDeRosa said...

Stephen, if you read past the introductory paragraph of the article you would have learned that:

Can critical thinking actually be taught? Decades of cognitive research point to a disappointing answer: not really. People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it in any situation. Research from cognitive science shows that thinking is not that sort of skill. The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge). Thus, if you remind a student to “look at an issue from multiple perspectives” often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives. You can teach students maxims about how they ought to think, but without background knowledge and practice, they probably will not be able to implement the advice they memorize.

Now on to your argument.

Your historical example is in the form of an argument. As such, in order for the reader to evaluate it, he must evaluate the merits of both the argument and the historical facts. In order to evaluate the merits of an argument the reader needs to, among other things, recognize logical fallacies. In your example the reader never has to tackle the historical merits since the argument contains a blatant fact-independent logical fallacy. The argument is in the form of X = A AND B and one only needs to know about A to evaluate. If A is false then A AND B is false and thus X is false. You never need to evaluate B.

The argument: wet streets cause rain contains the logical fallacy of confusing cause and effect. (Here's another more subtle one close to your heart: low SES causes low student performance) But, the reader wouldn't know this unless they are familiar with the underlying concepts of rain, wetnesses, and street.

So, in your example, I'd argue that your knowledge of logical fallacies is useful because all you've done is evaluate a generic argument. That's a domain specific task. One for which you needs to know lots of facts pertaining to the nature logical fallacies and the fallacy of confirming the consequent in particular. But when underlying facts are needed those skills are rendered useless.

I agree that logic is a useful skill for evaluating arguments since much information is presented in the form of arguments. But your specific argument doesn't generalize to the universal case. In addition, most information encompasses many domains, like logic and math and the like, typically not just a single domain; so, of course, knowledge of those domains is useful for evaluating those aspects.

Our dispute is an ongoing semantic one concerning the nature of domains and what is specific. My assertions are only considered false to the extent that they depend on the definitions inherent in your premises which, as you know, I disagree with.

CrypticLife said...

Apparently, there's no blink tag in IE (or rather, IE doesn't recognize the blink tag). Some enterprising developer in India figured out a way to make use of MSIE's "marquee" tag to produce the same effect.

The great mystery is *why* he would do such a thing...

Dick Schutz said...

You've nailed this one, Ken. There is hardly anything lower than thinking one can teach "higher order thinking," or "critical thinking" as such. Coupled with thinking that one can teach "comprehension," schools turn out many kids who can't read or handle computation through algebra.

New skill requirements do arise with the introduction of new info technologies. Although VCRs are going out, HDTV and BlueTooth are coming in. Programming a HDTV set is not a trivial task, but kids seem to grasp it better than I can do it.

Kids CAN use academic instruction on how to efficiently conduct Internet searches and on what to do with the information they find.

And some, skills such as computing square roots by hand, become obsolete. But by and large, there aren't new "21st Century Skills." Proposing them just adds to the fog and muck that are obstacles to mundane instructional tasks such as reliably teaching kids how to read.

Downes said...

Not a very well thought-out response; you may want to try again.

For example, we can say 'wet streets cause rain' is a logical fallacy only if we have some evidence that shows (say) that 'rain causes wet streets'.

Putative 'facts' need argumentation and evidence. This is true of every discipline. No discipline has any body of 'facts' unsupported by reason and evidence. Not even religion.

Thus, the rules of argumentation and evidence apply to every discipline. These rules vary, but there are reasons for this variance, and these reasons - themselves argued for - are understood within the broader framework.

It make no sense to say that critical thinking (or logic, or math - or, for that matter, language and imagery) are 'specific domains'. No more than it does to suppose that there is some body of unsupported 'facts', somehow independent of reason and evidence, in any given domain.

Dick Schutz said...

Downes says: "The rules of argumentation and evidence apply to every discipline. These rules vary, but there are reasons for this variance, and these reasons - themselves argued for - are understood within the broader framework."

I'd agree. And I'd say that this body of knowledge is something that can be taught and that kids would find useful.

But this body of knowledge goes back a couple of thousand year. It's a long way from a new "21st Century Skill" or "Higher Order Thinking."

There are many other skills/knowledge that "cut across domains" Outlining, keyboarding, the conventions of a scientific report, propaganda identifying (and creating) immediately come to mind from off the top of the head. But when these matters are put in teachable form, they lose the alluring mirage of the "higher order."

KDeRosa said...

For example, we can say 'wet streets cause rain' is a logical fallacy only if we have some evidence that shows (say) that 'rain causes wet streets'.

Exactly. A person is unable to recognize the logical fallacy if they don't know or understand the underlying facts. (Nonetheless, the statement is a logical fallacy regardless of whether the person knows the underlying facts.) This is my original point. I'm glad we finally agree.

Thus, the rules of argumentation and evidence apply to every discipline. These rules vary, but there are reasons for this variance, and these reasons - themselves argued for - are understood within the broader framework.

I don't disagree. I also agree with Dick's proviso. I also, don't believe these are 21st century skills either. They've been around for a long time and have always been important.

It make no sense to say that critical thinking (or logic, or math - or, for that matter, language and imagery) are 'specific domains'.

Why? Logic, for example is certainly a specific domain, despite the fact that logic is useful in analyzing arguments/evidence/etc in many different domains. Math is math regardless of whether I'm calculating a weight of a bunch of bananas, the distance from the earth to the sun, or the time between two historical events.

Downes said...

I was saying "... only if we have some evidence that shows (say) that 'rain causes wet streets'."

And you said, "Exactly. A person is unable to recognize the logical fallacy if they don't know or understand the underlying facts."

And I am left thinking that you simply don't understand the concepts of evidence and inference.

Not much more I can do with this.

KDeRosa said...

I've assumed that the evidence is generally known and that there are no inferences to draw, which is true in the instant case. The important factor is whether the person analyzing the argument knows these facts, which I drew out in the rest of the paragraph.

Jason Flom said...

What we talk about when we talk about 21st century skills. Yes, these skills have been around for a long time and have been important. The variant today however, is moving beyond the drill and kill strategies of yesteryear to placing the content in a context that is relevant and meaningful to the student.

For instance, over the course of the year my students spend considerable time creating and collaborating on an 8' x 8' wall map of Florida. The map's multilayered subject matter includes earth sciences, social studies, and items of independent interest to students. Students leave the 4th grade with a deep understanding of Florida's natural and social history as well as some predictions about possible future issues.

Through their work, which includes service projects (such as lobbying local and state politicians, planting over 1,000 longleaf pine trees, and working local organizations), students learn to look at Florida from multiple perspectives, and at issues through myriad lenses. As they seek to solve problems they care about or engage in activities that stimulate their creativity, they develop critical thinking skills that can only come from experiences. My students are jazzed to come to school, and will push themselves to a higher

I do think that some critical thinking skills are content specific (scientific process for one), but also that learning to investigate a subject deeply provides foundational thinking skills that can find utility in any subject area. While I certainly think knowing how to spell is important, I think it is more important that students want to spell better. And I think the current trend toward the "21st Century Education" buzz words, supports a child centered learning experience that supports curiosity. And curiosity is the keystone of life long learners.

Dick Schutz said...

"...over the course of the year my students spend considerable time creating and collaborating on an 8' x 8' wall map of Florida. The map's multilayered subject matter includes earth sciences, social studies, and items of independent interest to students. Students leave the 4th grade with a deep understanding of Florida's natural and social history as well as some predictions about possible future issues."

Hmm. It's hard for me to see how crating a wall map can create a "deep understanding of Florida's natural and social history."

Moreover, such projects were very much a part of "yesteryear." There is as much research illuminating the pedagogical weaknesses of such projects as there is on "drill."

"Deep understanding" of any matter is not a "21st Century" aspiration. It's just very difficult to reliably deliver students who have it. That's been true throughout human history.

Jason Flom said...

To achieve a deep understanding of any subject requires that the investigator consider the interconnected nature of that subject with other disciplines. The map allows the students a chance to make connections between ideas, concepts, and subjects. What's more, this isn't my mama's AAA road map from the glove box. The layers of the map consist of interactive presentations that balance political, physical, and thematic elements. Essays, graphs, ecosystem inventories, population demographics, industries, and economic engines can be found in great quantities by the curious observer. Over the course of the year, students are exposed to and interact with material that has a broad range (depth) about a specific subject (Florida).

You are right in that not all students achieve the same level of proficiency or understanding. No-one claims to provide equal depth and skill level for all students. Anyone who does is suspect in my book. At the same time, building curriculum around central concepts (I think of them as the hubs on my curricular wheel) provides all students with access to the underlying generalizations or objectives within a unit of study. Some students go more in depth and some less, but with a year-long map construction project filled with questions, investigations, research, reflections, and graphic illustrations of complex ideas, I find that students not only grasp central points, but can apply them in novel situations.

Plus, they have something in the room they are incredibly proud of. And that motivates them to read and write well, to spell correctly, and to communicate effectively. For this group, such an internal locus of control comes from meaningful experiences that balance rigor with relevance. For others it comes from something else. Which I think is part of the point of 21st Century Skills and objectives -- we need to find a way to capitalize on everyone's strengths while minimizing their weaknesses. In my opinion, to do so will take a diverse array of experiences rather than a top down standardized mandate.

Tracy W said...

What we talk about when we talk about 21st century skills. Yes, these skills have been around for a long time and have been important. The variant today however, is moving beyond the drill and kill strategies of yesteryear to placing the content in a context that is relevant and meaningful to the student.

This impulse is an old one though, nothing new about *that*. For example, Mary Hughes, a Victorian British educator, in her autobiography "A London Girl of the 1880s" (one of four in the series), writes about trying to place content in a context that is relevant and meaningful to the student. The idea behind "21st century skills" are over 100 years old. And quite possibly even older than that.

This historical ignorance makes me very skeptical of "21st century skills". The proponents of the idea appear to have no idea of educational history as they stick the label "21st century" on things that are very 19th century or older, so I doubt that they have ever bothered studying past educational fads and how they failed, let alone tried to design "21st century skills" based on avoiding those past failures. It's as if civil engineers kept on designing bridges without ever considering why some old bridges failed.

While I certainly think knowing how to spell is important, I think it is more important that students want to spell better.

Why? No criticism intended of any people who find deep joy in learning how to spell new words, but there are a million things we can want to do with our lives, and only 24 hours in the day. I'm not particularly interested in wanting to spell better, I have a number of other goals to pursue. Why do you think I should care about spelling better more than I should care about dancing better, or doing my job better, or cooking better, or travelling more, or being nicer to my husband, or any of my other goals? I want to be able to spell, and then to forget about it and pursue a goal that I personally find more interesting.

Jason Flom said...

" I'm not particularly interested in wanting to spell better, I have a number of other goals to pursue."

I suspect you check your spelling whenever you can. When you are handwriting a letter to someone do you ever write a word out with several spellings on a separate sheet of paper before committing to one version? My guess is you do. If not, then you are right, you have no desire to spell better or more correctly. If you do, then you are a poster child for what I am talking about.

As to the repackaging of skills and ideas that have a long history as 21st century skills, I do not dispute that they were born of a different era. No doubt a number of them are seeded even much deeper than the 19th century. And I share your frustration with the limited vision and lack of historical context when it comes to education issues. However, I think the current movement demonstrates an ability to draw in varying elements of schools of thought in a way that is new. It is the accumulation of years of study and investigation. Within the current literature of 21st Century Skills, you can find an influence of a range of education philosophers and practitioners. For myself, I'm especially excited to see ideas of both Dewey and Hahn wrapped into the fold.

"It's as if civil engineers kept on designing bridges without ever considering why some old bridges failed."

The analogy of engineers who don't learn from their mistakes, though, I don't get. The skill set and practices being proposed by advocates of 21st Century Schools are not suggesting that accountability take a back seat. I'm not sure how you've made the leap from a conversation about rethinking schools and skill sets to one that leaves assessment, reflection, and continual improvement behind. What do you mean?

Tracy W said...

Thinking about it, my objections to "21st century skills" are as follows:
The ideas date back over 100 years, at least. Educators have been calling for the school system to teach the skills collected under "21st century skills" for over a century.
So the calls for teaching critical thinking, ethics, encouraging curiousity, etc have presumably not achieved the results the proponents hoped for.
However the proponents of 21st century skills appear totally unaware that there is nothing new in their ideas, and appear not to have done any investigations into why past calls did not have the desired effect. Thus I am extremely doubtful that the outcome will be any different this time.

Of course, seeking to avoid past pitfalls is not a guarantee of future success. It is possible to succeed only in uncovering new pitfalls, perhaps ones with sharp stakes at the bottom. But we have to start somewhere.

Tanner said...

It is hard to teach anyone anything that they do not want to learn

Anonymous said...

"It is hard to teach anyone anything that they do not want to learn"

Perhaps we just haven't been serious enough :-)

In Harry Harrison's sci-fi comedy "The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You!", our hero's twin sons attend the "Dorsky Military Boarding School and Penitentiary."

At one point in the story, we have the following exchange:

Hero: "Bolivar, I see by your school record that you had good marks in navigation ..."

Bolivar: "I had to. We were chained to the desks without food until we passed the test."

Hero: "Details, details ..."

Perhaps we need to develop some skill in "encouraging" the children to want to learn :-)


-Mark Roulo

Tracy W said...

I suspect you check your spelling whenever you can.

No. I have auto-check turned on on my work email client as otherwise I forget to use it. And turn on spell check is one of my checklist items for formal documents. This is not checking my spelling whenever I can.

When you are handwriting a letter to someone do you ever write a word out with several spellings on a separate sheet of paper?

No, I don't think I have ever done so.

If not, then you are right, you have no desire to spell better or more correctly.

Not no desire, but it's not an important goal. Given the 24 hours in a day problem, spelling better is very low on my list of priorities.

However, I think the current movement demonstrates an ability to draw in varying elements of schools of thought in a way that is new. It is the accumulation of years of study and investigation.

Why do you think this?
And, I'm not impressed by years of study and investigation just by themselves. Scientists are quite capable of spending years of study and investigation barking up the wrong tree.

Tracy W said...

It is hard to teach anyone anything that they do not want to learn

It is however doable. My parents and speech therapist managed it on me, as a pre-schooler, and now I can pronounce "ch", "th" and "sh".

One way is to reward the person with something they do want for learning.

Jason Flom said...

"And, I'm not impressed by years of study and investigation just by themselves. Scientists are quite capable of spending years of study and investigation barking up the wrong tree."

You're right, years of investigation and study can lead to erroneous conclusions, and should be regarded with a healthy dose of skepticism.

But do we throw out the baby with the bath water? Do we then avoid anything with a scent of research or that hint of new-fangled theories? Of course not. Most of us find sources that we trust (however fallible those sources may be) and hang our hats on them. You with your spell check. You trust it to work. And it does (for the most part). The trust is well placed.

As an educator in a small school, I look to theorists who demonstrate understanding of the conditions I work in. For teachers in larger, more urban systems, they look for researchers or practitioners who can provide insights relevant to those conditions.

In the bigger picture, the profusion of publications aiming for unifying theories (look at differentiation or understanding by design texts as a starting point) do their best to incorporate a wide range of analysis, research, and studies to substantiate their approaches. I think these efforts come closer to finding mainstream solutions for meeting the needs of all learners in a way that is implementable, within reason.

Tracy W said...

Jason Flom: But do we throw out the baby with the bath water? Do we then avoid anything with a scent of research or that hint of new-fangled theories?

Nice strawman. You referred to years of study and investigation. I noted that the proponents of "21st century skills" are apparently ignorant that educators have been trying to teach "21st century skills" since at least the late 19th century, and have done no research into why past educators failed to achieve their goals. In the case of "21st century skills", I am arguing that the complete failure to do any research into past failures is what makes me suspicious about their likely future success. I don't see how you get from my criticising the proponents for a lack of research into suggesting that we avoid anything with a hint of research.

If you want to avoid that "hint of new-fangled theories", just replace the label "21st century skills" with something that strikes you as suitably old-fashioned. I don't think you need to change anything else about them. Just, out of curiousity, why do you want to avoid anything with a hint of new-fangledness?

You with your spell check. You trust it to work.

Actually no I don't. For emails, it's not worthwhile to go into more effort to improve my spelling accuracy. For professional work, my company hires full-time proof readers (and did long before I started working for them).

Most of us find sources that we trust (however fallible those sources may be) and hang our hats on them.

I'm different. I went to engineering school, where I was indoctrinated into a deep compulsion to test everything and to debug and to understand things. I only really realised how much I had changed when I took a macroeconomics course and realised I didn't believe about 50% of what the professor was saying just because we hadn't gone down to the lab and breadboarded an economy to prove his theories.
So sorry, you may be able to trust the "21st century skills" guys, but their apparent historical ignorance just sets all my alarm bells ringing. I don't do trust like you do, and I don't know how I could if I wanted to. And I don't think that the "21st century skills" proponents deserve your trust.

Anonymous said...

KD-

I normally agree with you, but I have to take Downes side on this issue.

Critical thinking skills can and should be taught independent of content knowledge.

The Direct Instruction Comprehension B and C Corrective Reading books do a great job of teaching students how to complete syllogisms, follow instructions and recall information.

And this skill does generalize and improve their reading comprehension across a wide set of domains.

The real issue here is that most teachers think they are developing these skills by having children do pointless projects, when instead they should be putting their students through Corrective Reading Comprehension B and C.

KDeRosa said...

Anon, this is the one instance that I also agree with Downes.

These "critical reading" skills taught in R&W are a subset of "critical reasoning" skills are a domain unto themselves.

They are basically one of the few useful reading strategies and involve how to analyze arguments and logical fallacies, separate fact from opinion, and how to dtermine if an author is biased.

I'll have a post on this soon.

Jason Flom said...

"In the case of "21st century skills", I am arguing that the complete failure to do any research into past failures is what makes me suspicious about their likely future success."

Can you substantiate this?

Tracy W said...

Jason Flom:

My apologies, I was over-assertive in my comment just prior, when I said that " I am arguing that the complete failure to do any research into past failures is what makes me suspicious about their likely future success."

I should have typed "I am arguing that the apparent complete failure to do any research into past failures is what makes me suspicious about their likely future success.", similar to how I did in the sentence just prior to the one you quote. That was my mistake, I withdraw any implication of certainity.

It is possible that the 21st century skills proponents have done said research. I just can't find it. For example, I can't find anything on the website http://www.21stcenturyskills.org/ that indicates an awareness of previous educators' attempts, let alone an exploration of why previous educators failed, or at least didn't succeed fully. This however is not a proper proof, it may merely reflect poor search skills on my part. And that website is merely just one of many, nor can I cover everything behind password-protected sites, or never published online. Still, my inability to find any such discussion does make me suspicious of the 21st century skills proponents' work. Absence of evidence is not strictly speaking evidence of absence, but I am inclined to think that if the 21st century skills proponents had done their work on why past educators failed they would have published it and referred to it more openly.

And, Jason, can you please answer my question as to why you want to avoid anything with a hint of new-fangledness?

Jason Flom said...

Tracy,
I think there was a misunderstanding. I do not seek to avoid new-fangled ideas or theories by any stretch. My comment was, "Do we then avoid anything with a scent of research or that hint of new-fangled theories? Of course not."

I love new ideas. I love old ones, too. And, like you, before I'm a believer I test in my lab. It just so happens that my lab is a 4th grade classroom. And, over the past 8 years, I've found that 21st century skills, however they are packaged, work in providing students with meaningful, relevant, and engaging learning experiences that inspire them to seek more. I'm just pleased a movement advocating these skills and seeking ways to mainstream them is afoot and gaining momentum. "A rose by any other name . . . "

Tracy W said...

Thanks Jason for explaining your comment about new-fangled theories. It appeared to come out of the blue earlier.

I'm impressed and glad that you are providing students with meaningful, relevant, and engaging learning experiences. But have the proponents of 21st century skills been coming around and asking you how you manage to do that? Have they been searching for teachers who tried and failed to provide students with meaningful, relevant and engaging learning experiences and trying to figure out why those teachers failed where you and others succeeded? Have they looked for whole schools that manage to provide students with meaningful, relevant and engaging learning experiences and asked how they managed it? Have they looked for whole schools that tried and failed to provide students with meaningful, relevant and engaging learning experiences and tried to figure out why those schools failed? Have they looked for experienced teachers and school administrators who are cynical about the thing and tried to figure out why they are cynical?

And of course, it's not just enough to ask questions, you then need to at least try to adjust your programme to take account of this data.

I went to school back in the 20th century. I had some teachers that provided meaningful, relevant and engaging learning experiences, and some that didn't. My parents also can report a wide variation in the quality of teaching they experienced, as can many other people I know. I don't see anything in the 21st century skill materials that gives me a reason to think that the movement will increase the percentage of teachers who manage to provide students with meaningful, relevant and engaging learning experiences. In the absence of such reason, I am inclined to think the 21st century skills people are a waste of time: some teachers will continue to provide students with meaningful, relevant and engaging learning experiences, as teachers have since at least the 1890s, and others will continue to fail for probably the same reasons as they have been failing since the 1980s (by reasons I include things other than the teacher, such as obstructive school systems or a complete lack of resources).

Jason Flom said...

Tracy,

I guess I would call myself a proponent of the skills that make up the "21st Century Skills" movement. I've presented locally and state wide. My school gives me considerable latitude to create a dynamic environment, so that helps in developing and trying out new ideas. While I've not been approached by those who are working with state departments of education, I feel I have done my part to get out some ideas of what works and what doesn't.

As to the teacher quality I think we'll experience a range in the ability of teachers no matter the framework we use. The current system isn't effective for all students, that's clear. But I do not think any one system will be. I know my school and classroom cannot possibly meet the needs of all students. However, I do know (believe, I should say) that standardization across the district, state, or nation runs the risk of isolating more students as the landscape of information processing changes. We need to incorporate new methodologies for information and media literacy that equip students with skills more relevant to the world they face now and will face as adults.

It is my feeling that differentiation is the key -- in terms of teachers, students, and school systems. We need schools and teachers to have the autonomy and support to make professional decisions. However, we need teachers of such exceptional quality that they earn and deserve that autonomy. Currently, much of our teaching corps comes from the bottom 1/3 of college entrants. We need incentives that draw from the top 1/3.

Perhaps the efforts of the past didn't work because we weren't ready for them. John Dewey, as brilliant as he was, was not universally celebrated (still isn't). But history has shown him to be insightful and ahead of his time. Perhaps we're ready. Perhaps the things that Kurt Hahn taught are making it into more classrooms. Time will still tell, but I find myself hopeful and happy that more people are looking more closely at trying to increase collaboration, engagement, and relevance. As Wayne Gretsky said, "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take."

Tracy W said...

While I've not been approached by those who are working with state departments of education, I feel I have done my part to get out some ideas of what works and what doesn't.

Jason, do you think you could try improving your part by looking at why past movements to improve educational outcomes failed, or at least didn't turn every teacher into one like you, able to provide students with meaningful, relevant, and engaging learning experiences? (And is there a short-hand we can use in place of "provide students with meaningful, relevant, and engaging learning experiences"? I don't wish to miss out something important, but it takes up a lot of screen place whenever I include the whole thing, if you could give me a one or two word label I'd love that.).

As to the teacher quality I think we'll experience a range in the ability of teachers no matter the framework we use.

There are two possibilities here:
1) Yes, we will always experience a range in the ability of teachers, but we can lift up the average and the bottom a lot further than we can now. In which case, I'd like to see the evidence in favour of the belief in lifing them up.

2) We will always see the same range in the ability of teachers, around the same level. In which case, who cares about 21st century skills?

I will also take this opportunity to add that I think it's dangerous to only look at teachers. I suspect that the failures of many schools to provide students with meaningful, relevant, and engaging learning experiences are because of school-wide problems that get in the way of teachers being able to do their jobs effectively.

Perhaps the efforts of the past didn't work because we weren't ready for them. ... Perhaps we're ready.

And perhaps the efforts of the past failed because they failed to provide sufficient training experiences for teachers who are trying out new skills. Perhaps the efforts of the past failed because the results the schools were measured on were not aligned with what the efforts were aimed at, so schools got dragged two ways. Perhaps the efforts of the past failed because politicians tend to focus on measurable and obvious symptoms, and try to fix them with arbitrary rules, which gets in the way of solving the underlying problem. Perhaps the efforts of the past failed because many school principals were never trained in management skills and thus arrange the school day wastefully. Perhaps the efforts of the past failed because some schools' administrations didn't back up teachers in maintaining classroom discipline so the teacher doesn't have enough time to provide students with meaningful, relevant, and engaging learning experiences. Perhaps the efforts of the past failed because new teachers were not properly trained in the detailed knowledge necessary to effectively teach the basics of reading and mathematics. And etc.

The number of reasons that could have caused past efforts to fail are vast. Perhaps it was because we weren't ready for them, but but I am surprised that you are willing to invest what sounds like a lot of your time and effort without anything better than a "perhaps".

Time will still tell, but I find myself hopeful and happy that more people are looking more closely at trying to increase collaboration, engagement, and relevance.

I don't care how many people look closely at those things if they're not seeking feedback on whether what they do does increase collaboration, engagement and feedback, and if they're not seeking feedback on how well they can transfer their skills to other teachers and school systems.

As Wayne Gretsky said, "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take."

Albert Einstein: "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

I think you misunderstood the Gretsky quote. I think he was merely advising us to keep trying to achieve our goals, I doubt he had any objections to trying to figure out why the previous one hundred attempts failed first.

This conversation with you has made me even more depressed about the future prospects of "21st century skills" than I was at the start.

Jason Flom said...

Funny, Tracy. I was reading your post and thinking, there is a lot of common ground here. We're both tapping in to the larger needs of schools in terms of needing higher quality teacher candidates, better designed teacher training programs, and principal development efforts -- a conversation that might've led us to thinking about those who are making education decisions without having spent any time in a classroom or listening to teachers about conditions on the floor.

Then I came to this:

"This conversation with you has made me even more depressed about the future prospects of "21st century skills" than I was at the start."

Sorry to hear that. This is probably as good of a place as any to bring our conversation to a close.

It would seem I've done the skill set currently known as "21st century skills" a disservice in my advocacy. My apologies.

For my part, I'll look for reasons past efforts failed and do my best to incorporate those lessons into my current practices.

Best of luck, Tracy.

Tracy W said...

Thanks Jason for your plan to do a bit more research. :)