Fad alert: 21st century skills

Beware of “21st century skills,” writes Eduwonk’s Andrew Rotherham in U.S. News. Too many advocates present “a false choice between teaching facts and teaching how to approach them,” risking the creation of “another fad leading to little change in American education.”

Schools, the 21st-century skills argument goes, focus too much on teaching content at the expense of essential new skills such as communication and collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving, and concepts like media literacy and global awareness.

Despite technology, most “21st century skills” aren’t new, Rotherham writes. Critical thinking? Problem solving? Been there, done that, got the T shirt.  The only thing new “is the degree to which economic competitiveness and educational equity mean these skills can no longer be the province of the few. ”

The content-skills debate also is old hat.

Content undergirds critical thinking, analysis, and broader information literacy skills. To critically analyze various documents requires engagement with content and a framework within which to place the information. It’s impossible, for instance, to critically analyze the American Revolution without understanding the facts and context surrounding that event. Unfortunately, state, national, and international assessments show that despite a two-decade-long focus on standards, American schools still are not delivering a content-rich curriculum for all students.

. . . Unfortunately some 21st-century skills proponents believe these skills should replace the teaching of content. They believe that because so much new knowledge is being created, students should focus on how to know instead of knowing.

Students do need to learn how to analyze, synthesize and solve problems, Rotherham writes. But if the 21st century skills advocates aren’t careful, they’ll produce students who don’t know anything to think critically about.

For every knowledge-stuffed, idea-free student in American schools, there are a lot more who have lots of opinions based on very little knowledge. And, as always, the don’t-know-don’t-care crowd remains large.

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Comments

  1. For many teachers, the idea that concepts based on background knowledge are important seems wrong. Many of them teach subjects that have accepted that students may have a different way of looking at a topic – reading & writing, English, Social Studies, Art, etc.

    In contrast, the Math & Science teachers stress content knowledge. They required students to make changes in their thinking to learn procedures and methods of solving problems, incorporate a certain amount of background knowledge, and use logical methods of analyzing situations.

    You can give a “fuzzy” answer in many classes, and it’s OK. Not in math or science. You need to reach logical conclusions, offer proof of your thinking processes, and support your answers with generally accepted facts.

    And, yet, it’s the science and math teachers who are using most of the 21st Century technology – graphing calculators, computers, probes, etc. And, they do it while promoting such 21st Century skills as: working with teams to solve problems, interacting across the globe, and incorporating technology into the curriculum.

  2. For many teachers, the idea that concepts based on background knowledge are important seems wrong. Many of them teach subjects that have accepted that students may have a different way of looking at a topic – reading & writing, English, Social Studies, Art, etc.

    If teachers of these softer subjects can’t understand how background knowledge feeds concepts, it is a flaw in their understanding of the subject. No subject area that’s a study of things that have happened in the real world can be divorced from the fact that its concepts arise from the events that created the field of study.

  3. Physics Teacher says:

    And, yet, it’s the science and math teachers who are using most of the 21st Century technology – graphing calculators, computers, probes, etc. And, they do it while promoting such 21st Century skills as: working with teams to solve problems, interacting across the globe, and incorporating technology into the curriculum.

    That’s because we have mush-brained supervisors who may have spent a few years teaching English or art insisting we do things this way. Those that don’t end up in the unemployment line.

    Most of my colleagues are very much against all this crap. But it’s all anyone cares about when you interview for a job or when the boss drops in for a look-see.

  4. English really isn’t that fuzzy if you know what you’re doing.

    There has to be a proper balance between process (21st c. skills?) and content (20th c. skills?). I can’t teach writing process without a lot of content — they need to be writing about something and using conventions, etc. In fact, writing process is all about reteaching and refining specific content knowledge.

    Certainly you can have multiple perspectives on a text, but you still have to be talking about what’s actually in the text. If there’s one thing I have to beat out of my seniors every year it is this bizarre idea that a poem can mean whatever you want it to mean. Um, no.

    No calculators involved.

  5. Diana Senechal says:

    Hooray! I am sick of hearing that we should teach reading “strategies” divorced from any specific work of literature. Likewise I am sick of hearing that interpretations are personal and sacrosanct and should not be challenged. Let us teach literature!

  6. Please, God, SMITE me with all of those knowledge-filled students! I will trade ten “critical thinkers” for every one who can parse a sentence. The latter at least have a chance of expressing their “critical thought” in a manner that other human beings can understand.

  7. John Dewey says:

    Glad to see Rotheram talking about this; particularly after his paper with Sara Mead on the need for technology in education.

  8. I just had the interesting experience of taking a class that seemed to be essentially entirely about how to think, with as few concrete facts as possible. It…was ghastly. And I say this as an extremely abstract thinker who generally prefers theory to application; I had no cognitive toeholds, I could never figure out, not only what I was supposed to be learning, but whether I was supposed to be learning anything at all.

    I thought before this that the whole content/skills dichotomy was bogus — of *course* you need both, and of course each is grounded in the other — but this really drove it home. Next time some utopian in a blog post, drawing on no more knowledge of education than his or her personal experience as an outlier in high school, suggests that we could fix everything if only we had a course on Critical Thinking, I will be appropriately withering.

    Of course, what I would prefer to see — that *all* the classes be about critical thinking, interwoven amidst content — is clearly also a utopian pipe dream.

  9. The skils that were necessary in the 20th century–reading, writing, arithmetic, science, history, geography–are the same skills that are necessary for the 21st century. The students who can read and write, do arithmetic, and know science, history, and geography will take it from there and become the critical thinkers and problem solvers. As a university professor for 30 years now, the problem is that I have very, very few problem solvers and critical thinkers because I have so very few students who can read and write well, solve basic arithmetic problems, and know science, history, and geography.

  10. Sorry–skills (egg on my face). Is accurate typing a 21st century skill?

  11. “Mush-brained supervisors”: Physics Teacher, as usual, gets to the heart of the problem. Principals, superintendents and their ilk lap up slick sounding jargon like “21st Century skills”, not understanding what invidious swill it is, and force the rest of us to talk the ridiculous talk (so far no supervisor has forced me to walk the ridiculous walk). The irony is that most of the folk who spout this dogma are so manifestly lacking in critical thinking skills themselves, and regard as evil anyone who applies critical thinking to their propositions. I often want to remark, why are we attempting to teach critical thinking to our students when they’re so clearly a liability in the workplace? I recently gave my principal Hirsch’s The Knowledge Deficit to read. I hope he understood it.

  12. Physics Teacher says:

    Ponderosa,

    Thank you.

    When my boss observes me she writes down, verbatim, everything she sees happening, acting as little more than a stenographer. If I draw arrows representing the initial momenta of a system prior to collision, she’ll write down something like “teacher wrote p sub i = p1 + p2 and drew arrows on the board” Never has she given a hint that she understands anything that’s going on. So in order to appear superior she has to focus on whether students work in groups, whether entertaining (aka “engaging”) activities are provided as in a variety show, and whether technology is being employed. She once gave be a pat on the back because students were using graphing calculators. She didn’t seem to realize that these students weren’t graphing anything on the calculators and that even the smartest among them never even learned the order of operations and couldn’t divide by 2 pi correctly.

    I suspect that she would be far less focused on these “21st century skills” if she was observing an English class, where she really belongs.

  13. The objection to “content” is not a rejection of the idea that there is content in education. It is, rather, recognition that:

    – the purported “facts” of an education – even putatively indisputable facts like dates and numbers – are very much a matter of interpretation and point of view, and not fundamental “truths” that must be memorized – such memorization constitutes indoctrination, not education

    – notwithstanding the previous point, there are ways of knowing and methods of analysis that are independent of the (putative) ‘facts’ of a given discipline – the principles of logic, critical reasoning, mathematics, probability and statistics, empirical science, etc., remain true across disciplines and do not depend (say) on the ‘context of the American revolution’

    Though there is no shortage of charlatans advocating “21st Century Education” (just as there is no shortage of charlatans advocating everything from new math to phonics to ou=name-it educational theory) the core of the approach is sound:

    1. Foster an understanding that different people see the world from different points of view

    2. Foster rationality and reason a way to work within and between these different points of view

    Obviously, you can see why the fundamentalists want nothing to do with this. Why, it’s a doctrine of tolerance and rationality – exactly the opposite of what they stand for.

  14. Stephen said, “the purported “facts” of an education – even putatively indisputable facts like dates and numbers – are very much a matter of interpretation and point of view, and not fundamental “truths” that must be memorized – such memorization constitutes indoctrination, not education.”

    Such nonsense is precisely why people within and across disciplines cannot communicate with each other anymore. Even though Kuhn repudiated his incommensurable paradigms thesis, the postmodernists won anyway. Too bad for us. Too bad for America.

  15. Wow, Stephen.

    One wonders how anyone could have an understanding of history without first nailing down a few indisputable dates and facts.

    You can’t analyze anything until you have a core of facts to compare against.

    Fostering the idea that different people see the same facts differently is implicit in any method of teaching history. 1860: Here’s what the Northerners wanted, and what they thought their economic interests were. Here’s what the Southerners wanted, and where they saw their interests. Here’s the Indian tribes, and what they were dealing with. Here’s France and Britain and their proxy fight regarding the new world. Here’s what the slaves wanted. The result – the American Civil War.

    But here’s the thing – just because those different ways of looking at the situation all existed, doesn’t mean they are all as relevant or truthful as each other. You can’t spend your whole life suspending disbelief; you must apply judgment and analyze situations as well as you can, then be willing to reevaluate when enough facts weigh the situation to the other side. Then you see which of the items in your head need to be reevaluated, and you do it as effectively as possible.

    That’s not by NOT evaluating. It’s by evaluating well, and knowing how and why you did, and what you believed were the facts at that time.

  16. the purported “facts” of an education – even putatively indisputable facts like dates and numbers – are very much a matter of interpretation and point of view, and not fundamental “truths” that must be memorized – such memorization constitutes indoctrination, not education

    Don’t be silly. Memorisation of facts does not consist of indoctrination. It could be a part of a system of indoctrination, but then so can anything done in education. Memorising the times tables, or the order of the planets out from the sun, or the different starting dates for WWII for different countries, or the first 20 elements in the periodic table, is in itself part of an education, as it means you have this information lurking at the back of your brain wherever you go and however far you get from an internet connection.

    notwithstanding the previous point, there are ways of knowing and methods of analysis that are independent of the (putative) ‘facts’ of a given discipline – the principles of logic, critical reasoning, mathematics, probability and statistics, empirical science, etc., remain true across disciplines

    However, all of these ways of knowing and methods of analysis are pretty useless without an understanding of the facts of a given discipline. Logic is a way of getting from premises to results that are true given those premises, but they don’t tell you whether those premises are true or false to start with. For example:
    Premise 1: Dolphin are fish.
    Premise 2: All fish live in the sea.
    From this we can deduce, using the rules of logic, that dolphins live in the sea.
    But we need empirical evidence to tell us that dolphins are in fact mammals, not fish, and that some fish live in fresh water.
    Ditto for statistics – how many useful statistical results have you come up with without a knowledge of facts? Please give an example.
    Mathematics can be used to describe anything, so it’s useless for any particular problem without an understanding of the facts you are using as inputs, or the hypothesised rules you are using as an input.
    I am not sure what you mean by “critical reasoning”. If you mean the process of generating plausible alternative hypotheses, and looking for facts that could disprove each hypothesis, again you need facts to do this.

    Though there is no shortage of charlatans advocating “21st Century Education” … the core of the approach is sound:

    1. Foster an understanding that different people see the world from different points of view

    2. Foster rationality and reason a way to work within and between these different points of view

    If this is the core of the approach, it’s an awfully limited core. I don’t have any objection to these results, though I see nothing particularly 21st century about them (eg lies and deceptions, which of course depend on an understanding that just because I know something doesn’t mean that he knows something, date back to at least biblical times, and rationality and reason date back at least to the Ancient Greek philosphers), but where’s teaching important skills like reading, mathematics, research, and where’s teaching important content like the history of your country, or basic scientific findings?

    Obviously, you can see why the fundamentalists want nothing to do with this. Why, it’s a doctrine of tolerance and rationality – exactly the opposite of what they stand for.

    There may or may not be any such fundamentalists, given your attitude to “facts” above I have my doubts about their existance at all. But the strongest argument against your idea of “21st century skills” is not that, but that the list omits the content necessary to really learn to think critically (and to apply the specific skills of mathematics, statistics, logic, etc). I also have an emotional objection to people applying the label “21st century” to principles that have been around for over two millenia. It reveals a massive ignorance of history, quite undesirable in an educator.

  17. – the purported “facts” of an education – even putatively indisputable facts like dates and numbers – are very much a matter of interpretation and point of view, and not fundamental “truths” that must be memorized – such memorization constitutes indoctrination, not education

    Stephen purports to support logic and rationality. Yet he will not admit that logic is worthless for determining truth without true premises, as demonstrated by Tracy above. Look at another example:

    Premise 1: All socialists support Stalin
    Premise 2: Stalin supported murder
    Conclusion: Socialists support murder

    That, of course, is an untrue conclusion. Very few socialists support murder. It proceeds from a false premise, that all socialists support Stalin. If the false premise were to be acted upon by, say, a right-wing government eager to weed out opponents, it would be interesting to see the results.

    My point? Stephen’s vision of a future of education which allows for logic to be based upon a relativistic, ever-shifting truth will never edify anyone or open them up to the reality of the world around them. It will allow people to run around convinced they know everything they need to know, and never open up to the fact that there is always more to learn.