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.