Teaching unmeasurable skills

The Content vs. Skills War rages on:  Sandra Stotsky, a University of Arkansas professor, takes a shot at Harvard Professor Tony Wagner’s call for students to learn “21st century skills” for “survival” in the global economy.

Wagner does not seem to care if students can read and write grammatically, do math or know something about science and history – real subjects that schools can teach and policy-makers can measure.

Unfortunately, Wagner dismisses measurable academic content while embracing buzzwords like “adaptability” and “curiosity,” which no one could possibly be against, but also which no one could possibly measure. Do we really care if our students are curious and adaptable if they cannot read and write their own names?

Wagner also knocks the time spent on testing. But the research doesn’t support the claim that testing crowds out learning, Stotsky writes.

. . . my colleague Gary Ritter finds that here in Arkansas public schools the most tested students — those in grades five and seven — spend only 1 percent of total instructional time being tested, probably less time than spent in class parties or on field trips.

If our kids learned 20th century skills really well, wouldn’t 21st century skills be easy to pick up?  I’ve always used my content knowledge to question, communicate, explore, etc.  And I don’t see excess knowledge as a big problem for today’s students. There are kids who don’t know what to do with the facts they’ve crammed, but there are more who don’t know enough to think intelligently or usefully.

Update: Jay Greene piles on here and here, arguing that Wagner “shows no evidence that higher levels of critical thinking can be found in places or at times when there was less content and less testing.”

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Comments

  1. there is a difference between test prep and time spent taking the test

  2. Donalbain from the UK says:

    The issue is not just the time spent being tested. It is the time spent being coached in the test rather than the actual teaching that is the problem.

  3. I wonder how the people who object to time spent in testing & test prep would feel if the FAA eliminated the written tests for pilots and air traffic controllers, focusing instead on a subjective evaluation of “adaptability” and “curiosity?”

  4. “Adaptability” and “curiosity” are 21st century skills? I guess since we’re all in the 21st century all skills are 21st century skills.

    Of course there’s actually nothing new about proposing inherently untestable qualities as the goal of public education but the push does seem to be on to define goals that *are* inherently measurable and then measure progress towards those goals.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    Dirty little secret. Corporals can teach skills. Anybody can learn skills, take a Methods of Instruction class and teach those skills successfully, especially if the penalty for not listening is severe. Who is teaching the Iraqi army, and the Iraqi soldier to be able to kick ass, take names, and stare down Arab armies? Respect human rights? Do minor civil engineering? Serious, lifesaving first aid? Tactics from squad to division? Combined arms ops? Not grads of education departments.
    Who wants to be a corporal when you are, you think, some kind of intellectual? Dealing with big, involved themes. And which don’t involve endless papers to correct.
    DISTAR diminishes the teaching role. Also works. Now what?

  6. They may be adaptable and curious, but lack the necessary math and English skills to take that any further. Give me a kid with basic 19th century academic skills, and I can help him/her use those skills to satisfy curiousity about the content.

    Ain’t no good being curious without having a way to scratch that itch.

  7. Stotsky is from the “Wal-Mart” school of education reform, “The 21st Century Chair in Teacher Quality with the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas”, so I’m not surprised she’s against anything that’s not on the Business Roundtable/Wal-Mart agenda.

  8. Adaptability? Usually that requires a broad foundation of knowledge which one can apply in various situations. No knowledge? No adaptability.

  9. According to Wagner, these are the seven survival skills:

    Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving
    Collaboration across Networks and Leading by Influence
    Agility and Adaptability
    Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
    Effective Oral and Written Communication
    Accessing and Analyzing Information
    Curiosity and Imagination

    Interesting that he chose to to call them survival skills as the word skill implies the use of knowledge ( see the definition below ). Given that Wagner puts effective communication on his list of survival skills I’ll assume that he actually intended that meaning. I found one review of his book The Global Achievement Gap that states explicitly the interdependence of “21st Century Skills” and “basic” knowledge.

    “The Global Achievement Gap closes with real-life case studies, profiles of schools that have proven the effectiveness of combining the basics with teaching the seven survival skills.”

    See this link for more: http://adulted.about.com/od/teachers/a/globalgapbook.htm.

    Clearly he has something to sell, but it seems to me that if questioned critically he’d probably agree that there’s a false dichotomy between 21st Century Skills and the acquisition of knowledge.

    From Merriam-Webster:

    skill

    Function: noun
    Etymology:

    Middle English skil, from Old Norse, distinction, knowledge; probably akin to Old English scylian to separate, sciell shell — more at shell

    Date: 13th century
    1 obsolete : cause , reason
    2 a: the ability to use one’s knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance b: dexterity or coordination especially in the execution of learned physical tasks
    3: a learned power of doing something competently : a developed aptitude or ability

  10. Donalbain says:

    Science teacher here. For the vast majority of the kids I teach, my wish is not that they learn the chemical symbol for table salt, or memorise the formulae of motion. That will hardly help them at all in later life. What is important is understanding the scientific way of looking at the world. Knowing how to look at questions about the world, and how to judge what is a sensible, trustworthy answer to the questions. I want them to know WHY someone saying that “Well, I took vitamin C and my cold got better”, is NOT a good reason for them to take vitamin C when they have a cold. I want them to know why they should trust actual medicine and laugh at homeopathy. I want them to be able to look at stories in the newspapers (I am looking at YOU, Daily Mail) and know that the bollocks about autism being caused by vaccines is nonsense.

    This is an attitude, it is a way of looking at the world and I don’t necessarily think it can be tested, and it is, sadly, drowned out by the constant ramming of facts into their heads in preperation for exams.

  11. Yes, the scientific way of looking at the world is pretty terrific, isn’t it?

    Let’s do some science, shall we?

    I have a theory that the appearance of teaching abstract skills, to the exclusion of the teaching of facts, will substantially increase my income.

    How shall we structure an experiment to determine whether my theory has any validity?

  12. Donalbain said, “This is an attitude, it is a way of looking at the world and I don’t necessarily think it can be tested, and it is, sadly, drowned out by the constant ramming of facts into their heads in preperation for exams.”

    You are both right and wrong. This attitude is indeed a way of looking at the world It is the best way and it should be taught starting very early in school. But, it is not drowned out by “ramming facts” into kids’ heads. Instead, it is drowned out by ramming the wrong “facts” into kids’ heads. Face it–the kids got those “facts” about Vitamin C and vaccines somewhere. Someone taught them that these ideas are facts.

  13. Donalbain…but you don’t learn the scientific way of looking at things by being preached at about “curiousity” or “adaptability” or whatever. You learn it by studying how scientific questions have been addressed in the past, and by doing your own experiments in the laboratory.

    See my post thinking and memorizing for related thoughts.

  14. Donalbrain Knowing how to look at questions about the world, and how to judge what is a sensible, trustworthy answer to the questions.

    But a lot of scientific answers about the world are profoundly unsensible, at least from a viewpoint of common sense.
    You mean an object in motion remains in motion until another force acts on it? Yeah right, ever pushed a wheelbarrow mate?
    Moving a magnet near some metal induces an electric current that makes the lightbulb go on? Sounds like something David Copperfield would come up with.
    You can’t make a perpetual motion machine? Who says so? I can do it if I really try!
    We can get sick because of invisible little creatures if we don’t wash our hands before preparing food? How about putting out a saucer of milk for the invisible fairies living at the bottom of the garden while we’re at it?
    Another surprising one, it looks like different parenting styles have very little effect on how their children turn out once you control for the genetic relationship (this result is not as trustworthy as the others in my list, but many people clearly do not regard it as sensible).

    Teaching how to design and conduct scientific experiments is useful in and of itself. But scientific experiments do not always turn up sensible answers, and many questions cannot be answered by experiments that an ordinary individual can perform whenever they feel curious about something, sometimes because of the massive time and expense and sometimes because of safety problems. A good grasp of as many scientific facts as possible is valuable as well. A student should know that salt and all other natural substances are made up of chemicals, as much as an organic potato is. A student should know enough about physics to be skeptical of investors selling perpetual motion machines. I don’t think just teaching an attitude will allow students to make good judgments, because the student doesn’t know what has been left out that is relevant. For example, in physics you can do a controlled experiment where you only change one variable and make confident predictions about what happens there. In medicine you can’t do controlled experiments as no two humans are equal as we have different immune systems. In economics when making statements about the macroeconomy you have to consider where resources come from and what else they could have been used for – physicists often form stupid economic theories because they neglect that (eg they fall for the broken window fallacy).

    This is an attitude, it is a way of looking at the world and I don’t necessarily think it can be tested

    Well if it can’t be tested there’s no point in trying to teach it. If at the end of a course, you can’t have any idea if kids learnt something then how on earth can you know if you’re teaching anything useful at all? Much better to spend your time on something that you can get at least some feedback on.

    I should say I see a big difference between “can’t be tested” and “can’t be tested using a multi-choice test”. Driving skills like three-point turns can’t be tested with a mult-choice test, but they can be tested with a car and a safe area. Driving skills can be taught.

  15. Andy Freeman says:

    > But scientific experiments do not always turn up sensible answers, and many questions cannot be answered by experiments that an ordinary individual can perform whenever they feel curious about something, sometimes because of the massive time and expense and sometimes because of safety problems.

    Not so fast.

    19th century scientists did a lot of experiments with basically nothing. (I’ve mentioned Faraday’s candle.)

    Given that, is it really unreasonable to expect schools to teach science to at least that level?

  16. Well Andy – I did mention safety concerns. For example, Edward Jenner tested cowpox as a preventative for smallpox on his gardener’s son in the 18th century. In the 1840s Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis demonstrated the importance of cleanliness in preventing infection based on an experiment involving a whole hospital. These experiments were both important, and ones that it would be ethically outrageous to replicate for every single school science class.

    Many scientific results, like the Laws of Thermodynamics, or the Periodic Table were the results of integrating the work of a very large number of scientific experiments done over a lot of time.

    I think that actual demonstrations and scientific experiments are a very valuable part of a science education. But I don’t think it’s that easy in both practical terms and in ethical terms to replicate even 19th century science’s answers in a lab alone.

  17. Robert Wright says:

    My son is doing very well in high school and I credit the K-8 school he attended.

    What did they do that was so great?

    They taught him, of course, how to write paragraphs and how to solve equations, and they did this pretty well, which has given him a good foundation for later learning. That explains how he’s able to excel in school now, but not why.

    He loves school and he loves it because of the intangibles embraced at his K-8 school.

    The skills that Wagner lists are nice, but I wouldn’t call them survival skills.

    I think survival means knowing how to drive.
    Knowing the value of deferring gratification.
    Knowing how to use Advanced Search on Google.
    Knowing how to invest without paying hidden commission.
    Knowing how to avoid credit card debt and car leases.
    Knowing how to hold your children’s schools accountable.
    Knowing the value of healthy food and exercise,
    Knowing that blind patriotism can get you killed in a foreign land.
    Knowing that your wife’s new clothes always look good on her. Always.

  18. Richard Aubrey says:

    Robert.
    Also, knowing that arranging for somebody else to get killed in a foreign land improves your chances for survival.

  19. I can teach these:
    Effective Oral and Written Communication
    Accessing and Analyzing Information

    The rest… WTF?

    (Although this is the first time I’ve seen 21st c. skills defined.)

  20. Margo/Mom says:

    Don’t know why there is this insistence in education of seeing every question as a dichotomy. Maybe we could sometime consider that the skills are additive, not subtractive.

  21. Andy Freeman says:

    > But I don’t think it’s that easy in both practical terms and in ethical terms to replicate even 19th century science’s answers in a lab alone.

    I mentioned Faraday’s candle experiments and you replied with Jenner’s smallpox experiments.

    Taking those as the end points and assuming that safety, practicality, and ethics is somewhere between them (albeit not necessarily at the same place), do you really believe that there isn’t enough below the lowest dividing line to teach kids through high school?

    As to the vast numbers of thermodynamics experiments, do you really want to argue that if one doesn’t do them all, there’s no point to doing any of them?

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