Flawed assumptions

After a Common Core discussion of 21st century skills, cognitive scientist Dan Willingham attacks the “flawed assumptions” of  the influential Partnership for 21st-Century Skills (P21) on Britannica Blog.

1. Knowledge and skills are separate.

No, “thinking skills are intertwined with domain knowledge,” Willingham argues. Those who forget that are likely to neglect the need for knowledge on the theory that “students can always google the facts, so teachers can focus on skills.”

2. Teachers don’t have cognitive limits.

P21 encourages teachers to use “incredibly demanding” teaching methods that can’t be used effectively without preparation and training, writes Willingham. These include small-group projects and student-directed learning.

. . .  teachers already believe the teaching methods promoted by P21 are the best ones. They are taught as much during their training. Yet classroom observation studies show that very few teachers use them, almost certainly because they are so difficult to use.

3. Experience is equivalent to practice.

Just because students do something doesn’t mean they’re learning, Willingham writes.

Practice entails trying to improve: noticing what you’re doing wrong, and trying different strategies to do better. It also entails meaningful feedback, usually from someone knowledgeable about the skill. This means that 21st-century skills like “working well in groups,” or “developing leadership,” will not be developed simply by putting people in groups or asking them to be leaders. Students must be taught to do these things. We simply don’t know how to teach leadership or collaboration the way that we know how to teach algebra or reading.

P2’s goals — “real world problem-solving and critical thinking skills” — have been goals for the last century, Willingham writes. People have tried for years to make P21’s methods work in the classroom with little success.

Another Common Core participant, educational historian Diane Ravitch, calls 21st century skills an “old familiar song” — and one that’s badly off key.  Hostile to learning subject matter, education professors “have numbed the brains of future teachers with endless blather about process and abstract thinking skills.”

We have taught them about graphic organizers and Venn diagrams and accountable talk, data-based decision-making, rubrics, and leveled libraries . . .  We have neglected to teach them that one cannot think critically unless one has quite a lot of knowledge to think about. One thinks critically by comparing and contrasting and synthesizing what one has learned. One must know a great deal before she or he can begin to reflect on its meaning and look for alternative explanations.

On her Bridging Differences blog, Ravitch thinks critically: Are “21st century skills” a way to derail “the effort to develop meaningful and reasonable academic standards by replacing them with vague and pleasing-sounding goals?”

In the Common Core question period, teacher Diana Senechal discussed lesson plans she found on the P21 site.

One activity was to have students read a story or play, then make a commercial or video with Claymation figures. Diana asked, “Why not discuss the ideas in the story instead of spending hours making Claymation figures?” Which approach is likelier to engage students in thinking critically? It seemed to me that she was spot-on.

Willingham suggests writing state standards that “delineate conceptual knowledge and factual knowledge, and make clear how the two are related,”  and give teachers the training and time to learn how to teach the standards.

Beyond that, he urges states to start small, with a meaningful assessment to judge whether students really are learning “21st century skills.”

Core Knowledge has more on the “fadbusters” discussion and on asking teachers to do the nearly impossible.

If we’re serious about closing the achievement gap and raising the level of performance of American education, we can’t be serious about asking teachers to walk on water and labeling them failures when they drown.

Eduwonk has lots more.

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  1. David Cohen says:

    Great posting! I guess it’s natural that people say that when you present information that matches their experiences. I have plenty of training and theoretical reasons to do more group activity and student-directed learning, but as mentioned above, the main obstacle to doing it isn’t convincing teachers it’s worthwhile, but rather, providing the training, practice, and TIME that we need to do this work effectively. Groupwork for its own sake is not good enough.

    And yes, skills need to be put to use in learning real and challening content. Some folks like to point out how quickly new information is being manufactured, or created, or catalogued – choose your verb – and then suggest that we can’t prepare students for the future if we focus on content. After all, the “content” or information they’ll use in the future, especially in science and technology, hasn’t been created yet. However, if students’ skills aren’t being put to use in the service of reaching deep understanding, finding, evaluating, critiquing the existing and well-established information and ideas, then we haven’t really given them a complete skill, or skill set.

  2. Tracy W says:

    What I don’t really get is the motivation of the P21 people. It’s quite surprising that it’s apparently never occurred to one of them to wonder why previous educational efforts failed.

  3. I tried to leave a comment but couldn’t get it to post, so I’ve written a post at kitchen table math.


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