I am not shy about expressing skepticism of the “21st Century Skills” movement. In February I attended a fascinating panel discussion in D.C. on 21st century skills, hosted by Common Core, with presentations by Diane Ravitch, E. D. Hirsch, Dan Willingham, and Ken Kay. In March I attended another panel discussion in D.C., this one hosted by the NEA. I asked questions at both events. At the second event, I was startled when Paige Kuni (worldwide manager of K-12 education for Intel and a board member of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills) referred to the life cycle of a butterfly as a “factoid.” I brought this up in a comment on Flypaper and later read a response from Kuni (excerpted here):
The careful listener at this event would have heard that I believe that students absolutely need to be taught content in combination with instruction that leads to 21st century skills like critical thinking, innovation, and collaboration. I believe that by creating schools that adopt the approaches P21 supports, students will be able to make connections of how a changing form makes butterflies more successful in the ecosystem. That they can think critically about how life cycles connect to evolution. And that they could extrapolate to other topics such as how product lifecycles in business are the same or different from butterfly lifecycles in making companies successful. When they are 25 if they cannot recall the name of one-step in the lifecycle- it isn’t important as long as they possess the learning skills that allow them to access that information when they need it (search- cut- paste).
The life cycle of a butterfly is much more than a “factoid” or a story of “success”: it is beautiful, complex, and intriguing on its own terms. One could study it for a lifetime. Comparing and contrasting butterfly and business life cycles only distracts from the subject, as the analogies are superficial. This leads to the question: When are interdisciplinary connections enlightening, and when are they distracting? How do we help students see “connections” between subjects in a way that will sharpen, not dull, their understanding?
In this case, one could envision a high school science course for juniors or seniors that delved into the details of the butterfly’s transformation: the chemistry, the interaction with the environment, and so forth. Now, let’s say that in literature class (do those exist any more?) the students are reading Nabokov’s biography of Gogol, or another Nabokov work. They could then draw an interesting connection between Nabokov’s study of butterflies and his close observation of detail, taking care not to strain the analogy. In science class they could study—among others–the butterfly that Nabokov himself identified, the Karner Blue Butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis), but otherwise they would be studying butterflies, not Nabokov. A connection would exist between the subjects, but it would not be forced, nor would it limit the study of either subject.
Granted, that is an unlikely scenario, as not many schools would teach both butterflies and Nabokov. But the basic principle is this: connections work well when they are not forced and do not interfere with the subject at hand. Students study each subject independently, on its own terms. The connections simply add perspective and insight.
The Core Knowledge curriculum (to which I am partial) has many such correspondences between subjects. Students might read stories from One Thousand and One Nights in English class, then listen to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade in music class. Or they might read Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and then listen to Mendelssohn’s Overture. They might view works of Renaissance art as they learn Renaissance history.
This contrast radically with a scenario where students discuss business “success” in the context of the study of butterflies or evolution. There the connections are superficial and in many cases false. A Venn diagram does not do the trick. A product is no more like a butterfly than we ourselves are. It does not usually have mutualistic relationships with ants. A product’s “egg” does not have micropyles; its versions are not quite like instars. Rarely does it fly.