"We do not start the world anew with each generation"

In today’s Boston Globe, Diane Ravitch shows with pith and verve that “the same ideas proposed today by the 21st-Century Skills movement were iterated and reiterated by pedagogues across the 20th century.”

Whether it was “learning by doing,” the “project method,” the “activity method,” the “life adjustment movement,” or “outcome-based education,” pedagogues downplayed the importance of academic knowledge.

For over a century we have numbed the brains of 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.

But we have ignored what matters most. We have neglected to teach them that one cannot think critically without quite a lot of knowledge to think about. Thinking critically involves comparing and contrasting and synthesizing what one has learned. And a great deal of knowledge is necessary before one can begin to reflect on its meaning and look for alternative explanations.

Ravitch writes, “we do not start the world anew with each generation.” We need the experience, knowledge, and wisdom of those who came before us.

Such knowledge allows us to practice true critical thinking. Without it we are lost.

(And to P21 people who say they never denied this, I say: then let’s teach literature and history. Enough with the nonsense, enough with the marketing of “21st century flotsam” and “21st century jetsam.”)

Read the entire article.

Update: Read also David Foster’s “Thinking and Memorizing.”


  1. “one cannot think critically without quite a lot of knowledge to think about”…see my post thinking and memorizing, which addresses this issue with a little help from Jakob Dylan.

  2. Hey! Don’t put the mouth on Venn diagrams! How else can my students get a grip on the Laws of Probability?

    I’d like to see Diane Ravitch use nothing but predicate algebra to explain the subadditivity of probabilities to a gaggle of biology students. That’s five minutes to lecturer meltdown.

    Of course, when some amathematical Suit throws a Venn diagram into PowerPoint as a fashion accessory, that’s not critical thinking, that’s (as Harry Frankfurt would say) just bullshit.

  3. Seems to me that the emphasis on what skills to teach should depend a lot on student experience. Ideally beginning students would be almost entirely focused on learning the skills of memorization and categorization by practicing on actual knowledge. And the completing students would focus more on learning the skills of analysis, perhaps even at the expense of focusing solely on knowledge already learned. And what to do about the students who never learned the required knowledge? There’s the key stumbling block of education.

  4. Here’s a practical application of Venn diagrams, with special relevance to students..

  5. This made me think (really) so I responded to it rather lengthily.