21st century skills: no substance

Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel’s book, 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times, is a disappointment, writes Jay Mathews on Class Struggle.

Were the 21st century skills people finally going to show us how this idea actually works in the classroom? Would they have data? Would there be lesson plans, and detailed testimony from students and parents and teachers? Were they going to prove wrong those of us who could see nothing in this movement (here is a previous column) but a lot of buzz words and jargon describing principles of teaching and learning that have been with us for many decades?

No.

Mathews thinks the authors are “smart tech guys who just don’t know much about real schools with real kids who have difficulty learning how to read, write and do math.”

They can’t see the scuffed floors and trash-strewn playground of a public middle school in Oakland, but can use their laptops to write nice sentences about how the six emerging principles of the movement are “vision, coordination, official policy, leadership, learning technology and teacher learning.”

The real-world examples weren’t useful either, Mathews writes. One features a fifth-grade teacher with 21st century skills training, who has her students research a leader of their choice and explain how that person succeeded on a Web page available to “students around the world.”

. . . other than the web page. it did not seem any different from the group projects my classmates and I did in the middle of the 20th century, mounting our findings on big cardboard displays and showing them off at a special night for parents and classmates.

The book never mentions how to teach reading, he adds.

I share Jay’s qualms about the 21st century skills movement.

If you want specifics about what works in real life and what doesn’t, read my book, Our School, about a start-up charter school figuring out how to educate underachieving Mexican-American students.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. MOMwithAbrain says:

    Let’s see, the NAEP math scores just came out, and in most states about 1/3 to 1/2 of the 4th and 8th graders FLUNKED the basic math test.

    Oh yes, by all means we need to focus on 21st century skills while most kids can’t do basic math!!
    Absurd

  2. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Well, in the 21st century, it’s better not to know any math! That way you don’t get scared by pesky things like statistics, recessions, deficits and tax rates!!

  3. Note to the Fadel and Trilling: just as virtuoso violin playing requires years of work playing scales, learning to read music, working out fingering, etc. so high-level and creative thinking depend on years of mastering basics like math, language, science, etc. You don’t produce concert violinists by having eight-year olds frequently try to play Tschaikovsky violin concertos at Carnegie Hall. Similarly, you don’t produce great thinkers for Oracle by having eight-year olds act like Oracle project managers. There is a problem with American schools, but it’s not too little P21-style project work, it’s too MUCH P21-style project work (which has been pushed by schools of education since the 1920’s). It’s wasting time kids should use to master the fundamentals they need to BECOME virtuoso thinkers.

  4. Whenever I do anything with the computers, I label it a 21st C. lesson plan. Doesn’t matter if it is as simple as posting their homework online instead of printing it out — I take credit for being all trendy and cutting edge and life is good.

  5. Margo/Mom says:

    Ben’s violin virtuoso example is interesting. However, consider the Suzuki revolution. Rather than years of isolated drilling on scales, they introduced violin that had an immediate experience of producing recognizable music. Young children are taught alongside a parent and play in large groups–this tends to ensure that someone is always on the right note. Assuredly not every three-year-old who begins with midget violin ends up at Carnegie Hall–but that has never been an outcome of any music teaching. But, some do, and many others acquire an importance experience of music and in the end may play “a bit,” as educated young men and women were once taught.

    This kind of social experience counters our American zeitgeist of rugged individualism–and is in fact sadly missing from most of American education. We pooh-pooh group assigments–seeing only the development of a mini-hierarchy in which the strong carry the weak, rather than seeing any value in the skills of brainstorming, selecting ideas, making decision and utilizing varied strengths of participants. We focus on producing performers and forget that without an educated audience, the performance is always lacking. We forget that a performer must understand not only the music, but also how to communicate that music to an audience.

    I agree with the folks who suggest that 21st Century is a misnomer–although the need for these skills is critical to the advancement of industry and we are losing out to other countries who already understand this. I also applaud LS for recognizing that merely using technology in the classroom–in ways that it is already widely used elsewhere–is an important aculturization to what is needed. And as a parent, I would point out the vastly improved efficiency of accepting online submissions over hard copies carried in notebooks and backpacks–and far to often getting lost on the way or returning home again.

  6. Michael E. Lopez, Esq. says:

    It’s far, far easier to pick up 21st Century Skillz once you’ve become a H4XX0RZ |\/|45+3R of some basic skills like reading, mental arithmetic, memorization of broad historical facts, spelling, grammar, and teh logix!

  7. This kind of social experience counters our American zeitgeist of rugged individualism–and is in fact sadly missing from most of American education.

    Hmmm, I am not an American, and perhaps I have misunderstood American culture, but this surprises me. I thought that group performances like school bands, nativity plays, school musicals and sports teams were common and popular parts of American schooling experience, as much as in any other country in the world that I know of, perhaps more so than in British schools. Am I wrong?

    We pooh-pooh group assigments–seeing only the development of a mini-hierarchy in which the strong carry the weak, rather than seeing any value in the skills of brainstorming, selecting ideas, making decision and utilizing varied strengths of participants.

    Mightn’t this have something to do with the fact that in elementary and secondary schooling, many of us think that it should be about developing students’ strengths as individuals? There are plenty of people who started off struggling with a subject and doing poorly and then wound up pursuing careers or even teaching in that subject – the best maths teacher I had at high school said he had struggled with maths himself, and I think that was part of what made him good, he was aware of all the ways in which students could misunderstand things because he’d done that himself. If he had spent all his schooltime working in groups that utilised his then-strengths, would he have required the expertise in maths that he did?

    We focus on producing performers and forget that without an educated audience, the performance is always lacking. We forget that a performer must understand not only the music, but also how to communicate that music to an audience.

    Do we forget this? I have my doubts. For example, look at this data from the NCES on music teaching in schools – http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pdf/main2008/2009488_2.pdf, page 12 of the pdf. According to this, at grade 8 in 2008 only 8% of students reported that no instruction in music was available. 57% attended schools in which music instruction was being offered at least 3-4 times a week (up from 43% in 1997) and a further 27% schools that offered music instruction 1-2 a week. If “we” are forgetting that without an educated audience the performance is always lacking, how come 84% of schools are teaching it? Don’t you think that scheduling music lessons, dispatching students off to them, and so forth would remind them from time to time?

    And as for “communicating that music to an audience”, how many music teachers in the country forget this? Presumably the internet being the internet, you could find a few oddballs. But I have my doubts that this is a significant problem.

  8. As a member of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills board, I have to echo Margo’s point of view. The failure of the core knowledge movement is that we have isolated content from context. We would never teach music only through scales drilled until age 18 before teaching a piece of music, yet this is precisely what some would have us believe is necessary when teaching math and reading. It is no wonder so many students in our largest districts elect to walk away dispirited and demotivated.

    From my point of view, we need our graduates to be both facile with content and able to apply this knowledge to the challenges they will face in the future.

    The reductionism NCLB has brought to our schools serves no one. It leaves the US with a generation of students that don’t see the relevance of their work in schools and the US with a work force that leaves this great nation in a weakened position in the global marketplace.

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