“Traditional knowledge and skills in school subjects like math, language arts, and science is not being displaced by a new set of skills,” Jerald writes. However, students will have to learn how to apply what they learn to meet “real world challenges.” The most successful students will develop “the ability to think critically about information, solve novel problems, communicate and collaborate, create new products and processes, and adapt to change.”
Applied skills and competencies can best be taught in the context of the academic curriculum, not as a replacement for it or “add on” to it; in fact, cognitive research suggests that some competencies like critical thinking and problem solving are highly dependent on deep content knowledge and cannot be taught in isolation.
Jerald warns school districts not to neglect factual knowledge, the ability to follow directions or “knowing how to find a right answer when there is one.”
Cognitive scientists warn against efforts to teach critical thinking as isolated skills outside of content, and commercial programs that promise they can do so have little to no strong evidence backing them up. Therefore, districts should be especially wary of sales pitches that ask them to spend less time on traditional
subjects in order to fit in stand alone lessons related to 21st century skills.
To teach content and skills, schools may have to narrow the curriculum to cover fewer topics more thoroughly, Jerald advises, suggesting a look at Singapore’s math textbooks as an example. Some interpersonal skills are best taught not by academic teachers but developed through sports and extracurricular activities, he writes.
As Mathews writes, much talk of 21st-century skills seems like “Star Trek idealism.” Jerald is rooted in the world we actually live in.
Update: David Foster’s Myth of the Knowledge Society argues that there’s nothing new about the need for smart, skilled, expert workers.