21st-century smarts

What are 21st-century skills? Finally, there’s a coherent answer, writes Jay Mathews. Craig Jerald defines a 21st-century education in a report for the Center for Public Education.

“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.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. GoogleMaster says:

    Change has been happening since the wheel was invented. Why is “adapting to change” a 21st century skill?

  2. It’s ridiculous to assert that the need to meet “real world challenges” and to develop “the ability to think critically about information, solve novel problems, communicate and collaborate, create new products and processes, and adapt to change” represents anything NEW. See my post myths of the knowledge society, also temporal bigotry.

  3. tim-10-ber says:

    I agree with GoogleMaster. Aren’t educators suppose to be doing this? Shouldn’t they have been doing this for centuries? Everyone throws out 21st century skills…these are the skills we all need to be successful regardless of the decade or century. However, what I hear is government educators are reluctant to learn the technology skills the kids will be using (and are using). Is this why this “movement” is called 21st century?

    Quality private schools have this mastered hands down over government schools.

  4. Amusingly, Dickens noted the disconnect between material in primary education and applying said education in real life. I can think of that coming up multiple times, most notably Hard Times and Bleak House.

    So no, it’s not 21st century solely. It’s been noted from time immemorial, anytime anything of any abstraction [such as literature, foreign languages, abstract math] was taught.

  5. Diana Senechal says:

    There is always a “disconnect” between education and real life, and there has to be–simply because education requires a certain amount of distance, abstraction, and concentration. We simply can’t be up to date all the time if we want to learn anything.

    The ones who make the most of that “disconnect” may fare the best. There’s a lot of clamor about communication and collaboration, but collaboration is just silly if you don’t know how to go off and work on your own. Collaboration is substantial only if the members have something to bring to each other.

    So there is no reason to get rid of the “disconnect.” There is every reason to learn how to make the most of it.

  6. Well, I agree that change has always been important, but I think these skills are more important for this generation because their world is changing so incredibly quickly. Many of them will hold jobs that do not even exist today and most will change jobs and probably careers several, if not many times in their lives.

    But I agree that critical thinking should be integrated into the curriculum. Makes the curriculum more interesting and relevant, so why not?

  7. –But I agree that critical thinking should be integrated into the curriculum. Makes the curriculum more interesting and relevant, so why not

    What does this even mean? What does a history curriculum that lacks critical thinking in history even mean? What does an American literature curriculum that lacks critical thinking in American literature even mean?

    what does “relevant” mean here? Relevant to WHAT? To whom? How is thinking “critically” relevant at all? I offer you “theory”, i.e. university level literary critical theory, which takes any subject at all and finds only irrelevant things to comment on.

  8. Rachel Lynette – my great-grandmother went in her lifetime from horses and carts to a man on the moon (and in the course of that, two world wars and a great depression). That’s fast change.
    Her parents decided to drop life in Europe and make a living by hacking a farm out of heavy forest in a remote outcrop of the British Empire. Do that and you don’t merely change jobs several times in a life, you change jobs several times in a day.
    As for holding jobs that did not exist when education happened, that’s been happening ever since the start of the Industrial Revolution and probably earlier. Railways, iron ships, software programmers, car mechanics, arc welders, oil rig workers, people have been learning new skills for centuries.

  9. Thank you for bringing us back to what we all know–common sense, Craig Jerald and for reporting it, Jay Mathews. In order to think (critically or otherwise) one needs knowledge and skills. Otherwise, it’s just mush. Why is not that obvious to everyone concerned about education? Thank you for this timely piece.

  10. As someone around here (or somewhere) said, I’d be happy if they’d just teach the 20th century skills. That’d be a start.

  11. Andrew Bell says:

    Glad there seems to be some common sense among most of this crowd, even if it appears to be lacking at the Washington Post with regard to this issue.

  12. I agree with Susan. I tire of the never-ceasing pursuit of novelty in the education world. IF the schools did a good job acquainting their graduates with a twentieth-century grasp of spelling, arithmetic, composition, handwriting, rhetoric, physics, chemistry, and biology, perhaps they could look to expand their horizons. But they don’t, as every standardized test administered on a wide scale confirms. I fail to see what throwing money at technology firms will do to improve the situation.

  13. Tracy W., I respectfully disagree. Horses and carts to the moon took a lifetime. Whereas in a mere 20 years we have seen cell phones, computers, and the internet become an integral part of most of our lives. What will life be like in another 20 years?

    Allison, I agree, what I wrote was vague and I should have given it more thought. I was just thinking that when kids are given opportunities to question ideas, to evaluate, to solve problems, and to relate what they are learning to their own lives, it becomes more meaningful and that those things can be (and often are) a part of the curriculum for pretty much any subject.

  14. Many previous inventions have had an overwhelming impact on society, at least equal to that of our present-day innovations. Consider, for example:

    ..the telegraph, which totally changed notions of time and space. Here’s an American journalist of the time:

    “This extraordinary discovery leaves…no elsewhere…it is all HERE”

    ..more poetically, Heinrich Heine, living in Paris in 1843:

    “I feel the mountains and forests of all countries advancing towards Paris. Already, I smell the scent of German lime-trees; the North-Sea breaks on my doorstep.”

  15. George Larson says:

    Was the Generation that grew up during the Great Depression and destroyed Fascism and Communism taught “20th Century” skills to deal with new ideas and technologies? They may have succeeded inspite of their education, but they succeeded. Very few people saw the future clearly enough to prepare their children for what was to come. I do not think that has changed.

  16. They’ve finally cleaned up the definition so that it could mean anything or apply to any century. Apparently this will get some of us to go away and leave them to define the details however they want. If they want to use a child-centered discovery process that accomplishes squat, that’s OK because it’s the idea that matters.

    I could define a curriculum that met all of their criteria, but I’ll wager they wouldn’t like it. The purpose of the manifesto is to make critics go away so that they can continue to do whatever it is that they do.

    Buy Smartboards.

    This is not about 21st Century Skills. It’s about control. It’s about turf.

  17. Am I alone in suspecting that NO TEACHER EVER has TAUGHT a critical thinking skill? I mean, aren’t three year olds analyzing, comparing, contrasting, inferring, etc? Teachers may ELICIT critical thinking from their students…but IMPART the skill?
    Am I wrong to believe that critical thinking skills are congenital, and that a teacher’s job is to impart knowledge upon which these in-born skills can operate, and with which these skills yield more wise and accurate results?

    Is it simply mumbo-jumbo when we say we teach critical thinking skills?

  18. “Is it simply mumbo-jumbo when we say we teach critical thinking skills?”

    It’s just pedagogical cover for doing what they want. Of course, they never explain what critical thinking is, but it sure is a great way to “dis” mere facts and knowledge. What they are trying to do is to unlink mastery of basic facts and skills from critical thinking and true understanding. They want a top-down approach that appears to address the issues of critical thinking, while at the same time reducing the emphasis on the basics. This way, they can claim the high ground and put everyone else on the defensive. They argue with generalities just to make people go away. Then they can decide on all of the details. Call their bluff. Ask for details.

    I would agree with Ben F up to a point. There is linkage. If you help kids master basic knowledge and skills, much of critical thinking and understanding will take care of itself. Advanced levels of understanding and critical thinking evolve from there. It is not a top-down process. Their negative fixation with rote regurgitation is a reflection of bad teaching and low expectations, not bad pedagogy.

  19. In order to infer, judge, weigh, think critically, about anything, one needs a great deal of background knowledge. Thus, it follows, that those who believe their catalog of “21st century skills,” should strongly back the Core Knowledge curriculum.

  20. I have been talking about exactly this – what is education for – on my blog (http://timesonline.typepad.com/schoolgate/2009/11/should-learning-and-schools-be-about-learning-skills-for-the-employment-world-or-knowledge-for-knowl.html)
    There seems to be a split between those who think it’s to learn “functional skills” or competencies, and those who love knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Surely both, but I have to say that I fear knowledge/learning is losing out to skills…

  21. Sarah…”There seems to be a split between those who think it’s to learn “functional skills” or competencies, and those who love knowledge for knowledge’s sake”

    I think this is a misleading dichotomy. Usually, it is precisely those who “love knowledge for knowledge’s sake” who develop a deep interest in a knowledge domain such as history or mathematics or German poetry of the 14th Century. Those who talk about grand overarcing things like “critical thinking” are very often, in a fundamental sense, anti-intellectual: they are using an assumed kind of meta-knowledge as an excuse for failure to absorb or to impart any *actual* knowledge.

  22. “Tracy W., I respectfully disagree. Horses and carts to the moon took a lifetime. Whereas in a mere 20 years we have seen cell phones, computers, and the internet become an integral part of most of our lives. What will life be like in another 20 years?”

    – Horses and carts to the moon did take a lifetime, but you’re skipping over the telephone, railroads, automobiles, radio, airplanes, oh, and the atomic bomb. My guess is that if you looked at the pace of life-altering inventions since the Renaissance, it would be roughly constant. 100 years from now people will be dismissing cell phones and the Internet as revolutionary like you are dismissing other technologies.

  23. Whereas in a mere 20 years we have seen cell phones, computers, and the internet become an integral part of most of our lives.

    Nope. The technologies you list are older than 20 years. In 1989 two of my uncles had already started software companies and I nagged my parents into upgrading from their old IBM home computer with no hard drive, to a PC 286. My father was using Macs at work as a personal computer.
    According to Wikipedia the first carphone was introduced in Finland in 1971, 38 years ago, so about twice your “mere 20 years”. TCP/IP dates back to the late 1970s/early 1980s.

    The mass expansion of the Internet and thus PCs, and cellphones took place in the 1990s. But this has its parallels in the sudden setting up of gas networks, electricity networks, or what would happen to an area when the railway arrived.

    Like Supersub, I don’t see anything special about the rate of change during the life I’ve lived compared with that of my great-grandmothers’. (I am not saying that it’s slower – the Internet has changed the world, and I now can’t remember how I managed to have a social life before cellphones although I know that I did, just I think that the changes my great-grandma lived through were as dramatic).

  24. What 21st century skills and learning comes down to in schools is strictly vocational. The talk of critical thinking and understanding is just a cover. This week, my 8th grade son has to take an online “TechLiteracy Assessment”, required by the state, to check for the acquisition of 21st century skills.

    He will be tested on basic facts and skills of how to use a computer and several types of software: word processor, spreadsheet, and slide creation. Nowhere is there anything about using these things for critical thinking. Any sort of critical thinking that his schools do (and there is a little) do not require these skills. Random searching of the internet is about the closest they come. More typically, they expect critical analysis when the kids do not have the needed historical or content background and skills in the subject area. The skills he will be tested on are more about documenting whatever analysis he has already done. These skills are not the vehicle for the analysis. So, my son will be able to crank out the slickest Word document with graphics, spreadsheet graphs and tons of content from the web, but it could be crap.

Trackbacks

  1. […] By Craig Jerald in a report by the Center for Public Education: The need for traditional knowledge and skills in school subjects like math, language arts, and science is not being “displaced” by a new set of skills; in fact, students who take more advanced math courses and master higher math skills, for example, will have a distinct advantage over their peers. see also a discussion by Jay Mathews of the Washington Post. courtesy of Joanne Jacobs. […]