Learning grit, character, non-cognitive skills or . . . ?

In addition to academic skills, students need . . .  Is it “grit,” “character,” a “growth mindset,” “non-cognitive traits and habits,” “21st-century skills,” “social and emotional skills” or perhaps “soft skills?” Nobody’s quite sure, writes Anya Kamenetz on NPR.

“Basically we’re trying to explain student success educationally or in the labor market with skills not directly measured by standardized tests,” says Martin West, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Credit: LA Johnson/NPR

Credit: LA Johnson/NPR

Laura Bornfreund, deputy director of education policy at the New America Foundation who prefers “Skills for Success,” says the different terms reflect “a lack of agreement on what really is most important to students.”

I’ve been visiting high-performing schools with lots of high-need students lately. Every single principal mentioned the importance of a “growth mindset” for teachers and students.

Many students say their classes are easy, writes Lisa Hansel on Core Knowledge blog. “Thanks to the self-esteem movement, the narrowing of the curriculum, and test-prep drills that focus more on strategies than on content, we now have a grit, character, team work, self-discipline, call-it-whatever-you-want problem.”

Trying to teach these skills and traits directly isn’t the solution, Hansel argues.

I had some easy history classes in middle school. Then I had a high school US history class with fact- and concept-heavy exams, quarterly debates, and a college-quality term paper (that was spread across the entire year so we were taught each step of the research and writing process). The class was not easy. It was also one of the best I ever took. Grit was necessary, but not the goal. We were given a goal that made us want to develop knowledge, skills, and grit: understanding America’s past and present so that we would be capable of helping shape a better tomorrow.

I think “executive functioning skills” such as planning, focusing attention and self-regulating are the key to success in school, college and life.

As Shakespeare turns 450, humanities are dying

In honor of William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, Jay Greene mourns the death of the humanities in U.S. schools.

He cites Harold Bloom: “Shakespeare not only invented the English language, but also created human nature as we know it today.”

“Teaching children about what it means to be a human being” isn’t important to “some of the more prominent” reform movements, writes Greene. They see school as “a mechanism for improving students’ economic prospects.” That’s not the most important element of education.

We aren’t gorillas, for whom zoo-keepers seek to optimize food, shelter, and longevity.  Unlike gorillas we are inclined to reflect on what our existence means and try to give that existence purpose.  Education should help guide us in doing that, not just train us to optimize food, shelter, and longevity by becoming the best future workers we can be.  To reflect on what it means to be a human being we need to learn the humanities, including history, literature, and art.

Few will admit hostility to the humanities, but “it is the dominant thrust in the 21st Century Skills movement, which is backed by the same people who gave us Common Core, with its shift away from literature to ‘informational texts’.”

Here’s a graphic that represents the key elements of 21st century learning:


Greene wonders where the humanities fit. The core subjects have to start with an “r” or deal with the 21st century.

I can’t understand my child’s teacher

At back-to-school night for her fifth-grader, Dahlia Lithwick felt like a dummy, she writes in Slate. She couldn’t understand what the teacher was saying.

The evening passed in a blur of acronyms, test names, and emendations to last year’s system. Which I also didn’t understand. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that I understood significantly less at this open house than I did at my sons’ open house during a sabbatical last year, when it took place overseas and in a foreign language.

Public education has been overwhelmed by jargon, she writes. There are more acronyms — MAP and SOL and EAPE—than words.

Even if we can all agree about the singular benefits of “project-based learning across the curriculum,” I am less than perfectly certain any of us knows what it means.

Her child’s school is now “un-levelling,” parents were told. And soon it will be “fitnessgram testing.”

I checked with friends this morning to find out if I was alone in my sense that I had fallen asleep in the late 1990s and woken to a world in which I have no idea what schools even do anymore. My friend Stephanie advised me that her back to school night involved a discussion with a teacher about “interfacing with a child’s developmental space,” as well as a reference to “scaffolding text to text connections” in Ramona the Pest. My friend Laurel was told by her child’s teachers that “the children will be required to work in groups in this class, as collaboration is a 21st-century skill.”

Lithwick plans to use an education jargon generator to prep for her first teacher conference, she writes.

I tried the jargon generator. “We will generate child-centered interfaces within the core curriculum,” it suggested. “We will expedite meaning-centered paradigms across the curricular areas.” It sounds perfectly plausible. “We will aggregate interdisciplinary enrichment through cognitive disequilibrium.” Indeed.

A portfolio of education words

What’s the difference between proficiency-based learning and brain-based learning? What are power standards?  What about 21st century skills? The Glossary of Education Reform for Journalists defines popular education terms.

There’s a page for abbreviations too. I didn’t know CFG, which is a term used by PLCs trying to meet GLEs through PBL, ELO, PLPs and other strategies.

A brand-new crossroads in education

According to Ken Kay (former president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills) and Bob Lenz, we face a crossroads with the implementation of the Common Core. We could focus on mapping the standards to curricula, or we could use the standards to transform teaching and learning. The authors cheer for the latter.

The common core can and should serve as a unique transformational opportunity for our nation’s teaching and learning systems. Educators who leverage these standards to teach and assess such competencies as critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration will lead the way to postsecondary and career success for more students.

They associate the second path with the 21st century and its attendant skills. Other details are unclear–for instance, what books they think would be good to read in literature and history classes.

But vagueness may be a 21st century skill in itself, if a satirical piece by Arnold Arons tells truth:

REPORTER: Dr. Platitudeford, how do you and your colleagues characterize the salient features of the instructional methods you advocate?

DR. PLATITUDEFORD: They are innovative, individualized, inquiry-oriented, performance-based, experiental, and unstructured.

Oops–this piece, “Educational Practices–An Expert View of Human Trends,” was published in 1973. (Hat tip to Richard Hake for bringing it to my attention a few months ago.)

Maybe we’re at a crossroads, but the two roads aren’t what Kay and Lenz suppose. Who knows what they are until we’ve traveled them a bit? There’s a chance, though, that they might be the well-worn roads of clarity and obfuscation.

Study art for art’s sake

Why study art? It’s not a way to boost math and reading scores, much less to prepare students for the 21st century workforce, writes Jay Greene. We’re trying to educate civilized human beings.

As he researches the effect of field trips to art museums on student learning, Greene encounters arts educators eager to climb on the economic utility bandwagon. Afraid art will be seen as a frill, they feel compelled to argue it’s a form of job training.

Most of what students learn in math and reading also has no economic utility.  Relatively few students will ever use algebra, let alone calculus, in their jobs.  Even fewer students will use literature or poetry in the workplace. When will students “use” history?  We don’t teach those subjects because they provide work-related skills. We teach algebra, calculus, literature, poetry, and history for the same reasons we should be teaching art — they help us understand ourselves, our cultural heritage, and the world we live in.  We teach them because they are beautiful and important in and of themselves.

Policymakers, pundits and others suffering from PLDD (petty little dictator disorder) use economic utility to club their critics into submission, Greene writes. Even math and reading must prove to be economically useful.

You have folks like Tony Wagner and the 21st Century Skills movement suggesting that we cut algebra because students won’t ‘need’ it.  Instead, students would be better off learning communication skills, like how to prepare an awesome Power Point (TM).  And you have Common Core cutting literature in English in favor of “informational texts.”

If the purpose of school is workforce prep, then let’s do away with it and set up apprenticeships, Greene writes.

His study asked 4,000 students to write short essays in response to Bo Bartlett’s painting, The Box.  “It may be harder to code and analyze essays about paintings than to run another value-added regression on the math and reading scores that the centralized authorities have collected for us, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less important.”


Real-world problems without much math

The new math skills map produced by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) does not help teachers teach Common Core State Standards (CCSS), writes Ben McCarty, a University of Memphis math professor, on the Common Core blog.  McCarty, who’s taught mathematics to first, second, and third-graders and to pre-service elementary teachers, says P21’s exercises are ill-defined, imprecise and not aligned with content.

Art from Bigstock.

The 8th grade example on page 12, for instance, engages students in a wonderful discussion about the health content of a typical fast food meal, but mathematically, students are only computing percentages and comparing them to daily values. That’s it. This activity is well below the 8th grade content standards in the CCSS.

Worse still, the 4th grade example on page 21 has students tallying the number of various types of media messages they are exposed to on a daily basis. Based on the description of the activity, no analysis is done with the data beyond basic counting–a Preschool/Kindergarten skill.

. . . Finally, the 12th grade example on page 23 has students collect and display data on developing countries, as well as build a web page to display the information.  The students don’t generate the data.  They don’t do calculations with the data.  They merely read about a poor country, and publish data on it.

“Simple arithmetic problems and routine data collection assignments” will not “prepare students for professional careers as engineers, doctors, software developers, and the like,” McCarty writes.


Educational insanity

After 20 years of education reform focused on reading and math — and billions of dollars in spending — NAEP results show little improvement, writes Lynne Munson of Common Core. It’s educational insanity, she writes, using Einstein’s definition: “Doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.”

We’ve tried to bring market pressures to bear through charters and choice.  We’ve attempted to set high standards and given high-stakes tests.  We’ve experimented with shrinking school and class sizes. We’ve focused on “21st century skills” and used the latest technologies. We’ve collected and analyzed data on an unprecedented scale.  We’ve experimented with a seemingly endless array of “strategies” for teaching reading and math and have tried to “differentiate” for every imaginable “type” of student. And we’ve paid dearly in tax dollars and in other ways for each of these “reforms.”

Interestingly, all of these reforms have one thing in common (aside from their failure to improve student performance except in isolated instances):  None deals directly with the content of what we teach our students.

Teaching knowledge “of things like standard algorithms, poetry, America’s past, foreign languages, great painters, chemistry, our form of government, and much more” works for all students, Munson writes, citing International Baccalaureate, Latin schools curricula and Core Knowledge. Ignoring curricular content is nuts.

Educators can’t predict 21st-century skills

“Educators make bad prognosticators,”  writes Christopher L. Doyle, who teaches history and contemporary issues, in an Education Week commentary.

. . .  when school “reformers” try to reorder education based on “21st-century skills,” or what some describe as “teaching tomorrow’s skills to today’s students,” they show not only lack of prescience, but also ignorance of the past.

History suggests that public schools don’t know what skills are needed for the future, Doyle writes. A century ago, educators, business leaders, and politicians wanted to reform education.

 They stressed “efficiency” (today called “efficacy”), competition and nationalism (today “competing in a global economy”), and following directions (today “respect” and sometimes “collaboration”).

It was great preparation for World War I.

Doyle’s agenda is to teach history well to “high school students whose intellectual world is increasingly fragmented into sound bites, PowerPoint bullets, text messages, Facebook posts, and ‘tweets,’ and who appear rapidly to be losing the capacity for lengthy reading, synthesis of thought, and critical analysis.”

My agenda also encompasses linking the past to current events such as climate change, economic and debt crises, and wars on terrorism. I aspire additionally to teach empathy and ethics, qualities that I believe the discipline of history is uniquely capable of developing. And I seek to improve my students’ skill at writing while sharpening their capacity for critical thought.

It may not be “21st century,” Doyle writes, but “it appears far more realistic and hopeful to stick to my subject than to chart a suspect course toward a badly drawn image of the future.”

Teaching skills without content

“Emma Bryant” (a pseudonym) teaches at a New Tech public high school — one of 62 in 14 states — devoted to “21st-century skills.” Knowledge? Not so much, she writes on the Common Core blog.

We practice project based learning, utilize the latest technology, and hold to a mission of helping our students acquire “21st century skills.”

Innovation, collaboration and critical thinking are stressed, leaving little time for literature, history, poetry, music or theater.  The theory is that “most content, after all, can be Googled.”

Roughly once a month we present students with a new project which must result in a “product.” According to our model the more “real world” the product, the better. Real world, meaning the product mirrors what could reasonably be demanded in a corporate setting — from a redesigned company logo and slogan to a promotional video or a press release.

Students work in small teams to complete projects, with each team member receiving the same grade at the end. After all, it’s not about what individual students learn but the final product. Students are assessed on a handful of learning outcomes — collaboration, communication, innovation, work ethic, technological literacy, information literacy and content. Content usually makes up between 15 and 30 percent of a student’s grade.

In a 21st century classroom, “content is a shopping list of rubric indicators to be applied to the product.”

For example, students might work a quote from a short story into a reworded company slogan. Or perhaps they might work with Photoshop to create a company logo depicting an event from European history. They might write a press release in the style of a founding American document or create a user’s manual for a product using a particular rhetorical device mentioned in our state’s English Language Arts standards.

Teachers don’t teach content directly. Students are supposed to learn in teams or on their own with little or no direction from the teacher.

Dialogue, questions, critical thinking, and debate surrounding content are low on the list of things you will see in a 21st century classroom. And so students end up with convoluted ideas about history, a cursory understanding of and appreciation for literature, and a shaky foundation in math and science.

Also see Critical Thinking: More Than Words? in Ed Week’s Leader Talk.