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?


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.