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.”

Creativity without content

D-Ed Reckoning’s Ken DeRosa is a grinch.  He looks at a nice, little story about children’s creativity in a National Engineers Week Future City Competition and asks whether students are learning anything.

The competition challenges middle school students to design a city of the future with a focus on water conservation, reuse, and renewable energy. The students use the game SimCity (Deluxe 4) to help them build their three-dimensional models to scale. They have a semester to dream up and then construct their miniature cities entirely out of recycled materials. Supposedly, this inspires them to consider engineering as a profession.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette describes one entry, called L.U.R.E., set in New Mexico:

School is free for everyone, brought into individual homes via a holographic teacher. Nearly everyone in town is gainfully employed as an engineer.

Mountain goat racing and sand surfing satisfy a yen for sports and leisure. And if, for no apparent reason, you need a getaway, there’s the Space Shuttle Gilligan to whisk you on a four-month vacation to the moon…

Students used a Starbucks frappuccino cup to model a coffee shop; they made office buildings from paper towel rolls.

Students were supposed to be learning “how engineers turn ideas into reality.” But they didn’t need any engineering knowledge to build their models, DeRosa grumps.

It’s not as if they built a teaching hologram or used recycled materials to build a real building or designed systems to conserve water and use renewable energy.

My husband, born to be an engineer, built a color TV set when he was in high school.  It worked.  His father, also an engineer, built model planes as a teenager. They flew.

My first husband, a math-physics guy,  designed an atomic bomb in fifth grade for a school project. “It probably wouldn’t have worked,” he said. But he’d studied the science and the math.  It wasn’t an art project.