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.


3 Rs, 4 Cs and the arts

P21 (Partnership for 21st Century Skills) has released a skills map for the arts, which shows “how the three Rs and four Cs (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration and creativity and innovation) can be fused within arts curriculum.”

. . . at the fourth-grade level, students could be asked to perform and record the same story three times; once with words only, once with physical movement only, and once with both. They then review the different performances and reflect in group discussions and individual writing about how the presentations and story changed and whether or not one version communicated more effectively than another and why.

At the eighth-grade level, students could be asked to examine how composers, artists, choreographers, and playwrights use the arts to communicate particular ideas, themes, or concepts and to evoke particular emotions or feelings. They then would develop multimedia presentations illustrating how such communication occurs through each of the arts disciplines.

In twelfth grade, students could be asked to view and discuss single or multiple works of art created by themselves and their peers. Students would be required to use mutually agreed upon criteria (elements and principals of art and design, subject matter, technique, style, etc.) to describe, analyze, interpret, and make informed judgments about the art works.

This seems a little 22nd century to me.

Common Core challenges P21

Today Common Core released a letter calling on P21 and other advocates of 21st century skills to “reshape their effort by putting knowledge and skills together at the core of their work.” It is signed by an array of educators, advocates, scholars, and policymakers, including E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Chester E. Finn, Jr., Sol Stern, Sandra Stotsky, Diane Ravitch, Daniel Willingham, Randi Weingarten, Jason Griffiths, Lynne Munson, and Mark Bauerlein. I signed it too, so I won’t comment on it; I simply encourage you to read it!

And over at the Core Knowledge blog, Robert Pondiscio makes a compelling argument that the key difference between advocates and critics of the 21st century skills movement is “one of orientation”–and no trivial matter.

Update: The letter inspired the first-ever sing-along on the Core Knowledge blog.

Not new, just 21st century

“Has the P21 movement succeeded?” asks National Journal. Many experts weigh in.

According to Ken Kay and Paige Johnson, P21 never claimed “21st century skills” were new. (Then why, I wonder, do P21 publications abound with phrases such as “21st century skills,” “21st century learning,” “21st century context,” “21st century tools,” and “21st century assessments”? If P21 is not claiming these skills are new, why the insistent repetition of the epithet?)

Such obfuscation does not fool everyone. Jay Mathews writes that “the marketing of the concept has not been entirely honest or wise.” He further points to P21’s insistence that we adopt this agenda immediately and in full; this he calls an “all-at-once syndrome, a common failing of reform movements.”

I see a connection between the “21st century” epithet and the insistence on immediate, all-at-once adoption of the platform. It is easier to market something when presenting it as novel, belonging to the moment, essential to our times.

Here are some brief quotes from NJO—but go read them in full.

Andrew Rotherham: “When one scratches below the surface of the debate you quickly find non-trivial debates about content, knowledge, pedagogy, and the nature of teaching itself.”

Diane Ravitch: “Our children are not deficient in skills or in computer literacy; they know better than their parents how to use computers to access information. Unfortunately what they lack is the knowledge with which to evaluate the information they so easily access.”

Phil Cuon: “Today’s young people enter our schools as “digital natives”—students who embrace technology and can do so much more with it than we would ever think possible. I am convinced that the physiology behind their learning is much different than what my learning was due to the tactile, audio, and visual media that young people are exposed to from birth.”

Paige Johnson: “If others truly believe that this work is not important or that the issue is not a significant one – I ask that they please direct me to evidence that proves all of our students are critical thinkers, able to solve complex issues, financially literate, understand and respect diversity, and manage themselves and others while working in team situations. Show me the statistics that prove that any student can step forward and be a future leader.”

Lynne Munson: “We and other critics of P21 agree, and have stated repeatedly, that the skills P21 promotes are important. What we take issue with is P21’s unserious treatment of subject matter content.”

21st century science, geography

Partnership for 21st Century Skills has come out with science and geography road maps that show how to integrate “new” skills into old subjects. Last year’s maps covered English Language Arts and social studies. Math is in the works.

The science and geography maps provide educators with teacher-created models of how 21st century skills can be infused into instruction and highlight the critical connections between science, geography and 21st century skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and communication.

There’s no content, complains Common Core. Instead, P21 explains that learning skills is more important than “acquiring information” and “assessing to learn what students do not know.” 

So, under P21’s plan, students will learn less and their knowledge gaps will go undetected. 

Common Core also wonders how students can learn from the suggested activities if they haven’t acquired any information.

The fourth-grade science activity is light on science:

 Students in the class role-play citizens in a town meeting where members of the community express different points of view about a local issue, such as the location of a new school, building a bypass for traffic, or a re-zoning of downtown to be “pedestrian only” without vehicles, etc.

Eighth-grade science focuses on how a citizen evalutes scientific claims, not how to be a scientist. Most of us will be, at best, informed citizens, but what about the students who want to do science?

Students view video samples from a variety of sources of people speaking about a science-related topic (e.g., news reporters, news interviews of science experts, video podcasts of college lectures, segments from public television documentaries, or student-made videos of parents and professionals in their community). Students rate the videos on the degree to which the person sounded scientific…

A proposed 12th-grade geography activity asks students to conduct a survey to ”test the law of retail gravitation (i.e., the number of visits a resident makes to competing shopping centers is inversely proportional to the distances between residence and center and proportional to the size of the center).” That is, people will travel longer distances to visit a large shopping center with many choices than to go to a small shopping center.

Given the percentage of young Americans who can’t find Iraq and Iran on a map — much less tell the difference between them — mastery of retail geography seems a bit esoteric.

P21 in control

Partnership for 21st Century Skills would control “hundreds of millions in federal tax dollars” under Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s  21st Century Skills Incentive Fund Act, warns Common Core’s Lynne Munson.

. . .  if P21 doesn’t sign off on a particular state’s approach to integrating 21st century skills into its standards, tests, etc., that state would be ineligible to apply for federal incentive funds.  And corporate donations supporting that state’s efforts to adopt 21st century skills would not be tax-deductible — in other words, they would cease to exist.

Why give a private group with a controversial set of priorities that kind of control over federal dollars?

Search, cut, paste

Fur is flying over a Partnership for 21st Century Skills’ talk to the National Education Association.  Though reporters were not invited, Lynne Munson wrote on Common Core that P21′s “Paige Kuni explained that in the ‘search cut and paste environment’ students . . . only need to know ‘enough of the most crucial information’.”

She didn’t say who decides when enough is enough or what P21 considers crucial. Is it enough earth science to know that the earth is round? Enough literature to have heard of Shakespeare? Enough history to know that we once fought a civil war because the North and South disagreed about something?

. . .  In their remarks, none of the panelists mentioned science, geography, foreign languages, history, literature, art, civics — the list goes on and on.

Kuni responded in a Flypaper comment.

. . . I believe that students absolutely need to be taught content in combination with instruction that leads to 21st century skills like critical thinking, innovation, and collaboration. I believe that by creating schools that adopt the approaches P21 supports, students will be able to make connections of how a changing form makes butterflies more successful in the ecosystem. That they can think critically about how life cycles connect to evolution. And that they could extrapolate to other topics such as how product lifecycles in business are the same or different from butterfly lifecycles in making companies successful. When they are 25 if they cannot recall the name of one-step in the lifecycle, it isn’t important as long as they possess the learning skills that allow them to access that information when they need it (search- cut- paste).

Eduwonk sees common ground — if P21 adherents get a lot more specific about how students are going to learn the content that’s essential to thinking critically or creatively.

Robert Pondiscio, who’s back and blogging, muses about resistance to “content.” Personally, I prefer “knowledge.”

Flawed assumptions

After a Common Core discussion of 21st century skills, cognitive scientist Dan Willingham attacks the “flawed assumptions” of  the influential Partnership for 21st-Century Skills (P21) on Britannica Blog.

1. Knowledge and skills are separate.

No, “thinking skills are intertwined with domain knowledge,” Willingham argues. Those who forget that are likely to neglect the need for knowledge on the theory that “students can always google the facts, so teachers can focus on skills.”

2. Teachers don’t have cognitive limits.

P21 encourages teachers to use “incredibly demanding” teaching methods that can’t be used effectively without preparation and training, writes Willingham. These include small-group projects and student-directed learning.

. . .  teachers already believe the teaching methods promoted by P21 are the best ones. They are taught as much during their training. Yet classroom observation studies show that very few teachers use them, almost certainly because they are so difficult to use.

3. Experience is equivalent to practice.

Just because students do something doesn’t mean they’re learning, Willingham writes.

Practice entails trying to improve: noticing what you’re doing wrong, and trying different strategies to do better. It also entails meaningful feedback, usually from someone knowledgeable about the skill. This means that 21st-century skills like “working well in groups,” or “developing leadership,” will not be developed simply by putting people in groups or asking them to be leaders. Students must be taught to do these things. We simply don’t know how to teach leadership or collaboration the way that we know how to teach algebra or reading.

P2′s goals — “real world problem-solving and critical thinking skills” — have been goals for the last century, Willingham writes. People have tried for years to make P21′s methods work in the classroom with little success.

Another Common Core participant, educational historian Diane Ravitch, calls 21st century skills an “old familiar song” – and one that’s badly off key.  Hostile to learning subject matter, education professors “have numbed the brains of future teachers with endless blather about process and abstract thinking skills.”

We have taught them about graphic organizers and Venn diagrams and accountable talk, data-based decision-making, rubrics, and leveled libraries . . .  We have neglected to teach them that one cannot think critically unless one has quite a lot of knowledge to think about. One thinks critically by comparing and contrasting and synthesizing what one has learned. One must know a great deal before she or he can begin to reflect on its meaning and look for alternative explanations.

On her Bridging Differences blog, Ravitch thinks critically: Are “21st century skills” a way to derail “the effort to develop meaningful and reasonable academic standards by replacing them with vague and pleasing-sounding goals?”

In the Common Core question period, teacher Diana Senechal discussed lesson plans she found on the P21 site.

One activity was to have students read a story or play, then make a commercial or video with Claymation figures. Diana asked, “Why not discuss the ideas in the story instead of spending hours making Claymation figures?” Which approach is likelier to engage students in thinking critically? It seemed to me that she was spot-on.

Willingham suggests writing state standards that “delineate conceptual knowledge and factual knowledge, and make clear how the two are related,”  and give teachers the training and time to learn how to teach the standards.

Beyond that, he urges states to start small, with a meaningful assessment to judge whether students really are learning “21st century skills.”

Core Knowledge has more on the “fadbusters” discussion and on asking teachers to do the nearly impossible.

If we’re serious about closing the achievement gap and raising the level of performance of American education, we can’t be serious about asking teachers to walk on water and labeling them failures when they drown.

Eduwonk has lots more.