kitchen table math, the sequel: Jay Mathews on 21st century skils (again)

Monday, January 5, 2009

Jay Mathews on 21st century skils (again)

I am rooting for Jay Mathews, our bulwark against the wholesale infusion of 21st century skills into the schools:
Today on this page, we are ushering in the new year with the hottest trend in pedagogy, the latest program teachers are told they cannot live without. It is called 21st-century skills. Education policymakers, press agents and pundits can't get enough of it.

I am not so impressed. I have been writing cranky columns about 21st-century skills on calling the movement a pipe dream whose literature should be tossed in the trash. [ed.: I wouldn't call it a pipe dream. I would call it a boondoggle and an accountability-dodge. Not to mention anti-intellectual. An anti-intellectual, anti-accountablity 21st century boondoggle!]


[T]he marketing of the concept has not been entirely honest or wise. A sentence from a report by the Tucson-based Partnership for 21st Century Skills illustrates the problem: "Every aspect of our education system -- preK-12, postsecondary and adult education, after-school and youth development, workforce development and training, and teacher preparation programs -- must be aligned to prepare citizens with the 21st century skills they need to compete." This is the all-at-once syndrome, a common failing of reform movements. They say changes must be made all at once, or else. In this democracy, we never make changes all at once.

The Latest Doomed Pedagogical Fad: 21st-Century Skills
By Jay Mathews
Monday, January 5, 2009; Page B02

In a seventh-grade science class at Grace E. Metz Middle School in Manassas, 12-year-olds Chris Isaacson and Nathan McCallister were building a bridge out of 30 uncooked pieces of spaghetti. They had drawn several plans. After pushing down on the spaghetti from several angles, they decided that vertical struts were the best way to strengthen their bridge for the test: How many books could it hold before collapsing?

Which scientific principles were involved in their project? Nathan thought for a moment. "Gravity," he said. "It works against us." [ed.: time well spent]

It wasn't the weightiest observation, but it connected theory with the real world, which is exactly what "21st-century skills" -- this year's educational buzz phrase -- is all about, and why Manassas is trying to make it the core of its curriculum. President-elect Barack Obama (D) called for a "21st-century education system" in naming his new education secretary last month. The phrase "21st-century skills" gets 232,000 hits on Google. Problem is, not everyone is sure what the phrase means. [ed.: I am quite sure I know what it means: SMARTBoards, clickers, software, and Google. As opposed to books.]

The Web site of the Tucson-based Partnership for 21st Century Skills says the skills include creativity, innovation, critical thinking, problem-solving, communication and collaboration. [ed.: You can't learn that stuff from books!]

Who Profits Most?

Tom Pamperin, an English teacher at Chippewa Falls High School in Wisconsin, has been attending meetings on 21st-century skills and doesn't like what he hears:

If the emperor isn't exactly naked, his suit of clothes is hardly new. If the meaningless hype were all I objected to, I wouldn't be so worried. But I see a far more serious threat inherent here. When you look at the list of members (Adobe, Apple, Cable in the Classroom, Microsoft, Texas Instruments . . . ) in the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, it's clear that many of the organizations involved have a vested interest in pushing for a greater emphasis on technology. There is a lot of money to be made selling software, computers and high-tech gadgets to schools.

For example, [here are] some of the specific changes proposed by a Wisconsin state task force for the discipline of English: "Increase emphasis on students' reading . . . of complex texts in order to: . . . comprehend and communicate quantitative, technical, and mathematical information." And: "Increase emphasis on students' ability to produce complex texts . . . to communicate quantitative, technical, and mathematical information."

The various disciplines each offer a different lens through which students can view the world. You learn something different from literature than you do from math or science, and you learn it in a different way. But the 21st-century skills movement seems bent on reducing a wealth of knowledge and diversity of perspectives to a simple, business-minded set of skills. This would be great, obviously, for the corporate world. But since literature, art, music -- much of what defines the human experience -- are not useful in the boardroom, they won't be given much space in our public schools.

The Rush for '21st-Century Skills'
New Buzz Phrase Draws Mixed Interpretations From Educators


Tracy W said...

Definitely anti-intellectual. The pushers show no awareness that their 21st century skills are old hat.

Unless of course they meant 21st century B.C.

Anonymous said...

I always look at these things with concern about what this is going to displace in the classroom. Since we've arranged things so that time is a constant, something has got to go, right?

This leads to the next puzzling question which is; how does the next generation extend our knowledge if they're not grounded in what was displaced?

That last one is rhetorical.

If you displace enough stuff, the next generations will be eagerly engaged inventing new stuff like; wheels, and zero, and The Tale of Two Cities, and green horse drawn vehicles.

Tracy W said...

Actually as far as I can tell, schools have been trying to teach 21st century skills since probably the 21st century BC (ethics, reasoning, communication). 21st century skills are just a narrow subset of what is already being taught. Based on the advocates' apparent deep ignorance of history, I suspect they will badly teach the subset of skills they try to teach, even compared to traditional schools, but at least they can't fairly be accused of trying to cover new ground.

Anonymous said...

Aren't there really two domains for education? Let's call them the inside/outside domains.

The inside domain is everything you learn inside the confines of a formal education system. The outside domain is everything you learn everywhere else.

For the sake of a (perhaps too) simple analogy we could compare, say, hunting deer in the 18th century to learning Excel in the 21st century. I would posit that these are both in the 'outside' domain. I'm pretty sure that schools didn't teach hunting in any century. Even then, not everybody needed to learn it.

Similarly, Excel isn't something everybody needs to learn in the 21st century. You shouldn't bring that into the 'inside' domain, anymore than our ancestors would have entertained teaching hunting.

Schemes like 21st century learning are vocational training programs in disguise. They shift the outside stuff to the inside. They usurp individual responsibility to be life long learners in a Utopian dream to create complete 'product' at the end of the educational pipeline.

I have a daughter with a degree in chemistry, doing software project management. I have another, trained as an electronics engineer, who was a software engineer/product manager and is now going to Mass. General to become a PT. I have a son who didn't do much in school but now owns his own successful construction business. I've done microwave engineering, software engineering, management, and teaching.Nobody gets out of school fully formed and that's not its purpose is it?

The goal of formal education should be to produce thinkers equipped with enough juice to be self contained learning machines. It's madness to fatten the education sow beyond it's already grossly distorted, ineffective hulk by inserting another piglet that should be outside fending for itself.

Catherine Johnson said...

jeez, this entire comment thread needs to go "up front" -- but I have to pack!

on an utterly prosaic note, C. studied PowerPoint for 3 years in middle school & it turns out he's "not very good at PowerPoint."

That's a quote.

Catherine Johnson said...

Apparently discovery learning isn't any more effective with PowerPoint than it is with long division.

Catherine Johnson said...

I picked up a cool factoid.

The "real" name for the professions is the "liberal professions." Law & medicine are liberal professions (not sure whether engineering is considered a liberal profession -- ?)

The reason they are called the liberal professions is that they are descended from the liberal arts.

Literature, history, science, math, philosophy: these "subjects" are the DNA of the jobs many students will one day hold.

Catherine Johnson said...

So I'd really like kids to be studying math, science, literature, history, philosophy, music, and art instead of Excel.

Catherine Johnson said...

I spoke to a friend today who said her daughter is transferring out of her theater arts program to another college where she will major in social justice.

Catherine Johnson said...

I say shame on any "college" that allows students to major in social justice.

Independent George said...

Does this mean that Matthews now concedes the existence of constructivism?

Tracy W said...

Catherine - if law and medicine are the liberal professions, what are some of the definitely non-liberal professions?

Barry Garelick said...

Does this mean that Matthews now concedes the existence of constructivism?

Good point!!

My bet is he will continue to deny it. He'll probably say what he's talking about in his column are superfluous subjects in schools. But it's definitely worth asking him. I shall try and see what he says.

Stay tuned

VickyS said...

Paul, your comments are right on! Like so many others here, I really enjoy the way you frame these issues. Thanks for sharing (seriously).

While I've never thought of the outside/inside analogy, I have noticed that some of these so-called 21st century skills (soft skills) were historically developed in extracurricular activities. You learned team work by (gasp) being *on* an athletic, dance or chess team; you learned leadership (if you wished; if we are all leaders who brings up the rear?) by serving as class president or organizing a bake sale; collaboration was learned through being in the class play or decorating the gym for the school dance.

That left classroom time for the real work of school.

Another way that some of us parents look at it is that what used to be the domain of home (projects, activities, trips to the museum, community service, arts and crafts) is now the stuff of school, and what was the stuff of school (reading, writing, 'rithmatic) is now pretty much what we do at home.

Anonymous said...

Sort of like Through The Looking Glass, isnt' it?

Gargantuan bureaucracies are like basements. The amount of stuff you put in them is directly proportional to their volumes. Since public education is also a monopoly its 'basement' never gets cleaned. It just keeps expanding to make room for all that stuff that never gets used.

SteveH said...

I see the push for 21st century skills as part of their grand scheme of things; process over content. Instead of teaching the details of learning to write, they do creative writing (no grammar, spelling, or content requirements) on a school-created blog (sixth grade). My son told me yesterday that he can do a web page instead of a regular book report. Social studies reports are done with PowerPoint. Part of their goal is to do something (anything) to get kids excited about learning, but, unfortunately, this isn't used as a path to higher expectations.

21st century tools should allow a school to make learning more deep and intense. It does the opposite. It takes away.

My son won't like it when I force him to not only create the web page, but to write content that could stand alone, without links and pretty pictures. The school doesn't do that. To a school, 21st century skills allow them to push process over mastery. Since they don't increase expectations, content loses out to process, and it all sounds so high tech, modern, and new.

I was in college when calculators took over sliderules. It was a great change. Classes could attack much more complex tasks that were impossible to do with a sliderule. This doesn't happen in K-12. Calculators are used as avoidance tools, not to make learning deeper or more complex. Schools could have kids tackle much larger and realistic data sets, but no, they still have kids collect small, meaningless datasets where they could still do the calculations by hand.

For writing, teachers could require students to email their assignments to the teacher who could quickly make suggestions and email the results back to the kids. More and faster iterations would mean more learning.

21st century skills (and expectations) are a two-way street. Wouldn't it be nice if schools required teachers to keep their information up-to-date? We don't look at it anymore because there is bound to be something wrong. And wouldn't it be nice to see curriculum maps and/or class syllabi on line. Our school doesn't even have the January lunch menu online yet. Imagine what would happen if your children were so late with their work.

21st century skills should mean more, not less. It doesn't happen.

Paul B made this interesting comment.

"Schemes like 21st century learning are vocational training programs in disguise."

Vocational training is all about process and not content. But do teachers think that this is what they are doing? They claim otherwise with their talk of discovery and understanding. Is it because they think that process, not content or mastery of basic skills is the basis for true understanding?

They talk about learning to learn, as if all you need is process. But how do you learn to learn how to write? How do you do it for math? Calculators don't help you learn how to learn. A word processor doesn't help you learn how to write. Used in a certain way, they could help speed the process of learning or allow you to tackle more difficult goals, but I don't see that happening. You can't dismiss calculators or word processors out-of-hand, but I currently see their use as taking away, rather than adding to education.