Twenty-first century skills seems to be the topic of the day again today. Over at Fordham Foundation’s Flypaper, Mike Petrilli takes a vastly different point of view from dear ole Eduflack, boiling down the issue of 21st century skills to making our kids tech savvy (http://www.edexcellence.net/flypaper/index.php/2009/01/the-conceit-of-21st-century-skills/#comments). I agree with Petrilli. Today’s students don’t need any help at all figuring out how technology works. My two-and-a-half year old son is already more skilled on the iPhone than the eduwife, knowing perfectly well how to turn it on, get it out of sleep mode, and flip through the pages to get to his favorite game (the one with the rabbit eating the carrots and dodging the cans, for those in the real know).
And Robert Pondiscio over at Core Knowledge blog comments on my earlier posting about the real dangers of sacrificing content in the name of 21st century skills. Again, I agree with Pondiscio’s premise and point. But one can teach the finer points of the War of 1812 beyond the chalkboard and mimeographed pages. Content still remains king, but we also need to take a careful look at delivery.
We’re seeing the shift in our assessments, as bubble sheets are giving way to computer-based exams. We’re able to use technology to determine student reading levels. And states like Florida and Alabama are now requiring virtual education as part of their curriculum, with the latter now requiring virtual education as part of graduation requirements. That, my friends, is 21st century skills, gaining the content knowledge we’ve prized for decades through new channels and new technologies. Imagine the difference of studying the Civil War from a classroom in Minnesota, using a tattered grade reader and a chalkboard, versus learning it in a virtual environment with students who live around the block from the very battle sites you are studying, where you can access Brady photographs and clips from Ken Burns’ Civil War series. That learning 21st century skills. It’s all in the delivery.
This week’s Education Week has another interesting take on 21st century skills. Stephen Sawchuk has a piece on how teachers in my former home state of West Virginia are adapting their practice to better meet our 21st century world. And Sawchuk has one paragraph that helps sum it up:
Business leaders and policymakers more and more say those higher-order, critical-thinking, communication, technological, and analytical skills are the ones crucial for students to master as they enter a service-oriented, entrepreneurial, and global workplace.
I appreciate the sentiments recently offered by Petrilli, Pondiscio, WaPo’s Jay Mathews, and Andy Rotherham. This is a real discussion that those committed to education improvement should be having. How do we continue to adapt and improve classroom curriculum to ensure rigorous, relevant courses that hold a student’s interest? How do we ensure the core content areas we all know are important –the reading, literature, math, science, and social sciences — remain in the curriculum and are effectively consumed by our students. Current student performance scores show that the old way of delivering such content isn’t working with every student. If we are going to close achievement gaps, boost performance numbers, and improve graduation rates, perhaps we need to rethink how we are delivering the content. Some may call that a semantic matter of packaging, but I see it as a core part of 21st century skills. 21CS is about how we deliver content, not what we are delivering.