What’s Wrong with 21st Century Skills?

Recently, there seems to be growing momentum against the notion of 21st century skills in our K-12 classrooms.  Some find the term just to be a little too trite for their tastes.  Others believe it moves away from the classically liberal arts education, like literature and history, that K-12 was designed for more than a century ago.  And still others think that it is code for turning our high schools into trade schools.

So Eduflack asks the question, what’s wrong with 21st century skills?  We hear time and again that other nations are eating our collective school lunches when it comes to international benchmarks such as TIMSS and PISA.  We worry about how our kids stack up when it comes to math and science and such, worrying that more jobs may either be eliminated or relocated.  We wonder what jobs will be out there when they do graduate, and whether they will be competitive enough to secure those jobs.
In last year’s Quality Counts, EdWeek gave my home state of Virginia an “F” when it came to college preparedness of our students.  In my previous work with the Virginia Department of Education, I heard time and again from businesses in the Commonwealth that today’s high school graduates simply don’t have the skills necessary to fill today’s jobs, let alone tomorrow’s jobs.  Nationally, our high school drop-out rate is still about one-third, meaning one in three students never gains that diploma in the first place.  And for those who get through high school and do move on to postsecondary education, more than half of them need remedial English or math courses when arriving at their higher education institution of choice.
So, again, what is wrong with 21st century skills for our 21st century schools?  Better yet, what is wrong with defining what 21st century skills really are, at least as they relate to today’s K-12 students?
Reading, math, and science are all 21st century skills.  The ability to use technology is a 21st century skill.  Soft skills like problem solving and teamwork and critical thinking and such are 21st century skills as well.  The problem we have is that when we talk about 21st century skills, too many people think we are talking about skills newly discovered in the 21st century.  That just isn’t the case.  Yes, we are talking about core skills that have been around since Plato.  But that doesn’t mean the skills aren’t as relevant today as they were a millennia or two ago.  It just means we need to starting thinking about them and teaching them in new or different ways that make them more relevant in our 21st century world.
In recent weeks, I’ve talked with a good friend who is a former urban superintendent about the future of classroom instruction.  One of his top concerns is the belief that we are “un-plugging” our students once they enter schools.  Here at Eduflack, we’ve used the term “de-skilling.”  For many, this boils down to the issue of technology in the classroom.  When you have students living on computers and MP3s and instant messaging and cell phones, and you have a world and an economy that are equally reliant on the same, where is the logic of putting away all that technology between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m.  and teaching reading, math, science, and social studies through 19th century delivery mechanisms?  
Concern on the issue is redoubled when we consider the changing face of the American classroom teacher.  Across the nation, school districts have been experiencing significant retirements and a new face on the teaching workforce.  Incoming teachers, particularly in our urban districts, have been brought up on computers and cell phones.  They’ve likely never used a card catalog, and many of them do not take a daily newspaper.  But that doesn’t mean they are informationally deprived.  They simply get their data through other sources, through 21st century sources aligned with their interests, their skills, and the world in which they live.
I am no shrinking violet when it comes to the advocacy for STEM education and the need to ensure every student is STEM literate.  For me, this isn’t just an issue for the future rocket scientists and brain surgeons of the world.  Even that student looking to work on the manufacturing line next to his father is going to need STEM skills in our new economy.  Every student benefits from STEM literacy, regardless of their future education, career, or life path.  That includes providing them the soft and the content skills that we define as 21st century skills.  More importantly, it requires a new way to deliver the content that, for decades, has been deemed essential learning.
What does all this mean?  Ultimately, when we talk about 21st century skills, we aren’t talking about new sets of content and new academic areas of study.  Sure, topics such as engineering still have yet to really be defined in a K-12 environment (and we clearly don’t have a praxis for secondary school engineering teachers), but we are still talking about core academics like reading, writing, math, science, and the social sciences.  At its heart, 21st century skills is about a new delivery system.  It is about moving beyond the chalkboard to the interactive white board.  It is about moving from the card catalog to the World Wide Web.  And it is about moving from rows and rows of single desks into groups of interactive, collaborative students progressing beyond rote memorizations into critical thinking and higher-level learning.  
Ultimately, it is about delivering our core education in a 21st century world through 21st century means.  An education more relevant and interesting for students.  An education more engaging and empowering for teachers  An education more applicable and valued in the economy.  If 21st century skills is a code, then it is simply code for skills that are relevant and outcome-based for all those involved in the learning process.  That is the sort of progress we should be investing in.

One thought on “What’s Wrong with 21st Century Skills?

  1. Patrick, no one will sensibly argue that kids should be tech savvy critical thinkers, collaborators and problem solvers. When has that ever NOT been the purpose of a sound education? The mischief comes in when ideas like this become the New Thing and an excuse (or misunderstood) to justify moving away from a content-rich curriculum. Years ago, I sat through a PD where we teachers were told there would be “no more trivial pursuit” in the teaching of social studies. Instead of boring kids with facts about the War of 1812 (like that ever happened) it was more important for students to wrestle with “essential “questions like ‘Is war ever justified.'” Besides the obvious problem — how can you have even an ill-informed opinion about war without any content knowledge on the subject — there’s the problem that what people hear is that content doesn’t matter. “We don’t need to teach subject matter, we’re all about 21st century skills!” That’s a dangerous and ultimately self defeating message. We’ve written a lot about this at the Core Knowledge Blog. I also recommend Dan Willingham’s take on this at Britannica Blog.http://www.britannica.com/blogs/author/dwillingham

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