It’s been a rough couple of weeks for the 21st century skills movement. Last week, at an event hosted by Common Core, 21CS (embodied by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills) got pretty bloodied by the traditionalists who believe the teaching of soft 21CS mean denying our students much needed core content in reading, math, science, and the social sciences. The Core Knowledge Foundation was the first to weigh in (http://www.coreknowledge.org/blog/2009/02/25/21st-century-skills-fadbusters/ ) and Eduwonk has a powerful commentary on the event, and its implications for the future (http://www.eduwonk.com/2009/02/21st-century-skills-in-critical-condition.html ).
This week, the traditional media weighs in on the controversy. EdWeek’s Stephen Sawchuk has a terrific article on the throwdown in Education Week (http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2009/03/04/23pushback_ep.h28.html?r=1644068071 ) and USA Today’s Greg Toppo weighs in on the same debate this morning (http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2009-03-04-core-knowledge_N.htm ), pitting it as 21st century skills versus core knowledge.
Eduflack gets the controversy, don’t get me wrong. When we start talking about teaching our students “soft skills” in what is already a severely limited academic day, it sends chills down the spines of those who fear we are already falling down on the job when it comes to teaching our kids the basics. After all, who wants to substitute “world history with “Fun with Technology?” Who wants to forgo advanced science so we can teach “Interpersonal Communication?” And who would even think of sacrificing a foreign language so we can offer “Teamwork 101?”
At the end of the day, though, this is all a false debate. Do our students need 21st century skills, like teamwork, problem solving, critical thinking, and such? Yes. Are these skills that many have already been teaching for decades (thus questioning whether they are really 21st century skills)? Yes. Should we, or do we, sacrifice our core curriculum to offer this collection of soft skills in its stead? Of course not.
The debate over 21CS skills should not be one between one set of curricular goals versus the other. This isn’t core knowledge versus soft skills. No, our focus should be on how we teach those core subjects that are necessary. How do we teach math and science so that we better integrate technology and critical thinking skills? How do we teach the social sciences in a manner that focuses on project-based learning and team-based activities? How do we ensure that a 21st century student is not being forced to unplug when they enter the classroom, and instead uses the technologies and interests that drive the rest of their life to boost their interest and achievement in core academic subjects? And most importantly, how do we ensure all students are graduating with the content knowledge and skills needed to truly achieve in the 21st century economy?
If anything, 21CS is guilty of bad messaging and bad PR. In a time when everyone is concerned about both academic quality and relevance to the economy, many 21CS advocates remain focused on the need for soft skills, believing they have discovered some long, lost map to student success. In reality, they are calling for a reinforcement of the relevance of core instruction. Their message has been off, and as a result, they’ve painted a nice, large target on the back of a well-meaning concept.
How do we move beyond it? The first step is shifting from 21CS skills to STEM skills. Science-technology-engineering-math education is a strong attempt at unifying core curriculum (at least math and science) with those skills needed in today’s workforce. STEM literacy requires a keen understanding of core knowledge, along with an adeptness of 21CS. Most importantly, it is a concept that policymakers and business leaders understand and are starting to embrace, seeing that how a student applies knowledge is just as important as the knowledge they acquire.
Yes, STEM education faces similar criticism to 21CS, but that’s only because some haven’t seen strong, effective STEM education at work. It isn’t all keyboarding and web development. It is advanced math and science. It offers history lessons in technology. And it even figures out how to teach topics like mechanical engineering in relevant concepts for secondary school students. In its very soul, STEM is as core knowledge as it can be.
Regardless, this shouldn’t be an either/or debate. When we look at our K-12 schools, we look at the pipeline into postsecondary education, and we observe the ever-evolving demands for a skilled workforce, it is clear we have miles to go before we solve the problem. The answer is not more Latin, a better understanding of ancient Greek history, or a finer appreciation for the Great Books. The true answer is found in how use new technologies, new approaches, and altogether new ways to teach our core subjects. How do we cultivate new learning skills while reinforcing our tried-and-true curriculum? How do we better engage a 21st century student on that core knowledge that they just don’t have an interest in or don’t see the relevance of? How do we better engage students, rather than asking them to unplug and power down upon entering the schoolhouse doors?
What’s clear is the Partnership for 21CS is facing its last stand. Its positioning and messaging is quickly making it irrelevant, while stoking the engines of those who have long lept to the defense of a deeply held sense of our core academic curriculum. The Partnership needs to go back to the drawing board, build a new messaging platform, expand its pool of advocates and endorsers, and reassert its relevance in the debate on school improvement. Otherwise, it is just another good idea that will have failed because of bad execution and an inability to connect with both those who must lead the change and the students we are trying to impact with the reform.