Missing Skills

I wonder if the panel working on our Portrait of a Graduate (see the previous post) has read this.

At the end of 2012, Forbes presented a list of The 10 Skills That Will Get You Hired In 2013. Since Forbes magazine says they are “The Capitalist’s Tool”, and education exists to support the American economy, we need to pay attention to their advice, right?

Anyway, cynical ramblings aside, I know we are past 2013 but things didn’t change that much in the past twelve months, so here are the skills a major business publication says our graduates should have to make them employable.

No. 1 Critical Thinking (found in 9 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 2 Complex Problem Solving (found in 9 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 3 Judgment and Decision-Making (found in 9 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 4 Active Listening (found in 9 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 5 Computers and Electronics (found in 8 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs) – according to Forbes this includes knowledge of circuit boards, processors, electronic equipment and computer hardware including applications and programs.

No. 6 Mathematics (found in 6 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 7 Operations and Systems Analysis (found in 5 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 8 Monitoring (found in 5 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs) – the monitoring and assessing performance of yourself, other individuals or organizations to make improvement or take corrective action.

No. 9 Programming (found in 3 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 10 Sales and Marketing (found in 2 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

Education reformers and school administrators like to talk about many of these skills, often under the umbrella of “21st century something”. However, the fact of the matter is that most students will never be asked to develop or use these abilities during their time in a K12 classroom.

Remember, what gets tested, gets taught, and of these ten, only a whiff of number 6 will appear on most standardized tests.

Learning 16th Century Skills

Although the language of education changes over time, some educliches just seem to endure far past the point of holding any real meaning. And one my favorites* seem to be making a big comeback around here: 21st century skills.

Recently our department here in the overly-large school district was given the areas on which we are to focus in the coming year (and maybe beyond, depending on how long the current big boss is in his position), and listed in several places is that phrase. Associated with it is our task: “Identifying strategies for teacher to use to integrate communications, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity skills into the curriculum”.

Beyond the constant use of a vaguely defined phrase that is at least 12 years past it’s expiration date, there are two major problems with this particular element of our discussion.

First, none of those skills are unique to the 21st century. A successful person at any point in human history was skillful at communicating, working with others, critically assessing the world, and finding creative ways to deal with new situations. They also made use of whatever technologies were available at the time to do all that. We want our kids to do the same throughout their lives with the most effective tools they have at hand.

An even larger issue is that last part about integrating all those skills “into the curriculum”.

Our curriculum, as in most K12 institutions in this country, is still very much a teacher-directed, fact-driven relic of the previous century. Or maybe even from the 19th. Everything is laid out in the “program of studies” and “pacing guides”, scripts that set the content and direction of learning from day one through day 180.

However, there’s a big disconnect. Those so-called “21st century” skills (aka the “4 C’s”) are best learned by doing. By interacting with ideas and solving problems that don’t necessarily have one simple answer. By finding and assessing information, and then creating new ways to use and communicate it.

If we are really serious about students learning these “new” skills, the current curriculum is largely worthless. It is chock full of easily googleable trivia and the primary skill being taught is how to play the testing game, to analyze packaged questions and select the “right” answers.

We need to totally rethink the definition of what is essential for students to know and be able to do when they graduate and that will not come from trying to graft a collection of cliches to the antiquated process we now call school.

* If by “favorite” you mean I want to scream whenever someone uses it.

21st Century is Done

For anyone else who is sick of educational “leaders” mindlessly spouting off about “21st century” something, send a link to this piece from The Huffington Post to all of them.

I’m tempted to send just the opening paragraph to our new superintendent and assorted assistant supers prior to the district’s leadership conference next August.

It’s not rational, but I’ll admit that whenever I hear “21st century classroom” or “21st century skills” — I tense up. Why? Because we are starting the 13th year of this “future” century. It’s empty phraseology designed to sound like we are preparing for the future when we are already living in that future; and no one believes that what passes for a typical classroom today will be the classroom experience even 10 years from now, let alone for the next 87 years. We can’t know what the classroom will look or feel like. We do know, however, that most school districts are organized to deliver education that inhibits rather than encourages innovation. That needs to change.

Real change. Not more of the empty phraseology lurking behind the common-corization, race-to-the-topping of American education. 

More Thoughts on Communications

In a comment on yesterday’s rant about my new big boss’ slightly retro communications style, Doug told me to cut the guy some slack. At least his newsletter wasn’t printed.

Later, in a post on his own site, Doug expanded on his point that he has many different options, each with their own purpose and weaknesses.

Yet these “21st Century” tools have their limitations. Twitter assumes your message needs no more nuance or detail than what 140 characters can convey – and that your entire staff will “follow” you. The Facebook fan page is fine if your school doesn’t block Facebook, you really don’t want any feedback, and that your entire staff will “friend” you. Blogs, podcasts, or infographics are great communication tools provided they are supplemented by and additional communication method that allows readers to know they have been updated. I rather doubt all my staff regularly have or check RSS feed readers.

I don’t disagree with any of this, or the idea that “Just because it’s old, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.”.

However, the fact that the boss and the rest of our district leadership seem to automatically fall back on static, one-way communications tools is somewhat disingenuous. As I noted in my post, these are the same people who tell the community how students need to learn “21st century skills”. They need to practice their preaching.  

On the other side of things, I’m also frustrated by many of my colleagues in the department and elsewhere who, as Doug noted don’t use RSS or other aggregation tools. Many people I speak to don’t even have a basic understanding of the concept.

This is not new technology. Blogs, audio and video sharing, social sharing, along with RSS have become the basic building blocks of modern communications and I think an understanding of them should be considered part of basic adult literacy. Certainly they are alternatives to be considered, along with email and pdf, when discussing how to better connect with a community.

BTW, I did suggest to the boss that he write a blog instead of a weekly newsletter and he agreed to consider the idea. I call that progress.

Expanding the Concept of Literacy

In the title of a piece on the Time web site, the writer declares ‘Digital Literacy’ Will Never Replace the Traditional Kind’, which is a classic strawman since you would be hard pressed to find even the most ardent supporter of instructional technology claiming that it should.

However, I’m not even sure there is such a thing as “digital literacy”.  The “traditional kind” of literacy is defined at it’s most basic level as the ability to read and write. In other words, the ability to communicate with other people.

Increasingly students (and adults for that matter) need to know how to communicate using a variety of both analog and digital tools (including audio and video) to be considered literate, which expands the standard definition rather than replacing it.

Among all the straw, the writer actually tries to get at this point, although in a very condescending manner.

There is no doubt that the students of today, and the workers of tomorrow, will need to innovate, collaborate and evaluate, to name three of the “21st century skills” so dear to digital literacy enthusiasts.

Please name a few of those “digital literacy enthusiasts”. And why the skills usually lumped under the “21st century” label are necessarily digital. Or in any way different from those required by successful adults in the 18th, 19th, or 20th century, distinctly non-digital periods of history.

Anyway, she continues…

But such skills can’t be separated from the knowledge that gives rise to them. To innovate, you have to know what came before. To collaborate, you have to contribute knowledge to the joint venture. And to evaluate, you have to compare new information against knowledge you’ve already mastered. Nor is there any reason that these skills must be learned or practiced in the context of technology. Critical thinking is crucial, but English students engage in it whenever they parse a line of poetry or analyze the motives of an unreliable narrator. Collaboration is key, but it can be effectively fostered in the glee club or on the athletic field. Whatever is specific to the technological tools we use right now — and these tools are bound to change in any case — is designed to be easy to learn and simple to use.

Very true. None of those activities require computers, networks, and communications tools.

Unless, of course, you want to involve students with people and information outside of the relatively limited walls of their school building. And expand their literacy skills beyond basic reading and writing.

School Choice

It could be this year’s graduation time meme, or simply that many outlets are reproducing a single AP article, but there currently seems to be much discussion of whether sending every high school graduate off to college is really worth it.

Is a four-year degree required to learn the skills necessary for success in one of the professions most likely to have openings?

Professor Lerman, the American University economist, said some high school graduates would be better served by being taught how to behave and communicate in the workplace.

Such skills are ranked among the most desired — even ahead of educational attainment — in many surveys of employers. In one 2008 survey of more than 2,000 businesses in Washington State, employers said entry-level workers appeared to be most deficient in being able to “solve problems and make decisions,” “resolve conflict and negotiate,” “cooperate with others” and “listen actively.”

Yet despite the need, vocational programs, which might teach such skills, have been one casualty in the push for national education standards, which has been focused on preparing students for college.

However, as the Times article points out, suggesting that some students might be better served with a post-high school education that doesn’t involve greeks bearing drinks doesn’t go over well in this country.

Politicians and education “experts” repeatedly drill home to parents in the US that their kids will be failures without a college degree.  And in many schools here in Lake Wobegon East, discussing vocational programs is almost grounds for dismissal.

Maybe instead we should provide some clear options for high school students and then help them understand their alternatives so they can make realistic choices.

But Ms. Williams [a counselor at a high school in suburban New York City with a student body that is mostly black or Hispanic] said she would be more willing to counsel some students away from the precollege track if her school, Mount Vernon High School, had a better vocational education alternative. Over the last decade, she said, courses in culinary arts, nursing, dentistry and heating and ventilation system repair were eliminated. Perhaps 1 percent of this year’s graduates will complete a concentration in vocational courses, she said, compared with 40 percent a decade ago.

Of course automatically advising any student away from considering college is serving them just as poorly as making college their only post-secondary option.

We need to return to offering kids some middle ground.

Please Stop Saying That

As 2009 and the aughts come to a close, lots of people are presenting retrospectives on the year and decade past.

A few pundits and experts (not necessarily the same thing) are offering predictions of what to expect ahead.

This rant is neither of those.

Instead I have a request in the form of a short list of phrases that need to be retired from the public lexicon as we begin 2010.

21st Century skills

As we enter the second decade of the century, this is a cliche that has lost whatever meaning it might have had. Mostly it’s used by politicians and education experts as a catch-all for whatever concept they’re currently pushing.

The skills most often included – creativity, critical thinking, communication, etc. – are nothing unique to this century.

And they are, for the most part, the diametrical opposite of the test-driven crap that has been passed off as education reform during the past decade.

digital native/digital immigrant

As outlined in the original 2001 article, Marc Prensky’s concept of how kids differ from adults in their use of technology had some validity.

Today, it’s degenerated into another edtech cliche, far too often used by adults to excuse themselves from having to learn about the every expanding array of tools for communication and collaboration that have become part of daily life for many of us, not just kids.

web 2.0

New rule: anyone who wants to use this term, must first identify what on the web isn’t “2.0”. That should kill it fast.

And finally…

back to normal

This phrase has been used excessively during discussions about the economy but it is also invoked by leaders of companies and organizations (including those in our overly-large school district).

However, isn’t “normal” where we were when the wheels came off the bus?

In education, “normal” is the traditional system most people remember growing up with – and which isn’t working for a growing number of kids.

When it comes to teaching and learning (as well as the rest of American society), instead of longing for something called “normal” we should be working to rebuild into something better.

Ok, that’s my list. What would you add or delete?

Cutting the Future to Make the Present Look Better

Back to the continuing budget mess here in the overly-large school district.

The superintendent and others have been holding meetings with employee groups and community members (and distributing poorly worded surveys) to get suggestions on what programs and people should be cut to make things balance financially.

However, he’s asking the wrong question.

Instead the discussion needs to be framed around what we are all willing to pay for.

Just about anywhere you go in the US, it’s pretty much a political given that no elected official would even talk about raising taxes.

And around here, they would likely also be tossed out at the next election for suggesting that schools, or anything else, are more important than adding more asphalt and concrete for people to drive on.

Given those constraints (more like a straightjacket), the larger community should, instead of talking about cuts, be addressing the very difficult question: what will you pay real money for?

Do you want full-day kindergarten? Do you really believe art and music programs are essential or are they just a frills?

Will you pay for the training and support necessary to keep “well-qualified” teachers in every classroom or is that just something we can only afford during good times?

Is technology really a priority or is all that talk about the “future” and “21st century skills” nothing more than nice sounding decorations for political speeches?

Because in many ways, this money discussion is all about the future.

And that that brings me to the title of this post, which is stolen from a recent edition of the Business Week cover story podcast.

In that program a reporter makes the observation that, during economically rotten times like we have now, corporations are “cutting the future” through drastic reductions in their research and development budgets.

We do the same thing as a society with public education.

We slice things that will make future classrooms better – teacher training and technology being prime among those – in order to make administrators and politicians look good now.

So, maybe the bottom line question that needs to be asked about the education budget is: what are you willing to cut from the future to make the status quo look better?

I wonder how all those folks who keep sending me political crap mail and want my vote tomorrow would respond.

Probably not the way I would.

The 21st Century is Just a Fad

Last week at work was one of those that pretty well swamps everything else, which means this weekend I’ve been catching up on a very full aggregator (and the ever-popular email).

The RSS stream included Jay Mathews regular Monday opinion column from the Post (which, strangely enough, is printed in the news section of the paper version) in which he once again takes on 21st century skills, calling them “the last doomed pedagogical fad”.

Granted, the 21st-century skills idea has important business and political advocates, including President-elect Barack Obama. It calls for students to learn to think and work creatively and collaboratively. There is nothing wrong with that. Young Plato and his classmates did the same thing in ancient Greece. But I see little guidance for classroom teachers in 21st-century skills materials. How are millions of students still struggling to acquire 19th-century skills in reading, writing and math supposed to learn this stuff?

The target of his rant, of course, is the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and I agree that much of their literature “should be tossed in the trash”.

However, in the process of trashing the Partnership’s materials, Mathews also misses two important points about what education should be in the 21st century.

First, he assumes (as do many others) that we must make an either-or choice between those 19th century skills and helping kids learn how to think critically, work collaboratively, communicate effectively, and the rest (or we must prioritize one over the other).

Certainly students need to know how to read, write and use mathematics, but not in the same way as kids did in the 19th century, or even the 20th.

Like it or not, digital technology, simple-to-use communication tools, and ubiquitous access to information is drastically altering how the world works. Both the school curriculum and how it is presented need to be drastically altered in parallel.

And second, these “21st century skills” (I’m really growing to hate that term) are no “pedagogical fad”. They represent abilities that would be required of a successful adult at any point in history.

Maybe in this century we can actually acknowledge that and begin to build an educational system around them instead of just assuming students will pick them up on their own.

Teaching How To Thrive With Chaos

A writer in the Wall Street Journal offers advice for parents about Raising Kids Who Can Thrive Amid Chaos in Their Careers.

Her starting point is the increasingly obvious fact that any sort of “neat, tidy” career path for most of our current students just doesn’t exist.

So what is a parent to do to equip children for this? To ride the job-market surf, workers of the future will need not only the usual technical or professional qualifications, but an additional set of soft, downright squishy skills that experts say must be developed in childhood. A sampling: Adaptability, Exploration, Entrepreneurialism.

Her message is directed at parents but, if the goal of school is to prepare our students for success in the real world, we should also pay attention to the message as well.

After all, none of those skills are assessed on the standardized tests which form the core of our current K12 curriculum.

Even worse, as students progress through most American schools, we actually tend to discourage adaptability, exploration, and entrepreneurialism in favor of creating a uniform, homogeneous product for graduation.

Nothing New in the 21st Century

We’re less than a decade into the 21st century and many people it seems are already tired of “21st century skills”.

I know I’m pretty tired of the phrase being used as an all-purpose cliché by politicians and reformers.

Anyway, that seemed to be the common attitude at a recent panel discussion I would have loved to have attended (hopefully that free link will work).

Much of the debate centered around the work of an advocacy group named the Partnership for 21st Century Skills which is backed by a large group of mostly tech companies with very vested interests.

While I think the Partnership’s basic concepts are valid, I also have to agree with some of the education leaders quoted: this is nothing new.

“We are stuck,” Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University, said in an interview. “We’ve been having this curriculum war for years.”

“There is nothing new in the proposals of the 21st-century-skills movement,” said Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University and a co-chairwoman of Common Core, the Washington-based nonprofit group that sponsored the panel discussion. “The same ideas were iterated and reiterated by pedagogues across the 20th century.”

However, I find a great deal to disagree with in the thoughts of Mr. Core Knowledge, E.D. Hirsch

As a result, critical-thinking skills cannot transfer from the specific content in which they are exercised to real-life contexts such as in the workplace, said E.D. Hirsch, a professor emeritus at the University of Virginia and the founder of the Core Knowledge, a curriculum designed to increase students’ background knowledge.

Students become proficient critical thinkers only by gleaning a broad body of knowledge in multiple content domains, he said.

The P21 idea, Mr. Hirsch asserted, “is that once you acquire [these skills], they are all-purpose muscles. That error is fundamental, and it is fatal.”

Hirsch’s fatal error is that students still need to accumulate and retain a “broad body of knowledge” before moving to the stage where they actually learn to make use of it.

In the age of the ubiquitous web, students don’t need to know who fought at the Battle of Gettysburg.

They need to know where to quickly find the data they need, know how to validate it, and then make the best use of it.

It’s true that having students learn the skills advocated by the Partnership in isolation makes no sense.

But then neither does having them memorize all the stuff in Hirsch’s curriculum and then asking them to spit selected pieces back on a standardized test.

It’s Not the 19th Century

Have you heard the buzz about 21st century skills? Forget it.

According to Jay Mathews, writing in this morning’s Post, the idea is doomed because millions of students are “still struggling to acquire 19th-century skills in reading, writing and math”.

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 washingtonpost.com, calling the movement a pipe dream whose literature should be tossed in the trash.

He’s right, of course. As long as your idea of learning is limited to only what appears on standardized tests and the curriculum is narrowed to the very basic aspects of communicating with text.

Mathews is also buying into the instructional concept that students cannot possibly work on more complex topics until they have “mastered” the basics, an educational malpractice eloquently addressed in a companion article from the same section of the paper.

Thus, while there are building blocks of knowledge — students must master addition and subtraction before they multiply or divide — the idea that students should be taught facts and simple procedures before they get to problem-solving or critical thinking no longer makes sense. “The common idea that we can teach thinking without a solid foundation of knowledge must be abandoned. So must the idea that we can teach knowledge without engaging students in thinking. Knowledge and thinking must be intimately joined,” says Lauren Resnick, a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and a leading expert on cognitive science.

And then we come back to the matter of the phrase “21st century skills” itself. That aspect really does belong in the trash.

The term has been overused and warped by politicians, education “experts”, and others to fit their specific view of what school reform should be. It has no meaning.

Let’s face it. The skills people need for successful living and working in the 21st century, are basically the same as they were in the previous century, the one before that, and the one before that.

They center around the ability to clearly communicate thoughts and ideas using the most effective tools available, as well as the need to understand the messages being addressed to us by others, again using a variety of tools.

Certainly that process involves reading and writing textual language as a foundation.

However, the tools for successful communications also also need to include elements from many areas of human knowledge and culture: music, logic, art, science, dance, programming, social interaction, math and much more.

Whatever name you apply, the most important part of all this is that we don’t live in the 19th century. Our networks and other technologies make this a very different time, one where information is easily obtained.

The core of education in this century must be focused on how to validate, manage, and apply that information, not on memorizing and spitting back huge blocks of it.

Update: Will posted a very thoughtful comment to Mathews’ articles and generated a great discussion in the process.

(Still) More Studying of 21st Century Skills

Do we really need another study with the conclusion that American schools are doing a bad job?

Well in this case, I may have to agree with at least some of their findings.

If students are to succeed in today’s complex economy, they need to know more than just English, math, science, and history. They also need a range of analytic and workplace skills. So says an important new report on 21st-century skills, which concludes that though Massachusetts schools have made impressive progress in the last 15 years, many students still don’t graduate with the abilities today’s jobs require.

Further, according to a recent study by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, state employers say high school graduates lack essential job skills.

Mastering those skills means learning how to think critically and creatively, work collaboratively, use the Internet to do research, and communicate clearly and effectively. Students also need to be responsible and accountable, to be up on the news, and to have a workable knowledge of economics and business.

So, how much of this do we really teach in most schools today? Around here, we are very much stuck in the 20th century.

I could quibble with a few of the points from the study outlined in this article (for one thing, training every student for the exclusive needs of business seems like a very narrow focus).

However, if we really want to address these “21st-century skills”, it’s going to take more than just rewriting the curriculum and retraining teachers.

We also need to change our basic perceptions of what it means to be “well educated” and how a person gets there.

BTW, how far into the 21st century are we going to discuss teaching 21st century skills until we actually do it? Or switch to calling them 22nd century skills?