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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.

1 Comment

  1. Eric Hoefler

    It’s lame to only say “I agree,” so I’ll say: “I agree … and well said!”

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