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.

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