wasting bandwidth since 1999

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.


  1. Robert Pondiscio

    This does a disservice to Hirsch’s point of view and his work. He doesn’t suggest — never has — that students “memorize stuff and spit selected pieces back on a standardized test.” Background knowledge is what makes skills from critical thinking to reading comprehension happen in the first place. He’s not saying you have to accumulate knowledge BEFORE you move to a stage where you can use it. He’s saying you can’t get to that stage without it.

  2. Tim

    “He’s saying you can’t get to that stage without it.” That’s pretty much my point.

    We can teach students how to find, validate and use information, how to collaborate and create, AT THE SAME TIME they are building their basic background knowledge. However, my idea of what is “core” is far smaller than what Hirsch proscribes, largely due to the fact that internalizing most of those facts is unnecessary when they are easily found when needed.

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