wasting bandwidth since 1999

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.


  1. Paul C

    This is probably the clearest rebuttal I have seen of the whole “21st Century Skills are not as important as reading and writing”. Thanks for making the point in a way that anyone can understand.

  2. Louise Maine

    Perhaps when the majority of adults can think critically themselves, then we can start to work on the students.

  3. Nicole Huett

    Digital technology surely shall have an impact to way things are being done. I would rather not put it as drastic change required, there are leaders in the industry and they need to focus on introducing it seamlessly and yet bring in the value. We can look at this online interactive learning platform which engages students and teachers very well and allows self paced study. Bringing in the change without adding much overhead is key to be successful here both to students and teachers!

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