Friday, September 10, 2010

What's So "21st Century" About "21st Century Skills"?

Ask 10 different scholars, "What 21st Century Skills students should learn before graduating from an American high school?" and, chances are, you'll get ten different answers.  While I agree that students need to acquire many cognitive, analytical, and technical skills to be productive and competitive in our digital age, I will argue that many of the new educational fads promoting 21st Century Skills are just redressed programs from the past.

According to The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, their "Framework presents a holistic view of 21st century teaching and learning that combines a discrete focus on 21st century student outcomes (a blending of specific skills, content knowledge, expertise and literacies) with innovative support systems to help students master the multi-dimensional abilities required of them in the 21st century."  Upon closer inspection, the Student Outcomes include:
  • Life and Career Skills,
  • Learning and Innovation Skills,
  • Information, Media, and Technology Skills, and
  • Core Subjects and 21st Century Themes
Life and Career Skills. Nothing new or surprising here.  Man has been working at these since the beginning.  Remember the stories of the homo hablis that roamed the Olduvai Gorge?  If they hadn't mastered life skills, modern man most certainly wouldn't be around today.  Specialization of labor has been around long before the Egyptians built the pyramids.  The Greeks and Romans had career military and political figures long before the 1st Century.

Learning and Innovation Skills.  Again, humans learned to make pottery, weave cloth, design complex tools, develop agriculture, domesticate animals, write, battle with one another, etc., long before the pedagogues of ancient Greece taught their trustees the importance of seeking the truth.  While I agree that students need to acquire new knowledge and be innovative, this isn't just a "21st Century" skill -- it's an all-time, classic skill that humans have had and will continue to need well into the 121st Century.

Information, Media, and Technology Skills. Humans have always needed and sought information.  The Egyptians properly predicted the flooding cycles of the Nile to protect people and plan their agricultural calendar.  The Phoenicians figured out how to navigate the seas using the stars to trade with far away lands.  In 1860, French chemist Louis Pasteur discovered that bacteria causes illnesses and developed a way to heat products to reduce the amount of harmful bacteria so it was less likely people would get sick.  So again, the idea of gathering information is nothing new. 

As for media, the Sumerians were dabbling in cuneiform on clay tablets in 8000 BC.  Egyptians kept records of business transactions with beads and on papyrus.  Around 1439, Gutenberg developed the printing press to mass produce inexpensive Bibles.  Media has been around for a long time.  The medium and speed at which media travels has vastly increased and that is something I'd like to address in a future blog (kids are OK with on-demand learning, but are schools prepared to teach that way?). 

The term "technology skills" is so vague that it is difficult to define, let alone measure.  Iron tools, paper, pencils, magnifying glasses, chopsticks, etc. are all forms of technology.  I believe that P21 authors allude to digital technology (hardware, software, etc.), but there is little specificity.  I believe we need to be more specific when trying to define exactly what skills our children need to master before graduating from high school and attempting to become productive and competitive citizens in a global economy.

Core Subjects and 21st Century Themes  Of the "Student Outcomes" in the Framework, this seems to be the least imaginative or innovative.  Core subjects, I'm assuming, are those age-old favorites the kids love to hear about -- reading, writing, and arithmetic.  Add history, science, and perhaps a foreign language (for those going on to college) and you have the "core subjects."  This is how schools have been run since the Industrial Revolution.  I do agree that every student should have a basic understanding of the core subjects, but many schools simply skill-and-drill their students for twelve years with the same information, preparing them for "higher learning" where they will experience S&D of the SAME (or similar) subjects for ANOTHER 4-5 years.  Where's the creativity?  Where is the innovation?

I'm not sure what 21st Century Themes or patterns have emerged as we're only 10 years into the new century, but social networking, biometrics, mobile computing, open content, e-books, augmented reality, gesture-based computing, and visual data analysis all seem to show some promise to marketing, entertainment, security, business, etc. in the near future.  How many of these things are we teaching/practicing in schools right now?  Three, at most.  To be truly innovative, creative, and forward-thinking, we need to stop practicing the old model of teaching, and start embracing new ways of experimenting, collaborating,  analyzing, and synthesizing information and products. In order to attain any kind of change, teachers AND students need to get used to doing what they're not used to doing.

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