Monday, January 12, 2009

21st Century Skills = fluff?

Interesting debate brewing in the blogosphere about whether "21st century skills" really amounts to anything, or if it is a overblown piece of jargon which has withered into a make-what-you-want-of-it term.

A corollary to that is the question of whether 21st century skills truly are separate from content, or if they are subject dependent. Another way to think of this last question is, are the "21st century learning skills" needed in math the same or different than the ones needed in language arts?

The discussion starts with Jay Matthews' piece in the Washington Post.

Will Richardson has a follow up.

Ken DeRosa chimes in and has an ongoing, circular (and directionless?) discussion with Stephen Downes.

And, Tom Hoffman offers his perspective, in the context of a discussion of national standards.

My take? People who have said "students have always needed 21st century skills, we shouldn't call them that" are simply wrong. Our educational system is well established to educate students in the industrial age, where the magical "21st century skills" aren't essential. The problem is... we aren't in the industrial age. If the problem is semantics, then so be it. It is the term, much like "podcasting", that our society has accepted.

For those who say the term is becoming meaningless, I agree whole-heartedly. This is much like "higher-order thinking skills" or "quality instruction" or insert-your-educational-buzzword here. That's what happens a bunch of beattitudes are identified without any identification of what they are not (Blessed are the analyzers, the creative, the collaborators...)

But, for those who would say "forget teaching them" or "it is impossible to discuss them as a whole since they are tied specifically to content", I say they are the missing the point. While some bemoan the lack of focus on the core knowledge, I could just as easily say, Hey show me the research that states this core content is crucial. Having deep understanding of calculus, world history, literature, or quantum physics does not help you become a successful professional... my mechanic, chiropractor, and local sportswriter are all the best in the area and none need any of that knowledge. And while there are professions that do (say an engineer), the successful ones are successful because of the aforementioned beattitudes, when compared to other engineers.

Our problem is not that we can't teach 21st century skills unless it is content specific, it is rather that we are content specific to begin with. When we compartmentalize our content in an effort to put it on a pedestal, we compartmentalize our learning of it, so that it has no relevance to the larger picture. 21st century skills, like the term or not, have that ability.

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