Thursday, March 12, 2009

Ken Kay under attack

Ken Kay, director of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (which Iowa has modeled for its Iowa Core component), has come under fire by several "Back to Basics" folk, who see Kay as typical of the whole 21st-century-skill movement championed by me and others. There is common criticism that Kay is a "public relations executive", not an educator. The irony here, of course, being that most of his critics are further away from the classroom than he is.

Here is Kay's response:

While I don't agree with the Back to Basic folk on much of anything, Robert Pondiscio of the Core Knowledge Blog has a valuable criticism:

It's easy to say "world class content" and "world class skills" but if you look at the examples of what P21 proposes teachers do in the classroom, you see a lot of activities driven by creating things like movie trailers and commercial jingles, even claymation movies that demand only a superficial relationship with the subject matter. Activities that don't deepen understanding will not build the skills Mr. Kay wants our children to have.

Spending a month making a movie trailer or claymation is an egregious waste of time (and I'd like to see someone do one of those projects decently in less time). But, I'd add this is a valuable criticism of the Partnership, not of constructivism or authentic work in general. These items appear to be brainstorms instead of tried and true activities faithful to the research of Wiggins and McTighe.

But, there is deeper criticism. Diane Ravitch, a former Assistant Secretary of Education under Bush 41, mentions this:

I continue to have this feeling in the pit of my stomach that this is just another misguided attempt to dumb down American education, as if we can stand any more of it... the “stuff,” the “content,” the “it” of David Hawkins’ triangle must be there. The skills can’t be learned in a vacuum; one can’t think critically without having something to think about and enough information to compare, contrast, and evaluate different points of view. And, as far as I am concerned, it is unacceptable to tolerate ignorance of the important events and ideas in our nation’s history. These events and ideas are important in shaping our civic and historical literacy, which all of us need.

Ravitch apparently feels Kay is giving lip service to content in his speech, as he mentions specifically that the Iowa Core addresses both content and skills. No credible person in the "21st century skill" camp is advocating teaching skills without content.

What we are questioning is what you emphasize, what you are concerned most with. Ravitch's point about "important events and ideas" is true. The problems is, what are the important events and ideas? We all have agreement that reading, writing, and mathematical computation are essential, but that's as vague as saying creativity and problem-solving are important skills.

Deconstruct this. Do we agree that the names of the presidents is an essential idea that no one should be ignorant of? Many social studies teachers would say yes. How about slope-intercept graphing? Many math teachers would say yes. How about diagramming sentences? Many (definitely not most) language arts teachers would say yes. But, many actual people would say no. There lives are not altered one way or another by the knowledge of these items. Essential to whom? Seems more essential to the teacher.

Therein is the basic problem with the core content argument. Too many cooks will say their content is essential. I felt the understanding of Orwell's "power corrupts" thesis was essential, but successful former students making a heck of a lot more than I am have pushed back saying no, it wasn't.

But, what they don't push back against is the idea that these intangibles, these 21st century skills, these habitudes are what make us successful. A school cannot do all the content necessary for a person to be successful; they will have to learn some content on their own. But given skills like being creative, being able to communicate with others, and being able to solve problems are needed by everyone, that is where a school emphasizes.

Of course, claymation isn't going to do that...

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