Thursday, April 2, 2009

21st Century Skills before the 20th Century Skills?

A comment from a teacher during a workshop I was facilitating with a school:

Why are we teaching the 21st century skills when students haven't learned the 20th century skills?

Now certainly, there's context to this quote; it's 8:00 in the morning, a required inservice, I see people madly filling out their tournament bracket sheets for the games start later that afternoon. And I know the instructor as well, someone that can give guff with a smile. But, strip away the context, and I feel this is a genuine question that many educators have.

So, I answered it.

First, we have to define what we mean by "21st century" and "20th century". 20th comes before 21st not because they are easier building blocks or because of chronological sequence (like Algebra 1 and 2). Many argue they are a misnomer anyways, because the skill sets they represent are both important today and yesteryear. We can call them "21st century skills" because while you could say people have always needed the ability to analyze, solve problems, and create, the need has never been more important and the pace more frenetic than now. It is a demarcation of emphasis, not chronology.

Second, much like what we need to do with "21st century skills", we need to define what we mean by "20th century skills". Reading? Yes. Math? Yes. Memorization? No. Filling-in-the-blank from the teacher-generated word bank? No.

Define it further (reading is too broad of a stroke). Decoding the meaning of words using clues in the context of the sentence. Yes. Being able to label terms as gerunds? No. Check me on this one if you'd like, but the only one in the room who knew what a gerund was was the two teachers who taught it and myself.

This is the intention of the Iowa Core, to better define what the "20th century" essential skills are. As schools, we need to look at our curriculum and have some critical conversations about what is essential. If it is essential, then absolutely teach it.

So to answer the original question, you first have to define 21st century and 20th century. Next you have to examine how well you teach those items.

Reading is an essential skill--everyone agrees with that. But what is effective reading instruction? Just having it done in language arts class? Many times, a non-language teacher might assume that they are teaching reading by giving the students a chapter in the book to read. You could give me some thread and a needle, but that doesn't mean I will learn cross-stitch.

In this case, the question seemed to imply that the students he had in class couldn't read up to his standard. If that's the case, absolutely teach them how to read.

But, don't refuse to develop 21st century skills at the same time.

I asked if the individual was a coach (he wasn't, just my luck). So, I asked who the head basketball coaches were (they were sitting together on the other side of the auditorium). So I asked them as a group "Do you teach the defensive position? The duck-billed follow through? How to run your offense? And, do you have a sequence of these things?" The answer, yes to all of them... you can't get to the fine details of the motion offense and the half-court trap defense without hitting the building blocks first.

So, then I asked, "Do you teach hustle? Awareness? Improvisation?" One coach who was very interested by this train of thought had a great answer. "Yes, we do, but it's different."

"How so?"

"Well, it isn't cut and dry. It isn't step-by-step teaching, but it's much more coaching. You see it, then you point it out and process it with the kids. Saying, you made an excellent move there that wasn't part of the offense... what did you see? Then the kid answers, and it makes everyone want to do it. And what hustle looks like to the post is different than the wing."

And another coach:

"Yeah, and we're never done teaching those things. Up until the last day, you are looking to work on those. And the first day as well."

Those are the "21st century skills" of basketball. And, that's what it should be in the classroom as well.

You work on things like creativity, analysis, and problem-identification on all days, at all points in the lesson, at all grades. You never stop. You coach them more so than you teach them. You find examples of them in the classroom, point them out, and have kids learn from each other. The skills look different in different situations. But they are absolutely vital to a child's success.

So the answer is, you don't teach 21st century skills before the 20th century. You teach them at the same time, infusing them together.

(By the way, they had me fill out a tournament bracket sheet. Now that's the sign of love for a professional development consultant. I belong!)

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