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What About 21st Century Skills?


Dear Deborah,

Since you brought up the subject of “21st Century skills,” it seemed like an opportune time to talk a bit about this subject.

A week ago, I participated in a panel discussion on this topic, sponsored by an organization called Common Core in Washington, D.C.. Common Core was created to advocate for the liberal arts and sciences, particularly because of the pressure to spend more and more time emphasizing only reading and mathematics. After all, they are the only subjects that “count” for purposes of NCLB accountability, so supervisors and principals are demanding that teachers produce higher scores in the tested subjects. Meanwhile, there is accumulating evidence that non-tested subjects like history, literature, the arts, science, geography, and civics are getting less time and attention because they don’t count toward improving a school’s standing according to NCLB requirements.

Toni Cortese, who is vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, and I are co-chairmen of Common Core. As we watched the steady momentum building for “21st Century skills,” we worried that this might be yet another pedagogical juggernaut that would undercut the teaching of the liberal arts and sciences. And so, on Feb. 24, Common Core convened a conference on the subject. Toni was the moderator, and papers were presented by me, E.D. Hirsch, Jr. (founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation), and Daniel Willingham (a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia).

Hirsch, Willingham, and I expressed our concerns about “21st Century skills,” and Ken Kay, who is president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, responded. I hope you will take the time to read our papers here. Ken Kay spoke, but did not present a written paper. The whole thing was videotaped, and the tape should be available now or in a few days at the Common Core Web site.

In brief, I maintained that the movement for “21st Century skills” sounds similar—if not identical—to earlier movements over the past century. Its calls to teach critical thinking skills, creativity, problem-solving, and cooperative group skills are not at all “21st Century.” Certainly for the past generation, these goals have been virtual mantras in our schools of education. If there is anything that teachers have been taught over the years, it is the importance of pursuing these goals, which are certainly laudable in themselves.

Earlier manifestations of the movement to teach outcomes directly was referred to as “life adjustment education,” or “outcome-based education,” or most recently in the 1990s, “SCANS skills.” In every manifestation, the movement says that we should teach students how to think and teach them real-life skills but downplay academic subjects because students can always look up “bits of information.”

E.D. Hirsch and Dan Willingham were brilliant as they argued that skills and knowledge are inseparable. People do not think in the abstract; they need knowledge—ideas, facts, concepts—to think about. Dan Willingham showed in his presentation that the mind does not compartmentalize into skills and knowledge. Problems cannot be solved without having the relevant knowledge to think with. Students can learn creativity, flexibility, problem-solving, and critical thinking as they learn about science, history, mathematics, and so on. To prioritize skills over knowledge, the panel argued, made no sense.

Ken Kay responded by saying that the “21st Century skills” movement gave equal weight to skills and knowledge and that he was sure there was common ground. He spoke of the many education organizations and technology companies that had endorsed the movement.

I must say, and I mean no disrespect for Mr. Kay, that I was struck by this thought (maybe I was just exercising my critical thinking skills). I have often written about education controversies, and in every case, one group of educators argues with another group of educators. In this instance, a panel of educators (me, Hirsch, Willingham) was debating a public relations executive. This seemed odd to me, and made me wonder about the movement itself.

Is it an effort on the part of the technology companies to sell more high-tech hardware and software to schools? Is it an effort to throw a wrench into the effort to develop meaningful and reasonable academic standards by replacing them with vague and pleasing-sounding goals?

One of our loyal readers, Diana Senechal, was in the audience, and she made an excellent point in the question period. (Diana, as you know, teaches in a New York City elementary school.) She had gone to the trouble of visiting the P21 Web site, where she reviewed suggested lesson plans in English. One activity was to have students read a story or play, then make a commercial or video with Claymation figures. Diana asked, “Why not discuss the ideas in the story instead of spending hours making Claymation figures?” Which approach is likelier to engage students in thinking critically? It seemed to me that she was spot-on.



Diane, thanks for breaking us into a new topic. I certainly wish the drive to DC was a bit shorter; I'd have been there!

Diane, I'm pretty sure I was at Mike P.'s side when the idea for Common Core came up. 'Twas the Beyond the Basics fancy reception, on the roofdeck overlooking the White House East lawn.

What I don't recall from that was direct evidence that teachers were skipping social studies in order to teach to the test. I recall that they often claimed that, but deeper looks seemed to belie the claims.

Instead, what we know is that so called social studies and English classes have been skipping real ideas and real critical thinking base facts for many years. Since before my elementary days.

We haven't learned, in particular, the most basic facts of history. I have 20+ years of formal education; at the end I could not have told you a clue about what Julius Caesar was known for, who Attila the Hun was, what 1066 meant, 'crossing the Rubicon', 'philosopher's stone', Benjamin Banneker, Washington's Farewell Address, Elizabeth I, or, indeed, whether Jesus was an historical person or a story of my particular faith. I certainly knew nothing of Nebuchadnezzar, St. Patrick, Byzantium, the Dark Ages, Michelangelo, Richard III, Joan of Arc.

It sure looks like I'm no where near alone in this.

ISI's American civic Literacy program yearly looks at a sampling of the best colleges, Ivy League seniors and freshmen. It concludes they know nothing about American History, either.

There's nothing wrong with vocational schools to teach kids woodworking, or machining, or MS Office, or whatever is currently in demand. Especially if it is done in a way that refines their basic habits--punctuality, courtesy, determination, and the like.

Yet we also have to learn to be citizens. We need to know that Rome foundered, and something perhaps of why.

At the very least, terms like 'crossing the Rubicon' and 'et tu Brute' are used in passing by many writers. We need to know these to be literate. To be able to read the Opinion page of the Wall Street Journal, to put a point on it.

We can't cheat kids out of real literacy as we've done for 40 years.

Diane, you ask,

"Is it an effort on the part of the technology companies to sell more high-tech hardware and software to schools? Is it an effort to throw a wrench into the effort to develop meaningful and reasonable academic standards . . . . "

I realize I have limited knowledge of the issue and its context and who the players are, but it strikes me that idealism is a totally adequate explanation, an idealism that is unfortunately attractive to many teachers, and has been for a long time.

In 1962 I took freshman American history in college, and it made quite an impression on me. It was not a good impression. They were going to "teach us to think". "They" included the lecturer and the lab instructor, but I felt it represented the thinking of the entire history department. They used that phrase, "teach you to think" repeatedly. They explicitly told us not to worry about facts. I'm not good at remembering words verbatim, but I have no doubt that all the arguments about 21st century skills would be familiar to them. As a result of taking that course I made a conscious decision that I was not interested in taking any more "honors" courses (meaning, as I remember, you had to have at least a B average to enroll in those sections). My interest in history went from minimal to less than minimal. I felt I didn't learn much history.

In subsequent years I had time to reflect, and I recognized that my high school history teachers were infected by this "teach you to think" perspective. No wonder I had minimal interest in history. It was many years later, in my middle age, that I discovered that I am interested in history. What a shame that I discovered in middle age what I should have discovered in the tenth grade.

The history department responsible for my counterproductive freshman course, of course, expressed disdain for education schools and education professors. How ironic that they fell for the educational idealism that has been such an attractive nuisance to teachers for a hundred years.

Same here. I don't know about Core Knowledge history (I really dislike their fact filled science that has no real framework), but the DI history is fabulous. I'm going over middle/high school Understanding US History Vol 1 & 2 right now and learning more than ever. It is designed to read history in a framework (cause/effect, problem->solution->result, etc) and discuss it with your group. My husband likes history so I strike up conversations with him and it helps me really learn the subject in depth - and enjoy it for the first time in my life.


I suspect you, me, and maybe a handful of other readers will know Boyd Bode's criticism of the project movement in 1938. Since Bode was in a college of education (first at Illinois and then at Ohio State), as was your hero William Bagley (Illinois and then Teachers College), I'm not sure it's fair to paint all of them and all faculty with the same brush. (Disclosure: I work in a college of ed, though I went to grad school in a regular history department.)

What I would agree with is the vacuousness of "skills" without "stuff." I don't agree with E.D. Hirsch's definition of "stuff," but something has to be there, and I'm rather partial to history myself.

For those interested in a good argument in favor of transdisciplinarity (and one much better than the "21st Century Skills" crowd), see Swarthmore historian Timothy Burke's http://weblogs.swarthmore.edu/burke/?p=413" rel="nofollow nofollow">Department of Everything Studies. My counterargument was Department of Something.


Every education discussion must be punctuated with asterisks. I am not opposed to vocational education. I think our society needs plumbers, electricians, craftsmen of all kinds. I think that plumbers, electricians, and craftsmen need a sound education too, one that engages them in preparing to be citizens in a democracy; that teaches them about the big issues in history; that turns them on to wonderful literature; and on and on.


Sherman Dorn,

I am well aware of Boyd Bode's criticism of projects. I am not a critic of projects. Like Bode (another of my heroes), I am a critic of projects for the sake of projects, with no "stuff" to be learned. You can't think critically if you have nothing to think about.

I am sure you agree.



I would agree that projects devoid of "stuff" are as senseless as "stuff" devoid of purpose. The question is--is anyone advocating for empty projects (and who and why)?

BTW--the current posting at Leader Talk (by an educator, I do believe) provides information in support of the need for 21st Century Skills.

By way of disclosure, I have never used claymation, but I have used similar vehicles to teach both literature and reading to students in an afterschool program. I recall a very successful venture making a silent film version of Frankenstein. We had to write dialogue and copy it onto camera ready pages, as well as decide on how to translate the theme into a visual presentation that communicated with an audience. I suppose I could have just told them what the themes were and had them write essays, maybe given a test. Guess that's why I'm not in a classroom.


I suggested to Mr. Kay that the group might advocate for "21st century skills and knowledge," but he demurred.
None of the so-called "21st century skills" is unique to the 21st century. We should all learn to solve problems, work in groups, and think critically. What is 21st century about that? I recall being taught such things in third grade in Houston, Texas, in the 1940s. I think they were called "mid-century skills" then.


So--are we quibbling about the name? Although I would argue that mid-century technology and the communication skills that were required were vastly different from those today. I would also argue that there have been some significant changes in management theory that call for an ability to collaborate and problem solve--where fifty years ago (for those of us who are that old), workers were expected to take places in hierarchical management structures in which only the upper echelons were expected to think critically and creatively, and the role of middle management was to prevent the need for resolving and disagreements.

Thinking more, I am struck by Diane's statement:

"I have often written about education controversies, and in every case, one group of educators argues with another group of educators."
We should come back to this some time; This seems a very effective summary of the worst side of education as we know it.

Other sectors, when they are in improvement mode, engage their customers, their stakeholders, the beneficiaries of their services.

Educators instead sneer at their customers and stakeholders.

This is not to agree with the Partnership; I don't think I do. It is to ask in general why we are not asking the public what to teach.

If all we are trying to do in the public schools is to breed more publicly funded educators, then by all means, ignore people from other professions. If, however, we want to help everyone, then lets hear from every walk of life.

This was the great thing about the local school board. We got that kind of input. As states and the fed have increasingly taken over, the voices of non-teachers have less and less been heard.

Again, i don't agree with some of the ideas behind P21. Rather, as Diane has said, those idea vectors seem merely come from too many years emphasis on these same mantras in the public schools.

The best proof that we have indeed succeeded with all those creative thinking goals is the work of the grunts and sergeants and young lieutenants in the inestimably complex environment that has been counter-insurgency operations in Iraq. Our young troops, nearly straight from the public schools, have performed brilliantly there. No other nation could have done that.

Like Diane and Deb, though, I worry about their peers' ability to make the right choices back at home. I worry that young intellectuals from our best schools have no knowledge of the basic turning points of history; of the most famous figures we refer to; of the struggles for human rights over 5000 years; of the positive role of Judeo/Christianity over 3000 years.

Since I started writing this, Lynn Munson has focused on exactly the above quote. Are we asking normal people what to teach, or should teachers pick it all?

Sen. Lamar Alexander tells that when he ran for President, the number one topic that most interested his audiences was his line that we should return to teaching our young people the history of our country and our civilization.

Including the parts where we are an entrepreneurial people.

Margo/Mom, the only skills that are different today from 60 years ago are technology skills, and I don't know of any school in which children are not learning how to use a computer. We don't need a movement made up of business executives and software companies to tell us that children should learn media literacy and technology skills.
As for mid-century being a time when children were trained for hierarchical jobs, that is hooey. The hierarchical jobs are as obvious today--if they exist in this horrible economy--as they were then. As I recall, we were educated to think for ourselves. I'll go farther and say we were educated to admire nonconformists. Now there is a 21st century skill! But that is not what I hear from P21.
And Ed Jones, I agree with you. I fear that the last generation of deeply educated people may be dying out. By deeply educated, I mean people who have read at least some of the "Great Books," and who care about language and ideas. What do we have now? Look at the first page of the last issue of Education Week: Professors of Comic Books.

Our company, Quantum Learning Network, is an affiliate with the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Along with my colleagues, fellow affiliates, and state-level partners, I believe that the framework, definitions, and pursuits for which P21 advocates are valuable and relevant for students. I believe in this value regardless of how many other initiatives have laid out similar ideas before, and regardless that Ken Kay works with an education company and is not "an educator" in the traditional sense.

I am curious, Diane, considering US education today, do you agree with criticism written of you in a book like The Troubled Crusade that you are leery of educational progressivism in general? What are the progressive movements that you find valuable?

For me, if "21st Century" is a label that gets people talking about the value of these particular skills, then I am for it. It is not an end-all, and it is open for discussion and improvement from sharp minds.

I do think that for education initiatives to gain traction that sharp educational minds need to convey a positive belief in its worth for students. There is so much critique and dismantlement of new education initiatives that I think many whole initiatives get left for dead due to certain offending pieces.

I also see so many educators completely out of touch, sitting in their studies espousing what is right for education while not using or seeking to understand what youth are doing with digital tools, how youth they are relating with each other, or what youth's daily world is all about.


While I can't imagine someone with a straight face advocating empty projects, my own observations suggest that is exactly what is happening. Don't learn where things are located, make an "edible map." Don't learn (or discuss or evaluate) the reasons behind the French Revolution, make a commercial video. Don't learn about Japanese internment camps and apply the logic and reasoning to modern problems, make a music video. Empty, empty, empty...

Steve Arrowood,
My book "The Troubled Crusade" was not nearly as sharp a critique of empty-headed progressivism as "Left Back." I suggest you read both of them. If you read "Left Back," you will learn that I sent my own children to progressive schools. I am not opposed to progressivism per se, but to anti-intellectualism masquerading as progressivism.
I am sorry to say that P21 sounds like the latter, where knowledge and ideas are considered unnecessary. What I have seen is an approach perfectly suited to produce drones, not thinking, creative people. Is that what your business wants?

Diane, thank you! And thank you for the panel discussion. I have been thinking about it ever since.

I have a few thoughts in response to the comments so far.

I took a class in animation about a decade ago, out of curiosity. I learned how to make a claymation video. It can take hours to put together a few seconds of video. It has appeal for those who are interested in animation and clay (and I had fun with it), but it doesn’t belong in English class.

It seems to me that P21 wants to promote advertising skills more than critical thinking skills. As Jason said, empty, empty, empty. Make a commercial of your favorite short story. Make a soundtrack and video display for a poem. Make a Venn diagram, using online "concept mapping" tools, to compare world religions.

Why not spend the time on the short stories, poems, world religions? They are interesting and complex enough to take whole lessons, units, years. I don’t see how a teacher could reduce them to commercials, multimedia displays, or Venn diagrams without a sense of betrayal and nausea.

The worst projects promote a culture in which students are called upon to “sell” a work of literature or a snack (more or less side by side). Instead of delving into the language, they clip it and package it. Instead of studying history, they build their “financial literacy” by developing a strategy for selling snacks (a 12th-grade project listed in the 21st Century Skills Map for social studies).

Someone might say: why assume that these projects replace the study of the subject? Why “instead of” instead of “along with”? Well, back to the claymation. They just take time. There isn’t that sort of time in the year. Also, the projects distract from it instead of illuminating it.

Studying literature does not mean standing there and spouting out themes, Mad/Margo. It means immersing oneself in the language. I still remember the first paragraph of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd--the way Farmer Oak smiled--because of the way we read that first paragraph together in English class in ninth grade. I remember the teacher pausing over the details and asking us questions. I remember how

I remember the excitement of reading Hofstadter’s The Idea of a Party System in eleventh grade and understanding what a historian does.

I remember my Russian teacher in college laughing herself to tears as she pointed out favorite passages in Gogol stories. I remember those passages.

I want my students to have something to remember too.

Mad/Margo By way of disclosure, I have never used claymation, but I have used similar vehicles to teach both literature and reading to students in an afterschool program. I recall a very successful venture making a silent film version of Frankenstein. We had to write dialogue and copy it onto camera ready pages, as well as decide on how to translate the theme into a visual presentation that communicated with an audience. I suppose I could have just told them what the themes were and had them write essays, maybe given a test. Guess that's why I'm not in a classroom.

Mad/Margo, you say that you were teaching both literature and reading. How do you know that your silent film version was successful at teaching literature and reading? To be honest I'm not very impressed by merely communicating with an audience in and of itself. What matters is successful communication - communicating the ideas you intended to communicate (sometimes of course people might not agree with your ideas, but you can understand what someone is trying to say without necessarily agreeing with them).

And what's wrong with writing essays? Why not have them write an essay on what they think the themes of Frankenstein were and then provide feedback on those essays? (As opposed to telling them what you thought the themes were). A good essay is as much a work of skill as a film, and can be as fun and stimulating to read, and certainly I've seen my share of boring and/or confusing films.

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



It's hard to believe that this debate is still considered relevant. There is no conflict between 21st C skills and comprehensive, rigorous content. Quite the opposite. The differences arise when those who have become disconnected from the reality of school life develop intellectual constructs to promote their positions. That said, we should always be open to debate if there is new ground to cover. The problem is that the new ground always comes from the constructivist side.

It seems clear enough that we have hit a plateau in what the present design of 'schooling' can achieve. It falls well short of where we need to be. What we need is a redesign of the system, and the Partnership offers the curricular side of that. It does not sacrifice core knowledge in its model. It affirms it. Where all of the current models fail is in how the learning is organized.

This cannot happen in the 'cells and bells' Industrial Age model we have. What I believe the Core supporters miss is that building these new skills does not happen in time away from content. It happens in how the learning process is designed. This will be deeply troubling to the Core supporters as it sheds the 'master slave' model of academe. It assumes that the majority of people - students and teachers - can think at much higher levels than currently expected in schools - or universities, for that matter. When this dbate raged 20 years ago, Stephen Jay Gould - Mismeasure of Man - had relevant thoughts on the matter.

The debate will only be decided with evidence of practice. This is a very practical mattter for students entering the new age. As Diane - one to be greatly admired for her contributions - emphasized, this is about all students' learning, not just for those at the academic top - perhaps 20% of them? That is the second key point about the new learning model. It is for all students.

Let's get some pilots going. There is a suggestion at www.LIKA.ca

Tracy W:

I knew about as much about the outcomes of my efforts as the average classroom teacher at the elementary school across the street at that time, or perhaps a bit more. I can tell you that I had a group of students deeply engaged in the story (this was an elementary-aged group, so I was not using Mary Shelly's novel, but a "children's" version that I selected because I found it to be faithful to the text). I can tell you that as my group presented their film, they were able respond to questions about what they had done and why. They also became very conversant with what it means to be a part of a group working together. When someone didn't show up, the group had to decide what to do about filming their part--did someone else fill in, did we call them or visit them at home--how should we handle disagreements. I mention all of this because this was the over-riding theme of all group work done in the organization that I was working for. Our funding came from social service/mental health agencies and we were accountable for reporting to them based on these kinds of outcomes. Nobody but us (and parents) was particularly interested in what we were teaching about "school" things--which were assumed to be adequately covered during the school day, although we knew different.

So, yes--my knowledge of learning outcomes from that experience is clumsy--but again, on a par with what was expected of schools at that time with regard to measuring outcomes. I can relate, anecdotally, that one of my key memories of that experience was a red-headed, freckle-faced black boy, constantly in trouble at school and elsewhere, given to bursts of anger, particularly when goaded by various nicknames associated with his physical appearance. We were seated around a table as I read the story to them, a chapter each day (this was a broadly graded group--grades K-5, so this seemed an appropriate means). When I finished the story--and they begged me to continue, this kid slid bodily across the table to take the book from me and look inside so he could find out what happens next.

21st Century Skills as you suggest closely mirrors SCANS and are more about how learning takes place and the need to for collaboration and application. The one big difference is the stress on the use of Web 2.0 tools for the application of knowledge and collsboration. At MCNC we have started to look at the power of these new tools for student application of learning in numeracy development. They are not new technologiers to be learned for their own sake. They can be very powerful for engaging students in understanding and appplying. Since all of the tools in web 2.0 take time to learn and integrate we should be careful to make sure they extend learning meaningfully not just make a game of it, although play is importnat in learning also.


I have been considering why I find this discussion regarding Twenty First Century Skills (which is being carried on not just here, but in many places across the blogosphere and in other public arenas and stands to affect public policy in Massachusetts, Ohio, Iowa and other states) so troubling. With Ed, I am not certain that I am a whole-hearted supporter of everything that comes from P21. But I resent being pushed into that box because I am not willing throw out everything they offer and accept everything that Core Knowledge brings to the table. This begins to feel like a choice between being Pro-Life, or not; pro-charter or pro-union; four legs or two legs good (or better).

(Again, I feel a need to disclose—I once led a group of teens and children in exploring the text of Animal Farm by creating and presenting a puppet show. Our theme was something along the lines of the need for eternal vigilance in maintaining democracy, and the need to think deeply when making decisions, rather than being mislead by various band-leaders.)

Yes—there are pieces of 21st century that did not magically appear on Y2K. On the other hand, the millennium fears that Y2K brought about were dramatically different than (and similar to) those that ushered in the 1900s. I have fears that project based learning be applied with the same lack of understanding that can accompany any curriculum. I recall the Iowa teacher who was quoted (again and again and again) as bemoaning the fact that the new standards-based curriculum meant that her third graders couldn’t do the volcano project. They loved the volcano project. Without the volcano project in third grade school would become a deadly dull place. What no one was asking her was what was the volcano project intended to teach? (could have been earth science, could have been chemistry, could have been both). Where did that piece of learning fall within the new standards? There was no need to toss the volcano project, if it was really teaching something. The fact that it garnered the kind of attention that it did makes me wonder if either the old or the new curriculum was adequately focused on what it was that children were to learn, and how best to insure that learning.

A focus on the kinds of “literacy” needed for the communications media of our day is also not “new.” Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman were discussing this back in the day when I was in college. I would say that the medium is still the message—but the media have changed many times over. Those who teach need to understand why watching the movie is not the equivalent of reading the novel, without getting tangled up in some value judgment about novelists being better people, or using a better medium than film-makers. It is as important to understand the impact of The Klansman as it is to understand the impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

We have a new president who IS the new president not only because he had a message that resonated, but because he understood HOW to communicate that message, and particularly to reach a new generation of voters. There are those who hold that Richard Nixon failed in his first presidential run because he misunderstood the medium of television. It was advertising that linked Dukakis to Willie Horton (and changed his name from William to Willie and darkened his skin). These are not trivial issues.
Even staid and unwavering mathematics is not as we always understood it to be. I heard a mathematician speaking on NPR the other morning who was pointing out the impact of spreadsheets on what we need to focus teaching on. His thesis is that everything in spreadsheets is based on algebraic formulae—we rely on them to carry out mathematics that we used to carry out by hand (or calculator, or adding machine). I recall thinking the same thing on a day that I observed my son’s class learning mean, median and mode. (contrary to Diane’s impression that schools are absolutely teaching the requisite technology skills, this teacher had never learned to type and her classroom computers were put up in a closet). In a pencil and paper (and chalkboard) world these are memorized formulae and definitions. The act of sorting numbers to arrive at the median or mode is so tedious that the exercises must use very small samples—disconnected from anything that might illustrate what these things are useful for. Using a spreadsheet, one might survey the dessert choices in the cafeteria and make a case for chocolate chip cookies three days a week instead of just two. Using an applet to display measures of central tendency one can see how median and mean differ from each other and the effect of outlier numbers. I don’t see these things happening across the board in classrooms, and suspect that they are not likely to without the spur of having them written into mathematics standards.

I think that Barry rightly points out that there are features of P21 that really call for radical restructure of schools. We are already seeing the impact of the computer on providing access to education in some areas—Kaplan has an advertising campaign that really synthesizes a new approach to higher education—where the students are. Perhaps not so new. Not too long ago it was the executive MBA programs that were launching a revolution simply by offering weekend classes (more disclosure—I completed a Masters degree through a similar program. I am now enrolled in a doctorate program online. Neither would have been accessible to me if I had to rely on my local state university—even though it is right in town). Such programs are beginning to break through with AP courses, language courses, credit recovery and other offerings to meet the needs of folks so marginalized that they have no other option. Many are still pretty clunky with regards to delivery—this doesn’t mean that they will continue to be. Teachers, like my son’s math teacher who never learned to type, or those who proudly proclaim to me that they don’t “do email,” are not going to be able to meet the emerging needs of their students.

If teaching is really teaching, in the sense of producing learning, or leading students to produce meaning, then access to technology, awareness of communications media, student-centered education all become valuable tools for teaching. If teaching is more like acting out and maintaining familiar structures because they are familiar and have meaning for teachers, then these things become a threat. But we shouldn’t be trapped be even this either/or statement. Likely we are dealing with both.

"21st century skills" isn't an educational thing. It's a cultural thing. Without 21st century skills, our students are going to suffer in the 21st century. That's plain to see from any competitive standpoint whether educational, business, or political in this 21st century globally-connected environment.

The problem I think a lot of folks are having is separating 21st century skills from the 'skill-sets' of analysis, logic, and the like that we try to teach to students both in the foundational grades as well as in the advanced content areas.

"21st century skills" doesn't change the primary importance of teaching kids problem solving and creative analysis. But it does recognize that teachers have a responsibility to get themselves up-to-date with what's going on in the world. This conversation is part of that mission.

If we don't take a good look at ourselves and recognize our deficiencies in rendering an authentic education in the Digital Age, then we are being irresponsible towards our students and our future.

Educational Technology is not a theory. It's a reality. The Digital Age is upon us. It's time to deal with it, stop bickering, and help our kids.


How can parents make these points?

In building a philosophy statement, based on a few hand picked pieces, the superintendent guided the creation of a document that is little more than a wish-list of all the things other district/people have or do. I equate it to a teacher who buys a manipulative and tries to determine what to teach with it rather than the other way around. We'll end up with all of the 'things' (if we can afford them) others have but then question why things aren't getting better.

The recent Brown Center report highlights some of the issues in international assessments like PISA (which was the assessment referenced heavily in our district's efforts). The recent Ed Week article, "Backers of 21st Century Skills Take Flak" further highlights on-going debates.

As a parent, I am more than a little troubled by the apparent rush to change without knowing the impact.

Thanks for the blog. And any advice/guidance you could give to a parent concerned about what his 1st grader will be exposed to over the next 12 years would be welcomed. Thanks!


Diane (and Diana),

Thank you for fighting for REAL education. I'm with you. We're up against legions of business majors and tech geeks (no offense intended) who think --understandably --that the liberal arts is just dead-weight (cf. Cece's post). I've always suspected that it isn't, but it wasn't until I read E.D. Hirsch's The Knowledge Deficit that I felt confident saying so. The 21st Century Skills movement is a recipe for mental malnutrition. It scares me. It scares me that many smart people (like my tech biz CEO cousin) will support it because they've only had anemic liberal arts classes, and have not read Hirsch, and so cannot conceive of how teaching Chaucer and medieval history could really be worth much. Your remark about the dying generation of deeply educated people haunts me too. This rings so true. There are fewer and fewer people like you, Diana and me who have been lucky enough to have had scintillating, satisfying liberal arts classes, and who carry that memory as a beacon toward which we strive in our teaching.

I will tell a 21st Century Skills story. Well, two.

At a school where I once taught (not my current school) there was a big push for new technology. One day we had a professional development meeting where we were told that we were entering a new age and had to adapt to it.

We watched a video called "Pay Attention" that said kids already had so much exposure to digital media, we should really give them more. "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em!" the video declared verbatim. In other words, get with it, because that's your best option when you're in the minority. Forget about holding your ground or seeing things differently from others. This is the digital age, they say! If you fight the age, you are behind the times, and that is a crime. The video is quite eerie.

The leaders of the training told a wondrous tale of a girl who had become motivated to write poetry as a result of classroom blogging activities. How great it was that technology had inspired this girl to write!

Later I took a look at her poetry on the blog. One glance at it, and I knew it was plagiarized. Not only that, but it was bad sentimental rhyme written from an adult perspective. I looked it up and found all but one of the poems elsewhere online, some in multiple locations. I didn't find them on the first search; I experimented with different line breaks until they turned up. I knew they would come up.

I brought this up at the school the following day. My colleagues were gracious, appreciative, even amazed. ("How did you find those poems on the web?" one teacher asked. I showed my Google tricks.) The poems were then quietly removed from the school's blog.

This was not the first time that I used "critical thinking" and internet skills to track down plagiarism. A good friend and brilliant songwriter found a poem in a volume of writings by nursing home residents. According to the editor, the author had never written a poem before entering the nursing home. My friend was moved by the poem--which was indeed beautiful--and set it to song. I loved the song and the poem but had a funny feeling about the latter. It was too good to be written by a novice poet. After several attempts, I found the true author online and then in the library. My friend was glad to know who actually wrote it and was intrigued by the revelation.

So it amuses me when people assume that critics of the "21st century skills" movement are behind the times or averse to the skills themselves.

How do we teach children to distinguish good poetry from bad, and true authorship from false? By teaching poetry.

Diana Senechal

P.S. Great comments, Dave and Ben. Tracy, I like your point about essays.

To Ed Tech nay-sayers, et al.,

I post here a bit from a blog post I published this morning because I've been a part of this conversation and I think this is worthwhile to examine. To read the rest, see www.teachpaperless.com


This isn't about our 'comfort-level' with technology. This is about the Digital Age being a cruel reality. Things have changed. Our children need us to buck up, come to terms with and learn how to use the new technology, and help them navigate the digital world.

Please understand, I'm talking not from the point-of-view of a tech guy. I'm not some computer whiz. I'm a high school Latin teacher. And I also teach Art History and dally in the art department to the occasional chagrin of my chairman.

I spent most of my time in college translating Plato and Homer and reading about archaeological digs.

I am a firm proponent of the Liberal Arts.

In fact, I think a Liberal Arts education should be the first qualification for any content teacher in America.

Furthermore, I understand and appreciate Ed Schools -- even when I criticize them. I am the product of an M.S.Ed. program and the tutelage of some excellent professors in GT and Reading certificate programs.

I'm not trying to beat your brains in about this Ed Tech stuff because I'm some geeky square with a chip on my shoulder or a means to capitalize on this stuff; I'm trying to express to you my experience and my admittedly limited insights because I really see this as something that is going to have a direct impact on the future of our children. And that's why I became a teacher to begin with.

So help us out, or get out of the way. But don't just stand there over-analyzing and complaining and pretending this Digital Age is not happening.

- Shelly

OMG---what a fascinating discussion. I found it interesting that Diana used the Internet to uncover plagiarism. That sounds pretty 21st Century to me. In fact, this blog is a perfect example of Web 2.0 isn’t it?

Of course you teach good poetry from bad by teaching poetry. But you don’t do that just by reading out of a poetry book. And of course you never teach claymation or film making in place of great literature or rigorous writing assignments. You embed them in the scope and sequence of a course designed to engage students in rigorous analysis and writing of a variety of styles of rhetoric and literature.

Yes, some teachers have created meaningless projects that just seem to be time wasters. But then, some teachers have created meaningless writing and literature assignments in the traditional modes as well. It isn’t all or nothing. Good teachers engage students both in content and skills and both in traditional texts and new ones.

We all agree that both content and skills must be taught. The battle is about rank: which should get top billing, content or skills? Or should they be on equal footing? Or can we just leave the matter vague? If we go with content first, then we go full-steam ahead with enriching kids' minds with substantive knowledge --about math principles, historical data, geography, great literature, etc. We don't shy away from heavy does of creative, inspired lecturing, teacher-reading aloud, note-taking, quizzes and tests to help motivate kids to internalize the knowledge (I know this sounds deadly to those of you who've never had a good traditional-style education). The result will be a well-rounded, well-furnished, fully "capitalized" mind that will be way better prepared to think critically and creatively later in life. If, on the other hand, we make skills paramount, kids will end up endowed with a much smaller and spottier body of knowledge, as thousands of hours of class time will be spent on tasks other than the acquisition of knowledge. As a result, Americans will be weaker readers, and ironically, inferior thinkers (for example, who's better able to evaluate the merits of tariffs, one who has a wealth of historical examples at her mental fingertips, or one who merely possesses raw "evaluation skills"? And what great art has not been informed by the artist's knowledge of older great art?) And if we equivocate, cultural inertia will probably hurl us toward skills. So I believe we need to unequivocally proclaim that substance is paramount. We cannot leave the matter vague. Content is the "dog" and skills/tech is the "tail" and that the tail should never again be allowed to wag the dog.

Who is this "us" in Shelly's "So help us out"? Who are these "over-analyzers" who should "get out of the way"? Out of the way of whom and what? A Digital Age to which everyone should conform?

We always have a mixture of ages, and we always need them. No age should rule just because it appears to be on the rise or in full height. So perhaps some of us should get in the way, not out.

Ben said it perfectly: "we need to unequivocally proclaim that substance is paramount. We cannot leave the matter vague."

Take PowerPoint. I prefer not to use it, but I acknowledge its merits. Some use it brilliantly and are not confined by it. Others who use it to dress up and dumb down ideas (I see that too often: little substance, but fancy fonts, background image and sound effects). What's the difference? Those who focus on the substance will use PowerPoint to illustrate it or highlight certain points. Those who care about making a PowerPoint presentation at all costs will limit their ideas to its format.

We cannot afford to be, in Dave's words, like "a teacher who buys a manipulative and tries to determine what to teach with it rather than the other way around."

I am happy to know that there are Latin teachers here. Wouldn't it be great if more students could learn Latin and Greek? They would be prepared to face not only the digital age, but ages that come before and after.

I remember in Greek class when we were studying the passage in Book VI of the Iliad where Hector bids farewell to his wife and baby boy, "dakruoen gelasasa" (laughing amidst tears). That phrase has stayed with me for over 25 years. Those two words are worth far more than PowerPoint skills and take much longer to learn.

I don't mean we should just teach classics or ignore technology. I mean we should put the subject matter first--unequivocally first--as others have argued so well. We cannot "embed" technology in the "scope and sequence" of our curriculum if that means we have to demonstrate the integration of technology in every lesson (as some districts demand). We should always have the option of using it or not. It should never rule us.

Diana Senechal

P.S. The literal translation of "dakruoen gelasasa" is more like "having laughed in a tearful manner" or "having smiled tearfully." But "laughing amidst tears" or "smiling through tears" works better in English.

Dear Friends,
The controversy over the agenda of P21 ("21st century skills") is not about whether students, teachers, and everyone else should learn to use technology. Of course, we should; it is a tool, and we need to know the tools at hand.
But it is nothing more than a tool, a vehicle for learning, expressing, gathering ideas.
The important question that faces all of us as educators, parents, and citizens is which ideas are of most worth, which knowledge is of most worth, and how we develop the understanding and discernment to make those judgments.
Technology does not solve the problem for us.
Education is about far more than technology and process. Technology may be used for good or evil; or just for wasting time. If there is no knowledge, then the "skill-set" will be of no value.

A reminder to all about what the argument is about (or at least, what it was about at the Common Core forum). Don, Diane, and I all explicitly said that we thought the goals espoused by the P21 group are good ones. The point of contention was how to get there. Also, it did not break down as "the content people" vs. "the skills guy." Everyone also agreed that skills and content are both important. The substance of the argument was that Don, Diane, and Dan were all very leery of the P21 plan, as laid out in considerable detail in the documents found on their website. Don argued that P21 pays lip service to the idea of serious attention to content, but everything on their website concerns skill and describes skill as separable from content, a serious error, and unfortunately a familiar one from other programs that have ultimately ignored the importance of subject matter content. Diane provided a brilliant historical overview of movements with similar goals that had not been successful in schools, and described why P21's fate is likely to be similar. I argued that P21 is not offering a program proven workable in schools, but rather a program based on a vision of how kids learn--and the vision conflicts in serious ways with what cognitive scientists know about learning. Ken Kay said some stuff in reply but I honestly could not recapitulate for you what he said. I do remember that he kept saying he thought we all agreed and I kept thinking "I really don't think we do." Unfortunately, Ken didn't provide a written version. (The rest of us did, which you can find at CommonCore.org)
So it's not technology vs. books, and it's not skills vs. content. The debate is about pedagogy and curriculum, the evidence base of the P21 plan, and the likelihood that it's going to work in schools.


Thank you for clarifying what the discussion was about.

As you can see, we have been having a most energetic debate on the blog site. Some critics seem to think that we (you, me, Don) are advocating for a return to Greek, Latin, and Aristotle!

The key point, which you demonstrated brilliantly, was that skills are not learned in isolation, and that skills and knowledge are intertwined.

What is disturbing about P21 is that this organization is a well-funded campaign that in practice is being used to water down the knowledge component of state standards. Some states have actually asked Ken Kay to give them guidance about how to revise their state curricula, which is bizarre, because Mr. Kay is a public relations executive with no background in education.

Even stranger is that Massachusetts, which has the highest performance in the nation, is now looking wistfully at West Virginia (which is far from the top) to provide guidance on integrating "21st century skills" into their curriculum.

Is this all just a great distraction from the educational improvements we should be focused on? Or is it a clever ploy to sell more stuff to schools? I don't know.


The phrase "learning by doing" has not come up in this discussion, but it certainly could. Indeed we do "learn by doing", but we don't learn A by doing B. We learn A by doing A and we learn B by doing B. Most importantly, when it comes to critical thinking, we learn to manipulate mental concepts by manipulating mental concepts. So when Diana asks, “Why not discuss the ideas in the story instead of spending hours making Claymation figures?” it seems to me she is suggesting exactly that. Let's learn to manipulate mental concepts by manipulating mental concepts - discuss the ideas. I do the same thing when I assign homework in my college algebra classes and then go over it, at least briefly, the next class period.

So why should things like claymation even enter the picture at all? One answer to that, or at least a partial answer, is the "fallacy of engagement", the idea that if students are engaged, it must be educational. That is often not the case.

I agree with Brian’s "fallacy of engagement," but do not assume that because you discuss a concept that students are some how better educated. The value of a discussion or a claymation is learning that comes from it. If you’ve never seen kids work on a claymation or video essay or thematic Powerpoint and heard the powerful conversations that ensue, then that might be hard to imagine. I have and when we return to text our discussions of Chaucer or Orwell or Achebe become even richer. The challenge is making sure that the technology is the tool to the learning not the learning goal. That comes from reflective practice.

From Ben and Diane’s recent posts, this is the issue with the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. I need to spend more time on the sight to comment here other than as a classroom teacher of 30 years, I have been subjected to an amazing number of educational theories that come and go. We are well used to the next best thing, the panacea for all educational woes. They come from universities, research institutions, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations. A good teacher becomes eclectic and knows to take the best from each and use them to help students learn. The discussion on 21st Century Skills and Partnership is valuable if it moves us forward, but not if it builds divisions.


I wholeheartedly agree that the purpose of discussion ought not be be to divide all players into opposing camps. I agree also that it is the use of the tools that is important.

But, what I would like to push back on a bit is your suggestion of panaceas coming from all of the places that you list. I wonder if perhaps the issue is not that these places issue forth panaceas, but that within the education field so many things are perceived in that way. I can think back on so many poorly applied instances of quality research. Concern for self esteem gets re-interpreted as rejecting criticism and telling everyone they are wonderful all the time. Whole language reading becomes just sit kids down with books. Phonemic awareness becomes strategies instead of content. And engagement becomes do what looks like fun. Twentieth century skills--rather than being defined in any meaningful way has become symbolized here as doing claymation.

I certainly worry about who is eager to jump onto the bandwagon out of a desire to substitute measureable knowledge for foggy feel-goods. But, anyone who has read some of Linda Darling-Hammond's work with regard to performance-based assessment would certainly be disappointed if they were hoping for a return to every teacher set their own standard and give themselves an A. And it would seem to me as though this is the kind of assessment that lends itself well to evaluating some of the learning objectives (innovation, problem-solving, creativity) that are suggested by 21st century.

Thanks to Diane and Dan for clarifying the essence of the discussion. I am sorry if I contributed to any of the confusion.

When bringing up the classics I certainly don't mean that everyone should learn Latin and Greek (though it would be great if more students had the option). I do mean that those studies have lasted for me, even though I have forgotten much of what I learned.

Tech skills don't take long to learn. Students can learn them quickly, with minimal instruction. I learned to use computers later than my peers, but I went further with it than I needed and learned how to program. I have held several tech jobs and am considered something of an "expert" in non-tech circles.

Some technology in the classroom is fine. That's not what P21 wants. They want entire curricula to be revised to match their agenda. Here are the strands of their English "21st Century Skills Map":

Creativity and Innovation
Critical Thinking & Problem Solving
Information Literacy
Media Literacy
ICT Literacy
Flexibility & Adaptibility
Initiative & Self-Direction
Social & Cross-Cultural Skills
Productivity & Accountability
Leadership & Responsibility

All of this has a place in life. But school does not have to teach every life skill. There is very little room in the P21 scheme for focused study of English, history, math, and other subjects.

Technology is everywhere. Focused thought is a treasure. This comes back to Brian Rude's point. We learn A by doing A. Granted, in some cases we may gain some insights into A by doing B. But we should not drop the deep study of A.

Diana Senechal

Sorry to be late to this party because it really interests me.

I have to break with my history of support for Diane over this topic.

First, on the whole 21 century thing. It is not the skills that are 21st Century-- lets stipulate that Socrates had 21st Century Skills. I even told Ken Kay that he should buy the domain name for "4thCenturyBCESkills.org"

The thing that is 21st century about them is the number of students who could benefit from possessing them. Diane talked about the USA in the 1800's. At that time the vast majority of our population was engaged in agriculture and did not need such skills to be successful.

Second, highly respected labor economists like Richard Murnane and Frank Levy have documented how dramatically jobs have changed in this country over the past 40 years. (See Teaching the New Basic Skills and The New Division of Labor.)There are still jobs in manufacturing, on assembly lines, and in customer service but they require much greater skill levels than was true in the past.

Murnane and Levy have shown that kids with higher skill levels will do better, over time, than their peers without them. That may mean being the warehouse supervisor 10 years post high school instead of the guy unloading the trucks or the shift manager instead of the woman asking if you would "like fries with that."

These may not be dramatic differences for the highly educated crew here--but these are real differences in the lives of struggling people. The ability to take a child to the doctor, get insurance, buy a car.

I am glad that Dan Willingham showed up here. I am reading a paper of his on Teaching Creative Thinking now. We should be debating how best to teach these skills, what combination of factual knowledge, classroom activities, simulations and practice will best help kids master these skills-- not whether they exist.

Ha! You've gotten onto one of my pet issues, and in my opinion a perfect one for "bridging differences". For YEARS (centuries, actually) education has swung from one side of the pendulum to the other. On the one hand, thinking, process, ideas, concepts. On the other, basic skills, content, memorization, automaticity. What we need is to think "both/and" instead of "exclusive or". (The problem with that, ad noted by Diana, is time--but I'll leave that alone for the sake of getting this comment written and posted.)

I'll speak with math as my background subject instead of English or history, with the developments of the past century or so in mind. "Reform" or "progressive" curricula and methodology tend to do well with introducing concepts and having students think (or at least not suppressing their thinking, which frankly much of traditional schooling does very successfully by the end of second grade for many students, at least in math.) "Traditional" schooling tends to do well with memorization and drilling skills to automaticity. Neither does well with the full spectrum, which is what's needed. You do need factual-level knowledge to think with, and you do need it to be at your fingertips, on automatic recall. On the other hand, it does you no good to have that if you can't think with it. We seriously need to get past thinking of this as some kind of dichotomy and just bite the bullet and accept that both are needed, and get on to figuring out how to do the full spectrum within the time we have. (Now I'm back to time again, so once again I'll set it aside. . . )

And then there're those empty projects. In math, it's usually empty work with manipulatives, or empty "discovery" activities. This is an issue of professional development for teachers, either during their pre-credential years or as inservice. The problem here is that teachers were mostly all educated traditionally--lots of memorization (those dates, or who wrote what and what's in Act III, or the sacred math facts) and very little in the way of putting it all together and doing something with it. Especially in math this is true. Teachers are virtually by definition drawn from the pool of people who got good at this--at memorizing, at regurgitating facts (or memorized procedures, in math) on timed tests of recall. If you're not good at this, you don't make it through high school, let alone college. And we know that teachers (humans) tend to teach they way they were taught. (They also tend to teach, especially when they start out, as though all their students were like them--e.g., if they like to write, and journalling helps them think, then by gum all students should journal--but this is another topic for another day.)

So when a teacher is introduced to other methods, they can get hung up on the surface features of the new methods. In math, they think it's about the manipulatives, or about having kids work together, or about open-ended tasks. Or it may be about projects. These are the visible features--but they are not the point. The point of such methods has to do with well-defined learning objectives and activities that both elicit and further students thinking and development of concepts. Thus, if a teacher has not had sufficient professional development of the right kind, s/he may end up teaching using pointless projects, or using manipulatives in a rote procedural way, etc., thinking s/he is using the best, most up-to-date "reform" methods. Of course, a truly bad teacher in the sense that s/he is lazy, just in it for the paycheck--and they exist, though in smaller numbers than popularly supposed--may use pointless projects as time-fillers, but most such activities are the result of well-intentioned teachers who, as a result fo their own education, approach teaching procedurally and see only the surface features of the activities and can't tell the difference between a productive and a pointless project.

There are people who don't want kids, especially the children of the poor, taught to think, but I doubt any of them are reading this blog. The rest of us I think can agree that people need to learn to think, that that's partly what education is about, and that you don't think in a vacuum, but about something and that you need basic facts and other knowledge in order to think. If we can agree to this, then perhaps we could get on with bridging the differences and figuring out how to do it all, include the full spectrum--what does that look like, and how do we educate teachers so that they can all do it? Especially given our time limitations? Instead of arguing for the importance of one end or other of the specturm, when both are important.


With a little help from their friends (me), the Boston Globe has long been a champion of education reform, accountability, and our state MCAS tests. Here's a Globe editorial from last week that appears relavent to your discussion of 21st century skills.


STATE education commissioner Mitchell Chester says he is surprised at the sharp criticism of a task force proposal to introduce "21st-century skills" - such as media literacy, critical thinking, and working in groups - into local classrooms. But he shouldn't be shocked. The 21st-century skills movement could return Massachusetts to an era of low academic standards.

In November, a task force made its case why "straight academic content is no longer enough" to ensure student success in college and the workplace. The authors urged state education officials to introduce 21st-century skills into teacher training and curriculum guides. Since then, state education officials have elaborated little on what that might mean in practice. But critics, including the nonprofit Pioneer Institute, have made a powerful case that the plan could set back education reform efforts in Massachusetts by advancing a set of soft, vague skills at the expense of academic content.
Before the Education Reform Act of 1993, Massachusetts classrooms were adrift, without solid curriculum frameworks or a comprehensive statewide test to assess student progress and diagnose deficiencies in knowledge. After great efforts to implement standards-based education and create a graduation requirement test, Massachusetts students routinely outperform their national counterparts and perform on a par with the best international students, including those in Japan and Singapore. The first duty of the state Board of Education, which is scheduled to hear an update tomorrow on 21st-century skills, should be to protect these hard-won gains.
Ten years ago, students in Connecticut outperformed their Massachusetts counterparts on a national reading assessment test. But after education policy makers there shifted focus from an emphasis on content knowledge to the "how to" methods favored by the 21st-century skills movement, test scores plummeted. Acknowledging the error, Connecticut educators are reintroducing methods favored in Massachusetts.
In fact, there is strong evidence that emphasis on basic skills leads to success at reasoning and problem-solving. Fourth-graders here ranked second worldwide in science and tied for third in math last year on the sophisticated Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study exam.
Given such success, the burden should be on 21st-century skills proponents to prove that their methods offer a better way to prepare students for college and the workplace. So far, they haven't done that. And while they say 21st-century skills will only complement the state's current efforts, it's not clear that the approach can be implemented without de-emphasizing academic content.
Teachers and parents across the state just don't know enough about 21st-century skills. The unnerving part is that the proponents don't seem to know much more.

Jean's comment brings some thoughts to mind. Perhaps most important is what we mean by "traditional" teaching. It has always irritated me greatly that people are quick to use the term, "traditional teaching", and expect there will be agreement on what it means. In the ed school crowd there is agreement. They always start with the premise that before our present enlightenment teachers always taught by "rote memorization". There is never any support of that assertion, or even any explanation or discussion. But I have quite a different perspective. I have no evidence that teachers in the past taught any differently than they do now. Of course the constraints of materials and resources have changed greatly over the years, and that has to have some effect. But what evidence do we have that the essentials of teaching today are, or ought to be, any different than in the past? Today we must present information in some form (verbally, read the text). Then we must have the students interact with that information in some ways (homework). We must elicit and provide feedback, correct misconceptions, point out connections, etc. ("going over the lesson"). And finally we must have some sort of testing system, for the benefit of both the learner and society at large. Isn't all this equally true today and a hundred years ago?

I have argued before (here) that we have a woeful lack of simple description in the field of education. I know how I teach college algebra, but I don't know how other teachers teach it. I presume there is a lot in common with what I do, but there may be some important differences of which I am unaware. And what do I know of how the same subject was taught twenty years ago, or eighty years ago? I can make some conjectures, but I don't know of anywhere I can find actual descriptions, good or bad.

How was fifth grade math taught 50 years ago? I have my own experience to draw on. Was I taught by rote memorization. To some degree, yes. I had to memorize the times table. Was I taught only by rote memorization? Heavens no. Absolutely no. Unequivocally no. Math always, or nearly always, made sense to me. Should I conclude that it made sense because I'm smart, or because my teachers explained it? Maybe some of both. But to suggest that my teachers taught only by rote memorization is, in my humble opinion, abysmally shallow.

I don't know much about how math is taught in fifth grade today. I have waded through the Standards published by the NCTM in 2000. But do teachers actually follow those ideas? I certainly hope not. And I would guess that they do not, just based on the idea that good teachers have always resisted the current educational fads of the day. But I also have plenty of evidence from my college algebra students that elementary school math may not be taught well. (See here.)

I have wondered off and on just what we might mean by critical thinking. My present thinking is that critical thinking is knowing how to organize the facts. That's pretty mundane. It sounds pretty simple. I think it often is very simple. But it leads to two ideas that I think are important.

First, it is easy for teachers to fail to recognize a lack of organization of facts in the students' minds. If you teach a few facts about Columbus, and then teach a few facts about Magellan, how do you know that the facts about Columbus are not mixed up with the facts about Magellan?

And secondly, the task of the learner, and the teacher, alternates very quickly between learning facts, on the one hand, and organizing facts, on the other. In a fifty minute college algebra I may alternate many times between presenting facts and organizing those facts. In most topics of algebra it is the organizing of facts that is both difficult and important, and that takes up the bulk of my lecture time. Is it any different in teaching fifth grade science? I'm not sure. I think, at least right now, that critical thinking cannot and should not be considered apart of the teaching of a subject. If I do not do a good job of teaching critical thinking in algebra then I have not done a good job of teaching algebra. To think we should separate them, critical thinking and content, is not beneficial. And to think that the trendy things in education should replace the old fashioned “going over the lesson” is even less beneficial, in my humble opinion.

In her comment Jean says, if I understand her correctly, that the pendulum swings back and fourth between memorization and critical thinking. I presume she is thinking on a scale of years or decades. I'm not sure how much I agree or disagree with that. I know educational trends change over time. But I think it is very important to recognize (and perhaps Jean will agree with me on this) that we must change many times in the course of a single hour between presenting facts and helping students organize those facts. So I very much agree with her (and I think others in this discussion) that there is not a dichotomy. My concern, and I think our general concern, is that P21 and similar perspectives de-emphasize content to an alarming extent. We are trying to restore a balance, not weigh in on one side.

"Like Ed--I will not quibble over whether we use data as a "driver" or a guide, inspiration or reference--so long as it is somewhere in the room."

That's our position too!

Think of how little separates education reformers. We basically are fighting over:

a) data-informed decision-making vs. data-driven accountability, and
b) whether data drives evaluations and tenure vs. data supplementing that process.

By now, the "reformers" have agreed with the Bolder Broader approach, except they still haven't all bought into Margo/mom's and Ed's ecumenism. But, I bet that President Obama enventually makes believers in compromise out of all but the Rhee?Klein extremeists.

And let's remember the tragedy of this all. We got into this mess by copying the Lee Atwater/Karl Rove tactics and stepped into Rove's punch on NCLB creating a civil war among Dems.

Here's my take and on this I might have more opposition on this point. I want to compromise on almost everything (and I think I the majority of teachers would agree) as long as data doesn't DRIVE accountability. And surely "reformers" can appreciate the substance and the sincerity of that position. But I don't understand why the opposite position is so central to the "reformers" efforts. I simply don't understand why advocates of data-driven accountability are so unwilling to compromise when the models they seek don't even exist and are still way down the road.

Finally, Deb, thanks for phrasing the issue in the way you did.


I really wasn't thinking about data with regard to accountability--I was thinking in terms of instruction. I am still pretty big on accountability--and don't know how elso to accomplish it in the absence of data.

My apologies for being so late to the conversation. I have been following this blog for just a little longer than a week. I certainly have enjoyed the conversations and have learned so much from the contributors. Thanks so very much to all of you.
I teach Civics and Socio-Political Geography in a Magnet High School for Pre-Law/Public Affairs and Classical Studies through Cambridge University. Requirements for entering the lottery to gain admission into the program are rather low.
My cute, 9th grade "hoo ha's" had high opinions of themselves. In middle school, they were placed upon the most exalted of pedestals for their moderately good behavior.
In reference to "data," they attended a middle school which consistently receives an annual grade of "A" based on our state standardized testing program under NCLB. Most students' 8th grade writing scores are "through the roof." However, they struggled to write simple sentences on the first paragraph I assigned them.
A few months ago my students were beaming with pride as we awaited their test scores on the PSAT.
I watched as the results were being distributed. The body language told the whole story. The sea of brilliant peacocks in all their glory soon gave way to the quiet, grey depths of dismay and disillusionment. Their confidence shattered as we begin yet another round of standardized tests on Monday.
Was this accurate? Have people been lying to us? Was Mr. Happy Bear (my nickname) telling us the truth about our strengths and weaknesses? Wait....We have WEAKNESSES?!!
I have since spent a majority of our class time working on probably the three most important "21st Century Skills":
1. NO, success will NOT fall into your lap my little "hoo ha's"
2. Somewhere, deep inside you, is this magical key to success. It is called AMBITION - find it and tap into it, for NOTHING can replace it.
3. The brilliant, potentially life-altering, and mankind-saving ideas brewing in your little "hoo-ha" heads mean nothing without the ability to express them properly.

I tried to post a comment yesterday but it disappeared into cyberspace. I'll try again, shorter, with no links.

I have wondered off and on just what we might mean by critical thinking. My present thinking is that critical thinking is knowing how to organize the facts. That's pretty mundane. It sounds pretty simple. I think it often is very simple. But it leads to two ideas that I think are important.

First, it is easy for teachers to fail to recognize a lack of organization of facts in the students' minds. If you teach a few facts about Columbus, and then teach a few facts about Magellan, how do you know that the facts about Columbus are not mixed up with the facts about Magellan?

And secondly, the task of the learner, and the teacher, alternates very quickly between learning facts, on the one hand, and organizing facts, on the other. In a fifty minute college algebra I may alternate many times between presenting facts and organizing those facts. In most topics of algebra it is the organizing of facts that is both difficult and important, and that takes up the bulk of my lecture time. Is it any different in teaching fifth grade science? I'm not sure. I think, at least right now, that critical thinking cannot and should not be considered apart of the teaching of a subject. If I do not do a good job of teaching critical thinking in algebra then I have not done a good job of teaching algebra. To think we should separate them, critical thinking and content, is not beneficial. And to think that the trendy things in education should replace the old fashioned “going over the lesson” is even less beneficial, in my humble opinion.

In her comment Jean says, if I understand her correctly, that the pendulum swings back and fourth between memorization and critical thinking. I presume she is thinking on a scale of years or decades. I'm not sure how much I agree or disagree with that. I know educational trends change over time. But I think it is very important to recognize (and perhaps Jean will agree with me on this) that we must change many times in the course of a single hour between presenting facts and helping students organize those facts. So I very much agree with her (and I think others in this discussion) that there is not a dichotomy. My concern, and I think our general concern, is that P21 and similar perspectives de-emphasize content to an alarming extent. We are trying to restore a balance, not weigh in on one side.


I believe you must first learn the facts, the material, and only after the subject is learned can the P21 stuff happen. The material and the facts are the foundation of learning and without them it's not really possible to explore the worlds of critical thinking, problem solving, etc.

It would be challenging for someone to take from JFK's Inaugural "...the torch has been passed to a new generation…tempered by war, etc.," if you first didn't know the history of that past quarter century. The historical facts allow the listener/reader to make sense of the rest of the speech and from there make inferences and deductions regarding Kennedy’s remarks.

My biggest problem with P21 for schools is the time component. I don’t necessarily disagree it’s not worth attempting but I am concerned with how or where you would ever fit it into the existing school day. There’s barely enough time in the day now to do what’s expected in ELA, math, science, and social studies, never mind the arts, physical education, health, etc. I would go so far as to say P21 could be terrific stuff but where would we fit it?


You make a compelling point. Yes, critical thinking is often simply (or not so simply) the organization of facts. Organization and interpretation are closely intertwined.

It must take place in the context of the subject at hand. We cannot exercise critical thinking about literature without a specific text, or about mathematics without a specific problem. Moreover, it matters greatly which texts and problems we select. Some literature is better than other literature, and the context and sequence matter a great deal.

The statement "the subject matter must come first" really means "subject matter is a prerequisite for thinking." It does not mean we should study facts and save the thinking for much later. Certain kinds of critical thinking happen all along, or else we could not learn. But unless we have concrete material, selected and arranged thoughtfully by people with deep knowledge of the subject, the thinking will be shallow. And unless we teach children to think sharply and concretely, they will have no way of considering the "larger" questions.

Schools are now compelling teachers to begin and end each unit with an "essential question," which is almost invariably a vague theme connected with the topic at hand. The problem with these "essential questions" is that they are usually far too general and require far more knowledge than the student has. It is not bad to consider big questions, but they should be a little more grounded. And there is no shame in "smaller" questions. They can yield a good deal more fruit than the larger ones, and may even be larger than they appear.

Here's another great quote from Mortimer Smith, And Madly Teach (1949):

"As to the 'integrated' social studies versus old-fashioned history and geography, a friend of mine recently related to me a story that has some relevance here. She had occasion to act as substitute teacher of an eighth grade in social studies, and on this particular day the class was reading together one of those miniature newspapers which are issued weekly for classroom use and are designed to keep children abreast of current affairs. The topic of discussion was the principles and organizational structure of the United Nations, a fairly intricate subject even for adults. A comparison was made between the United Nations and the old League of Nations which contained a reference to the League's headquarters at Geneva. On asking the class to tell her where Geneva is, my friend discovered that no one knew or even had the foggiest idea of its approximate location, one pupil timidly suggesting that perhaps it was in Japan? On questioning them further she found that they generally had no mental image of the geographical world and the location of countries and cities. Their geography had been so 'correlated' and 'integrated' into the social studies that it has practically disappeared. But isn't it a little nonsensical to expect eighth-grade pupils to master the complex issues of world organization if they don't know anything about the physical facts of the world?"

Geographical knowledge, no matter how you attain it, takes work. It was the most difficult subject for me when I was growing up. It wasn't offered as a subject in the American schools I attended. I studied it for one year in the Netherlands at age 10 and one year in the Soviet Union at age 14.

Nor does it help that we can just look things up on Google Earth and other websites. If we spend all our time looking things up, we can't have any interesting discussion at all. That is the sad part of all of this. If we do not require students to take the trouble to learn their subjects, they will have to grope for facts their entire lives.

Diana Senechal

P.S. Speaking of spelling, I misspelled "adaptability" in an earlier comment. Sorry about that.

Diana is right in pointing out that teaaching from either perspective requires deep thought. I am frankly no more appalled by teachers "being compelled" (although I have seen little that successfully "compels" teachers to carry out anything that they don't actually want to do or believe in) to ask essential questions than I am by teachers "being compelled" to "teach to the test," and perhaps less so--as essential questions do actually point in the direction of deep thought.

On a cynical day--from the perspective of a parent in a large urban district--I would say that I see far too little deep thinking regardless of which way the pendulum swings. I recall a teacher telling me of the difficulties she had in a peer group that was planning a curriculum unit, and the tendency to be distracted by comfortable activities--and forget any learning objectives. To be fair, I have experienced the seduction of activities over objectives in planning program in the social services.

But I think that beyond some of the justifications of "content" vs "skills" are the difficulty of evaluating skills, particularly in the arena of such things as critical thinking, etc. I would agree that the latter are more difficult to evaluate--and left to their own devices teachers will do well or poorly across the board (this does not differ from their evaluation of content learning). There are means of evaluating some of the more complex skills and a fair amount of reliability injected into the evaluation. These kinds of evaluations tend to be labor intensive and difficult to structure in ways that allow for the use in accountability systems (difficulty in comparability). However, as assessment technology progresses, this is less and less the case. I would suggest a reading of Beyond the Bubble http://www.educationsector.org/research/research_show.htm?doc_id=826893 for an idea of what is, or will soon be, possible. Personally I was pretty amused and skeptical about computer grading of compositions--however I have also played around a bit with some samples, and was not unimpressed (in short, I couldn't come up with any ways to successfully trick the computer--either with nonsense that might look like good writing, or off topic junk, or use of either sentence length or number of adjectives, etc to superficially inflate a score that a "real teacher" might see through). I would rate it somewhat better than my 11th grade English teacher, who I am convinced stopped reading my essays after the first few.

But, assessment technology is coming into an ability to meaningfully evaluate some of the kinds of things (multiple step problems, problem solving methodology) that would be very expensive to evaluate on a large scale otherwise. This not only opens doors to providing teachers with immediate data that can inform instruction, but also to building accountability systems to ensure quality instruction.

Brian: You say "P21 and similar perspectives de-emphasize content to an alarming extent. We are trying to restore a balance, not weigh in on one side." As I often say to my students (prospective teachers) when we get on to this subject, "you don't restore a balance by creating an equal and opposite imbalance," as the history of the ppendulum swing over the past century or so demonstrates all too clearly. However, the current imbalance is WAY over to the side of (trivial, all too often) content, because that's what's easy to test on a multiple-choice, standardized test, and that's probably why P21 is emphasizing "skills" (which I have to say is to me a weird way of talking about thinking, but there it is). I agree, emphatically, that we don't want to swing over to the other pole, but there is an imbalance currently that does need to be corrected. To get to that healthy balance, we need to talk about both content and thinking at the same time--both in forums such as this one, and (as you argue) in classes (though in classes, it's more valuable to induce students to think than to talk about thinking.) That's why I see this topic as so perfect for the "Bridging Differences" theme of this blog.

Paul: You say "I believe you must first learn the facts, the material, and only after the subject is learned can the P21 stuff happen." I can't speak for English or Social Studies or Science, but in math, this is a false dichotomy. Well, not entirely--but mostly. A major problem with the traditional way of teaching math is that first the "stuff" is taught, via rote memorization, and only then are students asked to think with or about the "stuff". The problem is that for the majority of people, by the time they get to the problem-solving or thinking part, they have learned to turn off this part of their brains, and they've learned to believe that they can't do something unless someone else shows them, and that doing math is about imitating what someone else does. Huge numbers develop a kind of "learned helplessness" in the process, a major problem for secondary math teachers. If we turn the sequence on its head--introduce the material by having students think about well-selected problems, making sure they have the necessary tools (cognitive and material) to figure the problems out for themselves--thinking develops along with the content, because it's never separated from it. I can see that that might not work in quite the same way for other subjects, but I'd lay odds that delaying the "thinking" part too long in any subject would be a mistake.

Brian, you say "there is not a dichotomy". Unfortunately, there is. It's one we need to get over, and perhaps it's one we artificially impose on our subjects, but it's there, in the curriculum and in how we approach it. Time, the scarcest resource in education, and figuring out how to "do it all" in the time we have available, is definitely part of our problem. Having thought deeply about the teaching and learning of math for the past 40 or so years, I am beginning to have a glimmer of how it can be done in math--but it's not simple or obvious. We are notorious in this country for adding more and more to the curriculum and taking nothing out, ending up with our famous "mile wide and inch deep" curriculum. Integrating subjects was supposed to be a solution--we'd do more in a given amount of time because our one learning activity would be addressing two or more subjects at once. But as Diana points out, often what happens with integrated lessons or units is that either one subject is to the fore and the other one is "in there somewhere", or bits of knowledge that should be coordinated and organized into some logical whole are instead scattered into separate, useless facts, or both. Integration of content can be done well, but it isn't easy or obvious how to do it.

Margo/Mom, you comment on "the tendency to be distracted by comfortable activities--and forget any learning objectives. To be fair, I have experienced the seduction of activities over objectives. . . ." I think you've put your finger on both part of the problem, and part of the solution: well-thought-out and clearly understood (on the part of the teacher) learning objectives. Fuzzy or even non-existent learning objectives in the mind of the teacher are behind a lot of of the "empty projects" and "lack of deep thinking regardless of which way the pendulum swings" people have experienced or seen and commented on.

Unfortunately, learning to think about one's subject and about learning objectives in such a way that one can write good ones (or at least have good ones in mind) is one of the hardest things about learning to teach. It's something that needs a LOT more attention from ed research and teacher ed professionals. I can only speak in specifics about math (though my colleagues assure me there are issues with having good learning objectives in their content areas as well), but I know that in math, the quality of so-called "learning" objectives presented in commercial textbooks and in lessons put up on the internet is very low. Not that the activities are necessarily poor, or the content is necessarily poor (though it often is)--but the objectives themselves are often fuzzy, or don't address student learning at all, or only address math procedures with not a concept or iota of thinking in sight. I spend a lot of time and energy with my students trying to get them to the point of being able to formulate clear learning objectives that target important math concepts, content, and procedures (and then develop learning activities and assessments that address the objectives)--and the vast majority struggle with it. It's not a familiar way of thinking about teaching and learning, or for that matter their subject, to most people. Knowing your subject well helps--but not necessarily as much as you might think, because knowing something for your own use, and knowing it in a way that halps your organize it and conceptualize it for learners are very different. (Of course, NOT knowing your subject is fatal.)

Again I've gotten onto one of my hobby-horses, so I'll rein myself in and quit here. But the "how do we teach content and thinking in such a way that our students both know stuff and can think about it" conversation is a very important one--if enough people weighed in on it, we might indeed bridge some differences, and eventually be able to truly make widespread, productive changes in our schools.

As an employer, we require both 21st century skills and core knowledge from successful candidates. How will the $800 billion+ education industry meet our requirements and those of the majority of 21st century employers? How will all U.S. students be given equitable access to learning the required skills and knowledge?

The academic debate of "can we" or "should we" should be secondary to confronting the brutal fact that we must redesign our approach to delivering teaching and learning. I love history but the demands of today's workforce are different. I'd like to hear more from the education intelligentsia about the innovation required to deliver both 21st century skills and core knowledge.

Interesting that there would be so many "brutal facts" in an era that supposedly scintillates with collaboration and empowerment.

What is the nature of this "brutality"? Is it that those who do not fit in to the "21st century" as it is conceived by P21, or who do not wish to fit in, will have a very hard time finding a job or enjoying a job?

In that case, we should reconsider this 21st century stuff (as it is conceived by P21). Not everyone wants to be a manager. Not everyone wants to work in groups all day long. Not everyone wants to set personal goals every month for the whole company to see.

Diana Senechal

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The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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