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A Dissent on '21st Century Skills'


In an op-ed piece published in the Boston Globe, education professor and historian Diane Ravitch argues that the current movement to emphasize “21st Century Skills” in K-12 schools is a potentially harmful rehash of earlier, now discredited pedagogical efforts to teach life skills in the place of content knowledge.

Ravitch writes that the focus on cooperative learning, critical thinking, and employment preparation recommended by advocates of 21st Century Skills has a host of precedents. Throughout the 20th century, she says, progressive pedagogical movements repeatedly called on educators to “abandon their antiquated academic ideals” and teach students relevant practical skills through project methods, hands-on activities, and discovery-learning approaches.

These movements eventually lapsed, Ravitch says, but they succeeded in “insert[ing] into American education a deeply ingrained suspicion of academic studies and subject matter.”

The problem, she warns, is that content knowledge is ultimately fundamental to the development of critical thinking skills.

“What matters most in the use of our brains is our capacity to make generalizations, to see beyond our own immediate experience,” Ravitch writes. “The intelligent person, the one who truly is a practitioner of critical thinking, has the capacity to understand the lessons of history, to grasp the inner logic of science and mathematics, and to realize the meaning of philosophical debates by studying them.”


Everyone - please take a deep breath and exhale slowly... There is no debate here. The teaching of 21st century skills was never intended to be at the expense of viable content knowledge. In fact, you can't coach learners to think critically, work as a team, etc. if they have no content knowledge to think about. Our learners need both - with 21st century skills being the means to facilitate the learning of relevant content. This integrated, high tech approach is how the real world operates which is exactly what our learners need to compete globally.

Unfortunately, there is a debate, and the Ravitch approach has been winning, as can be seen by the ever-expanding set of knowledge-based standards teachers are expected to teach. In my blog here http://bit.ly/307NEJ I provide some reasons why, as Karen Winters suggests, knowledge and critical thought do not need to be pitted against one another.

But, you say, "I don't have enough time now; how can I ever get to the 21st Century Skills?" What's needed is to concentrate on the core knowledge [knowledge that enables one to understand the published material in an area, make decisions about its appropriateness to the problem at hand, and to talk with experts and be able to use the feedback], using the time made available to introduce and then provide assignments that build on the core knowledge and the use of the 21st Century Skills.

"21st Century Skills" were presented to the Kansas State Board of Eduation as "It is no longer important what bits of information a student knows. It is now only important that the student can find that information."

There are at least six mid-sized Kansas high schools that have adopted the movement by commanding that their teachers no longer teach content, but set their students to group problem-solving, mostly looking information up on the internet.

Some science teachers have been irate, stating "I am trained in genetics but can't teach it, and the students are not going to learn it correctly on their own on the internet!"

I no longer place student teachers at these schools because there is no bonafide teaching occurring.

In this country, there is a giddy over-reliance on teckkie toys, and an overt disdain for intellectual knowledge and experts. It is called 21st Century "Skills" or "Learning" rather than "21st Century Schools" because they really don't believe in schools, but envision future education with the student at home on a computer.

Ravitch is dead correct in her criticism, if not perhaps understated.

John Richard Schrock

Karen Winters (9:52 AM post) is absolutely correct. When are we as educators going to quit fighting the 'either/or' battle that does nothing but harm both our students and our systemic improvement efforts? The 'either/or' perspective causes the 'trends in education' pendulum to swing to the extremes rather than provide a balanced approach to best practices. As Karen says, there is no debate. Let's drop the 'or' so we can embrace the 'and' that will move us into effective teaching and learning in the 21st century.

I think the content problems relates to WHAT we are teaching, and not whether the content is important. I agree with John Bennett ... you can't do critical thinking about nothing. The problem I find is that we often teach content that may not be relevant and then spend too much time trying to find out if students were able to memorize what we "taught" them.

In the latest edition of "English Journal," the debate about teaching Shakespeare rages on. (It's actually a debate about teaching the entire Canon, I think). It is my experience (38 years High School) that we tend to teach what WE like and assume that we can GET students to like it as well; I believe this kills more enthusiasm for literature than it could ever create, and I believe that creating enthusiasm for literature is what will drive students to Shakespeare when they are ready for it (or when they meet it in college where they may or may not be ready for it.) I think we should teach books that engage students where they are; some of these may be classics (1984, Brave New World, Farenheit 451, and a host of other classic qualify here), but that we also include books that are, in some way or other, about them.

I also don't know how we teach things like 21st Century skills. I know that there are things we can teach such as evaluating the reliability of information found on the Internet, but I don't know how you teach critical thinking skills except for practicing them through content (we've always done this).

There are a lot of issues here, but I think the general tone of the suggestions is great: teach relevant content and use that content to (somehow) teach the required skills.

I frankly don't understand Ravitch's disdain for being clear and specific about teaching needed skills along with content. This looks to me like yet another example of a false dichotomy being debated by educators to the detriment of all. Teaching content does not magically lead to the acquisition of skills. Nor does an emphasis on skills ensure that students will acquire content.

It's about balance--something we have a damnably difficult time understanding, let alone doing. Ravitch's end of the spectrum, taken to extreme (as it is far too frequently)leads to the kind of "basics only" and "test prep" education for students in low-income neighborhoods, concerned with racing through "content" with some blind belief that "exposure" will equal learning and test scores will go up. Sad to say, pre-NCLB, the opposite has far too frequently been the case. All kinds of feel-good activities (including "movie Fridays") have, with little thought to learning, have filled the schedule--with just as little thought about what students were to be learning from them, why, and how we might ever know if we succeeded.

I can easily grant what Ravitch describes as a disdain for academia in the halls of primary and secondary education. This is not, however, assisted, by inserting an equal amount of distain for learning HOW to learn and how to apply learning.

A 21 st century skill lesson is giving the students an article on Alexander the Great and asking them to pull out three reasons why Alexander is considered "Great"-thats it! The students are graded on the ability to find info.
A good teacher goes beyond that-gives the students background on his life, his military skill,the role of his parents, a few famous quotes by Alexander-maybe a map of this empire, then in combination with an article, the text, the map, the lecture-asks the students to evaluate Alexander's "greatness" a few days later to see if they learned (dare I say remember) Alexander and his "greatness". Yes they have to remember! That is better than just "locating the information."
No young person will EVER be inspired to teach history, let alone someday be "great" by being a good "locator" of information. They must remember knowledge. I never heard anyone say "The ability to find knowledge is power"
I have been teaching high school history for 29 years .

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Recent Comments

  • Jerry O'Connell: A 21 st century skill lesson is giving the students read more
  • Margo/Mom: I frankly don't understand Ravitch's disdain for being clear and read more
  • T. J. Brady: I think the content problems relates to WHAT we are read more
  • Peggy Blair: Karen Winters (9:52 AM post) is absolutely correct. When are read more
  • John Richard Schrock: "21st Century Skills" were presented to the Kansas State Board read more




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