“21st Century skills” is the latest buzz in education. Is this the newest fad in slogan-based reform or is the call for 21st century skills provoking an important conversation about 21st century education? It has certainly re-kindled a long-standing debate about content vs. skills.
“‘We are stuck,” says Linda Darling-Hammond, head of the President’s Education Policy Working Group, “We’ve been having this curriculum war for years.’” – from “Backers of ’21st-Century Skills’ Take Flak” (See also “Critical thinking? You need knowledge” by Diane Ravitch)
Getting Beyond False Dichotomies
Our culture has an insatiable desire for simple solutions, which usually involve false dichotomies such as skills vs. content. Yes, we all would prefer unambiguous simple solutions to complex problems, however integrating skills and content are part of any effective educational approach. In the words of Robert Sylwester, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and one of the foremost researchers on the brain and education, ”Emotions drive attention which drives learning, memory and just about everything else.”
As author and cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham commented in his blog: “Clarion calls for more attention to 21st-century skills brings to mind a familiar pattern in the history of education: pendulum swings between an emphasis on process (analysis, critical thinking, cooperative learning) which fosters concern that students lack knowledge and generates a back-to-basics movement that emphasizes content, which fosters concern that student are merely parroting facts with no idea of how to use their knowledge, and so on. In calmer moments, everyone agrees that students must have both content knowledge and practice in using it, but one or the other tends to get lost as the emphasis sweeps to the other extreme.”
Discipline vs. Open Heart
Another false dichotomy exists in the apparent dilemma over teacher approaches in the classroom. Should teachers focus on relationship building and express genuine care for their students? Or should they establish clear boundaries in order to maintain discipline. Of course boundaries are important, and educational research tells us that teachers that care for students and demand their best are the most effective. (from Listening to Urban Kids by Wilson and Corbett) Rachael Kessler describes this need for holding both respectful discipline and open heart in “The Teaching Presence.”
Practicing What We Preach
Many have pointed out that 21st century citizens need to have the capacity for complex thinking, which includes being able to hold two seemingly opposing points of view. As educators, maybe we could ‘practice what we preach’ and embrace the 21st century skills that we strive to cultivate in our students. These include: discerning bias; demonstrating intellectual curiosity; generating and implementing novel approaches; interacting effectively with different individuals, groups, and cultures; recognizing the interdependent nature of our world; working effectively with others; and cooperating for a common purpose.
One of the most powerful ways that young people learn is by example. Is it possible that leaders in the field of education could collaborate with folks that think differently than they do? I know this will generate less entertaining blog posts, but it might help us create an education system that our grandchildren will thank us for.
Individuals and organizations who advocate either for the importance of content or for 21st century citizen skills should be partners in this conversation about innovation. This is not just because cognitive and human development are both important, but because an integrated approach is synergistic — supporting improved academic performance, 21st century skill development, individual student resilience, and school safety.
End vs. Means
This brings up another cosmic education question. Are so-called learning and life skills ‘ends’ in themselves or are they a means to an academic end? There is mounting evidence that social and emotional skills are fundamental competencies for 21st century citizens and they are also essential for academic performance. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) states it this way, “Developing these competencies fosters academic achievement, a sense of belonging, engagement, and positive behavior, and equips children with the skills and attitudes they need to succeed in the 21st century.”
The drive to promote life and career competencies – often called “soft” or “applied” skills – has been part of American school policy debate for years. The SCANS report of 1991, for instance, listed interpersonal skills, effective management of resources, and personal qualities such as responsibility, self-management, and integrity as essential to successful job performance. Lauren Resnick, a member of the original SCANS panel and current director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research Development Center says, ‘What really needs to happen is to bring these [two agendas] back together. They never should have been separated in the first place.
From the Partnership for 21st Century Skills
An Emerging Coalition
Over the last few months, our institute has been participating in an emerging coalition of organizations in Colorado that partner with schools to offer programs for social and emotional learning, character development, and service learning. The coalition is dedicated to developing effective schools through the integration of learning and life skills and academic content knowledge, and we support the inclusion of 21st century skills standards in addition to content standards to achieve both academic excellence and mastery of the learning and life skills. The collaboration is new, and there is a lot of work to do, but the time is ripe for organizations to come together around our common goal of supporting schools and teachers with this integrated approach. Coalition members: Foundation for Character Development, Abraham Lincoln Center for Character Development, Front Range Earth Force, PassageWorks Institute, Peace Jam, Rachel’s Challenge.
I believe that if educators invest the time in listening to each other about what kind of schools we want, that there would be much more agreement than we think, and that this common ground could be the foundation for collaborating on a more complete and integrated approach to educating young people. I want my two grandchildren (and one ‘on the way’) to attend schools that are safe and intellectually challenging environments — so that they have the cognitive, physical, emotional, and social skills to be successful and ethical citizens in the 21st century.