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 Ravitch
March 3, 2009, edweek.org

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