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Why the Fight?

Before you read this, it’s important that you realize that I am posting primarily as a response to a Washington Post article from Monday, January 5, 2009 by Jay Matthews. I would encourage you to read “The Rush for 21st Century Skills” and “The Latest Doomed Pedagolical Fad: 21st Century Skills.”

The debate of 21st Century Skills and Literacies has obviously become a hot topic of debate and passionate response in the last days and weeks. This is evident in discussions on my Twitter PLN, in break room discussions, in research and in the media. But, why are we really discussing this? Why is it such a hot topic? What makes these 21st Century skills a debatable subject? Are they really a passing fad, as Jay Matthews predicted in his articles in the Washington Post this week suggested?

Let’s inspect. In Mr. Matthew’s article, he says

The Web site of the Tucson-based Partnership for 21st Century Skills says the skills include creativity, innovation, critical thinking, problem-solving, communication and collaboration.

For now, let’s use this as the definition of 21st Century skills. Is this a new concept? No. It’s not. These skills are ones that we have hoped our children and future leaders would possess for generations past. We expect those who are currently in our workforces, teaching our classes, and leading our country to demonstrate these gifts of creativity, innovation, critical thinking, problem solving, communication and collaboration. The question is… are we teaching these skills in our classrooms at all? How can we ensure that all of our nation’s children are exposed to these skills? Can they survive without them? More on that later.

Mr. Matthews also states

Teaching children basic facts and simple procedures in a way that helps them also learn how to apply and use this knowledge and these skills mirrors the natural process of learning. So the integration of advanced thinking and analytical skills into teaching and learning makes it easier for students to acquire even the most basic skills and core knowledge.

This is a great point, I can’t argue with it. The idea that baffles me is that we “21st Century Teachers” are supposedly hoping to replace content knowledge with procedural knowledge. As an elementary teacher, I am keenly aware of the necessity of creating a strong foundation with my students in all core content areas. People should have a basic understanding of math facts, fractions and decimals. They should know how to spell and know about the principles of our government. My argument for the desperate need of teaching the technological skills of the 21st century is that our students have to adapt. The United States is rapidly slipping in international rankings based on student achievement and proficiency. Looking at those countries who are up and coming, you will see a common thread of technological integration into instruction from an early age. By offering this introduction to the resources that are available for learning, students are able to create a more global world view that includes first-hand access to the events that are happening around them. Teachers have the influence to guide students’ navigation through available resources to become intelligent, discretionary, and savvy readers who know how to decipher information from valid sources. We are allowing students to become life-long learners with an understanding of how and where to pursue individual interests and passions.

Let me refer to another quite from Mr. Matthews.

But I see little guidance for classroom teachers in 21st-century skills materials. How are millions of students still struggling to acquire 19th-century skills in reading, writing and math supposed to learn this stuff?

Guidance is there. Help is there. Teachers are sharers and are passionate about children, teaching and learning. I know very few teachers who will not do what it takes to reach their students. I do know many who want proof that a new method works. I share. I seek out places to share and to learn. I will leave an open invitation to come into my classroom. My students are globally connected via our classroom blog and wiki. They know how to make phone calls and video conferences via Skype. They create podcasts and screen casts to demonstrate their learning. They are writing for a purpose and for a true audience. They are researching and editing, knowing that their work is for a real and global audience. They are teachers and learners as they develop projects designed to be resources for other classes, like our recent podcasts on bullying. Come to my room. Talk to my kids. Talk to my students’ parents. Talk to my administration. Then talk to my colleagues. There’s nothing like seeing the enthusiasm and success of students to make you re-think what you are doing professionally. My afternoon is booked with workshops, individual meetings and presentations for teachers. My days are packed with phone calls from teachers who are trying to try something new. Would I ever turn them down? No way. This is the proof. This is what is causing sweeping changes. It will continue to do so, but not because of a mandate or a law.

If we are saying 21st Century skills are creativity, innovation, critical thinking, problem-solving, communication and collaboration, I can sympathize with the dissention. These are not new skills to the new century. They are skills necessary for life. I hope no one would disagree with that for their own children or those of our nation. They are skills that are not currently being emphasized because of our nation’s focus on testing (but I’ll save that harangue for another day). I will not back down from the idea that our children deserve to be equipped with the skills they need to be successful and productive in our evolving society, academically, technologically and socially. Ages throughout our history have called for advanced technological understanding from printing presses to steam powered engines. Today is no different. Take these skills that are essential to the advancement of a nation and apply them in a technological age, not out for fun, but for necessity.

Also, I have been following some excellent discussions that have been generated here:

3 Responses

  1. Kelly, I think you hit one of the major points in many discussions about education as you discussed content knowledge versus procedural knowledge. As a middle school teacher this argument was embodied by the differences in the work of James Beane and E.D. Hirsch. James Beane was a proponent of democratic education and E.D. Hirsch of course being famous for the “What your ___ Grader Needs to Know” series of specific content based education. One of the problems with our worldview in the US is this sense of dichotomy in everything. Either we have to teach procedures or we have to teach content. As you point out that’s a very limited view of the educational situation in many classrooms. I’m hopeful that we can soon, as a society move beyond that simplistic view and recognize the intricacies of our task as educators. Thanks for sharing your thoughts to help balance this view of 21st Century Skills.

  2. I have just discovered your blog Kelly. Love it! I whole-heartedly agree with your comments. I have been loosely following the discussion about 21st century skills, and like you, I believe that the skills mentioned (collaboration etc) are not new. I am also a primary educator (elementary) in Australia and the same arguments get voiced here. For me, it is about enhancing the skills of problem-solving, collaboration etc through the application of technology. The technology may be new but the learning skills mentioned, are not. You said this quite succinctly. Well done!

  3. This is great Kelly. And as you’ve described, you are actually modelling these skills: creativity, innovation, critical thinking, problem-solving, communication and collaboration as you go about your teaching. You recognise their importance and have adopted them for yourself, so cannot help but teach them to your students.
    In terms of the content we teach, I think we are coming to realise that there is SO much content that we could/should be teaching, that we will never have enough time to cover it all. Rather than try to cover everything, we teach students how to learn for themselves and then they can continue their learning in their own time. We select key content and carefully pair it with learning skills. With a good dose of enthusiasm and teacher encouragement, students will drive their own learning beyond what we could hope to achieve in the time we have face-to-face.

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