The Reason for the Skills/Literacy Debate

This morning during my first cup of coffee, prior to heading back to school after the holidays, I ran across two articles by Jay Mathews from the Washington Post: The Latest Doomed Pedagogical Fad: 21st-Century Skills and The Rush for ’21-st Century Skills’.

I was initially drawn to this quote from the first article:

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?

Immediately I was reminded of David Warlick’s Happy Birthday Jude post which included this statement:

No generation in history has ever been so thoroughly prepared for the industrial age.

Perhaps the reason our students are struggling to grasp those 19th-century skills is that they are not being shown their relevance to the current world. Our recent discussions on ‘literacy’ have brought out the semantic side of the argument as well as bringing up the fact that many of the 21st-Century skills are just updates to skills that have always been useful.

I actually do agree with Mr. Mathews in that there is little guidance for the inclusion of these skills in the classroom. The teachers on the edge of all this discussion are still trying to wrap their brains around WHAT the skills are, let alone the best ways to teach them in the classroom. How then, do we expect the classroom teacher who is less proficient, possibly even scared of technology to dive right in and begin full-fledged, technology integrating, pedagogy?

Mr. Mathews also discusses his experience with “21st-Century Skills” in a Celestial Navigation course for which he had no interest:

My final exam would be applauded today by promoters of 21st-century skills. We had to plot a course on a Boston Harbor cruise ship, strategizing, analyzing, collaborating. I don’t recall understanding any of what was going on, but I turned something in. As I expected, I got a good grade and a bachelor’s degree, despite learning no science.

A truer statement of the necessity for relevant, personalized learning does not exist. If the courses we require our students to take are simply about hoop-jumping then they will learn to jump through hoops. If they are about thinking, understanding, application and analysis in a world that has meaning and purpose we are far more likely to see them grow and learn.

In the second article, Mathews discusses the implications of the member institutions in the Partnership for 21st Century Skills:

When you look at the list of members (Adobe, Apple, Cable in the Classroom, Microsoft, Texas Instruments . . . ) in the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, it’s clear that many of the organizations involved have a vested interest in pushing for a greater emphasis on technology. There is a lot of money to be made selling software, computers and high-tech gadgets to schools.

While I routinely teach my students to look for bias and propaganda in the media, I have to step out of that mindset for a moment. Yes, these companies have a vested interest in students being able to use technology, but it’s not entirely about selling things to schools. While that is a pet peeve of mine (schools purchasing things that are available for free elsewhere and by other means) I can’t see the entire Partnership as being designed only to fill the pockets of these corporations with education dollars. They also want students who, upon graduation, will be ready to step in and be the next big thinkers within their corporations.

Overall, I think these two articles are direct indications that teachers need to figure out exactly what our students need to know and be able to do regarding technology, to be “technorate” if I may use my made up term again.  Too often technology is taught from the standpoint of: “Today we are going to learn PowerPoint” rather than “Today you are going to learn what it takes to create a strong digital presentation, here are multiple tools to help you accomplish this task.”  Moving our pedagogy more toward the latter example will help us create students who embody those 21st-Century Skills, whether we call them that or not!

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3 Responses

  1. I think you have hit the nail on the head with this post. Your exercise for students was indeed evidence of your understanding of 21st Century Skills. I, like you, am consistently concerned regarding a bias that is designed to “sell something” to education. I agree with you regarding he partners in the 21st Century Partnership. While at first glance, one might suspect a “selling focus, the bigger drive of all involved does seem to develop individuals who can think on their own, solve problems, collaborate, and become legitimate members of their businesses. When we as teachers understand and implement activities that promote these 21st Century Skills, we can encourage and promote the preparation of our students to become part of a skilled workforce – not just prepared for mindless labor.

  2. Well constructed response, Todd. I hope you will consider posting as a comment on the Washingtonpost.com website. Thank you for bringing this article to my attention today, and I look forward to sitting down and constructing a response of my own. I will definitely be referring back to your thoughts!

  3. […] Todd Williamson’s blog “The Technorate Teacher“ […]

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