A Dissent on ‘21st Century Skills’

By Anthony Rebora — September 16, 2009 1 min read
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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.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Web Watch blog.