Backers of ‘21st-Century Skills’ Take Flak

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 02, 2009 8 min read
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The phrase “21st-century skills” is everywhere in education policy discussions these days, from faculty lounges to the highest echelons of the U.S. education system.

Broadly speaking, it refers to a push for schools to teach critical-thinking, analytical, and technology skills, in addition to the “soft skills” of creativity, collaboration, and communication that some experts argue will be in high demand as the world increasingly shifts to a global, entrepreneurial, and service-based workplace.

But now a group of researchers, historians, and policymakers from across the political spectrum are raising a red flag about the agenda as embodied by the Tucson, Ariz.-based Partnership for 21st Century Skills, or P21, the leading advocacy group for 21st-century skills.

Unless states that sign on to the movement ensure that all students are also taught a body of explicit, well-sequenced content, a focus on skills will not help students develop higher-order critical-thinking abilities, they said at a panel discussion here in the nation’s capital last week.

Array of Skills

In the Partnership for 21st Century Skills’ vision for K-12 education, the arches of the rainbow depict outcomes, while the pools represent the resources needed to support those outcomes. But critics contend that states implementing this vision might focus too heavily on discrete skills instruction, at the expense of core content.


SOURCE: Partnership for 21st Century Skills

The president of P21, Ken Kay, repeatedly disagreed with those experts’ characterization of the movement.

And several prominent educators reacted to the debate with weariness, saying it echoes long-standing disagreements about the place of content and skills in education.

“We are stuck,” Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University, said in an interview. “We’ve been having this curriculum war for years.”

A Long History

The notion that students need a new approach to education in the age of lightning-fast access to information has become something of a catch-all in education circles. President Barack Obama, for instance, called for “a new vision for a 21st-century education system” in December when introducing his nominee for U.S. secretary of education, Arne Duncan.

Advocates are not all in agreement over the set of skills such a system would encompass. But over the past five years, the framework advanced by the P21 group has gained traction. Ten states have agreed to work with P21 to incorporate a focus on technology, analytical and communication skills into their content standards, teacher training, and assessments.

The loudest protests so far have come from Massachusetts, which unveiled an initiative to adopt 21st-century skills last November. The move generated competing commentaries in The Boston Globe from officials who argue the movement would water down the state’s standards and assessment system—widely considered to be among the best in the nation—and from those who say that it will supplement and advance the system.

Historians, though, say the debate is much older, and the moniker “21st-century skills” glosses over calls for skills instruction that go back more than a century.

“There is nothing new in the proposals of the 21st-century-skills movement,” said Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University and a co-chairwoman of Common Core, the Washington-based nonprofit group that sponsored the panel discussion. “The same ideas were iterated and reiterated by pedagogues across the 20th century.”

The latter part of the 20th century witnessed successive education battles between content-based approaches and those that focused on skills, but went under a variety of names, such as the “life adjustment movement” in the 1950s and “outcome-based education” in the 1980s, Ms. Ravitch recounted.

Mr. Kay, in contrast, painted the P21 vision as one that transcends this debate. The partnership tries to encourage states to be more deliberative about how they help students learn the skills, he said. “There’s no question from the beginning that our work has been built on the premise that skills and content support each other, and the notion that you have to choose between them is a false dichotomy,” he said in an interview. “[But] the liberal arts movement, which we embrace, has not been as purposeful and intentional about the skill outcomes as we need to be.”

Questions of Content

At the panel debate and in interviews, several experts sharply disagreed with Mr. Kay. They contended that the P21 framework is not based on sound principles about how students learn.

Critics pointed to statements in P21’s foundational documents suggesting that critical-thinking and analytical skills can be taught outside of specific content. Cognitive science doesn’t support that notion, according to Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville.

Mr. Willingham argued not only that the teaching of skills is inseparable from that of core content, but also that it is the content itself that allows individuals to recognize problems and to determine which critical-thinking skills to apply to solve them.

As a result, critical-thinking skills cannot transfer from the specific content in which they are exercised to real-life contexts such as in the workplace, said E.D. Hirsch, a professor emeritus at the University of Virginia and the founder of the Core Knowledge, a curriculum designed to increase students’ background knowledge.

Students become proficient critical thinkers only by gleaning a broad body of knowledge in multiple content domains, he said.

The P21 idea, Mr. Hirsch asserted, “is that once you acquire [these skills], they are all-purpose muscles. That error is fundamental, and it is fatal.”

Mr. Kay, a lawyer with experience in the information-technology industry, took issue with that.

“I understand the research that critical thinking looks different in math and history, but we actually have to teach people to apply it in settings they haven’t been in,” he said. “It would suggest every company that’s only in one [business] application can’t grow in other applications. Growth in the economy is [dependent on] bringing ideas into new contexts.”

Panelists at the Feb. 24 debate also questioned the feasibility of the teaching techniques endorsed by the P21 group, whose members include both businesses and education groups, such as Cable in the Classroom, Cisco Systems Inc., Microsoft Corp., and the National Education Association.

Those techniques include student-directed methods such as project-based learning, which requires students to work in groups to solve a specified problem, relying on teachers for guidance rather than for explicit instruction.

Although the panelists said such methods can be effective ways to deepen children’s content knowledge, they are difficult for teachers to put into place.

For instance, Mr. Willingham said, a teacher leading a whole classroom-based discussion of Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger can largely control themed discussions.

A project-based setting allowing small groups to explore different ideas might give students a chance to examine a diverse, richer set of subtexts—such as the history of existentialist thought or colonization in 1930s Algeria—but it also forces teachers to make many more snap judgments about how to guide students, provide resources on topics with which they may be unfamiliar, and ensure students are on task.

“There’s a reason teachers have been taught for 75 years to do projects and they don’t do them,” he said.

Another concern is one of equity, said Andrew J. Rotherham, a director of the Washington-based think tank Education Sector.

“The amount of content kids get elsewhere varies by [socioeconomic] status, so the thing that worries some people is that [the 21st-century skills movement] has the potential to be an intervention that’s the weakest in the schools that have to be the strongest,” Mr. Rotherham said.

Mr. Hirsch of Core Knowledge warned that curriculum based primarily or entirely on projects could carry a heavy opportunity cost for poor students.

“You don’t want to waste a lot of time, particularly for disadvantaged kids, on teaching things they already know and omitting things they don’t know,” he said.

Supporters of the P21 framework said such concerns, while legitimate, should not prohibit careful attempts to improve teaching in ways that help students better exercise the 21st-century skills.

“The problem I have is in the implication [that] if it’s hard, don’t do it,” Mr. Kay said.

Such efforts must be accompanied by major changes in the system of teacher training and development, said Tony Wagner, a co-director of the Change Leadership Institute at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, which seeks new ways to improve schools.

“It took Finland close to 20 years to transform the education profession. But they’ve accomplished it,” he said. “Teachers will rise to the challenge given the kind of supports they need.”

Common Ground?

The panelists attempted to find some common ground with Mr. Kay, but even that proved challenging.

Mr. Kay, for instance, remarked on the scattered content objectives in districts’ curriculum—a phenomenon often deemed the “mile-wide, inch-deep” problem of U.S. education. “I’m having sort of an out-of-body experience,” he said, arguing that much of what educators do in the classroom now is focused on subject matter.

But Antonia Cortese, the secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers and the discussion’s moderator, cited her union’s findings that much of that curriculum is not well guided by state content standards, which tend to be repetitive and vague.

“If [curriculum] is just picking up a manual, or a series of nonconnected or nonsequenced experiments in science or literary works with no connection and no background knowledge, it’s not going to help our kids think any better,” she said in an interview.

Academics like Ms. Darling-Hammond said that setting forth a clear understanding once and for all about what students should know, and which teaching methods best help students engage that content in depth, will be crucial to putting such debates to rest.

The highest-scoring countries on international exams, she said, undertook efforts to outline such goals specifically 20 to 30 years ago.

“When you really think about delivering a rich curriculum, it takes a very skillful type of teaching,” Ms. Darling-Hammond said. “It can be done badly; we have to acknowledge that. But we don’t really have a choice, if we want to join other nations.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2009 edition of Education Week as Backers of ‘21st-Century Skills’ Take Flak


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