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Curriculum Commentary

Our 21st-Century ‘Risk’

By Richard H. Hersh — April 20, 2009 6 min read

Our 21st-century nation is economically and educationally more “at risk” now than when the National Commission on Excellence in Education proclaimed it so in 1983. Both conditions require bipartisan political and educational solutions. Yet our politicians apparently do not get this, as daily on television we see them depressingly unable to transcend their polarized, ideological blinders. (We need to remind ourselves that they are the products of our education system.) Likewise on the education front, leaders continue the long-standing debate about whether schools, and presumably colleges and universities, should emphasize the teaching of content or 21st-century skills. ( “Backers of ‘21st-Century Skills’ Take Flak,” March 4, 2009.)

We can only hope for a more enlightened political debate. But in education, we should and do know better. Recent work in developmental, cognitive, and brain-based learning research makes it clear that this is not about content or skills, but content and skills. Learning involves constructing meaning, not just knowing about things; it is about being able to apply what one knows to novel situations. In a knowledge-rich world, being able to access, structure, and use “content” is crucial. What the New York Times writer Thomas L. Friedman calls a “flat world"—the global leveling of opportunities resulting from the ways people, in his words, “plug, play, compete, connect, and collaborate with more equal power than ever before"—requires all of the knowledge, intellectual horsepower, rigor, and deep thinking we have traditionally associated with the best of education.

Instant access to 21st-century information technology does not absolve us of the need to master appropriate content, a fact that E.D. Hirsch Jr. has well articulated. But equally necessary is the ability to connect disparate dots across virtually infinite information—to think critically, apply knowledge, solve problems, and write and speak well (thinking made public). And thus those arguing for teaching “21st-century skills” are also on very solid ground. The debate is not just about the ends of education but, equally important, its means—curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment—and where the emphasis on content and skill acquisition and its measurement ought to be placed, given limited time and resources.

Focusing solely on content learning is not sufficient, because there is ample evidence that content acquisition does not automatically translate into application of knowledge, problem-solving, or critical thinking. And focusing solely on teaching thinking skills devoid of content, as some critics worry, is a vacuous exercise. After all, the quality of how we think is judged ultimately both by content adequacy and reasoning ability; these are inextricably related. A piece of research reported in the Jan. 30, 2009, issue of the journal Science, comparing the content learning and scientific-reasoning skills of Chinese and American first-year college students, illustrates this connection nicely.

Students in China go through a far more rigorous science curriculum than do U.S. students. This study points out, for example, that Chinese students take physics every semester in grades 8-12, culminating in a national college exam given at the end of 12th grade. The courses, say the study’s authors, are algebra-based, “with emphasis on development of conceptual understanding and skills needed to solve problems.” By contrast, only one in three American high school students enrolls in a two-semester physics course. Predictably, American students fared quite poorly on physics content tests compared with their Chinese counterparts. But surprisingly, on a test of scientific reasoning, the distributions of Chinese and U.S. students were nearly identical—both very poor!

How could the Chinese students fare so poorly on the reasoning test, having demonstrated so much more content prowess? The authors explain this apparent anomaly directly: The pedagogy and assessment for science learning in both countries emphasize factual recall over deep understanding and scientific reasoning. Content is not enough. As these researchers write, “Because students ideally need to develop both content knowledge and transferable reasoning skills, researchers and educators must invest more in the development of a balanced method of education, such as incorporating more inquiry-based learning that targets both goals.”

This particular study echoes research across all disciplines. How we teach content is just as important as what we teach, if higher-order thinking is a goal. And to this we need to add the nature and quality of how we assess learning, because we know for sure that appropriate and timely feedback enhances learning. Leaving aside the issue of “timely” for now, “appropriate” feedback is especially crucial, for if what we assess is primarily recall and comprehension of content and leaves out how well students are thinking, within and across content areas, then we are offering inadequate and inappropriate feedback, thereby decreasing important learning. Worse, by not providing rich feedback, we convey to students—who universally ask, “Will it be on the test?"—a poor explication of legitimate and challenging 21st-century learning expectations.

We must move beyond the flawed content-vs.-skills argument and the equally harmful effects of the reductionist learning objectives and assessment measures states have developed in response to the No Child Left Behind Act. We need to focus instead on tightly coupling high expectations and standards, rich curricula and pedagogy, and equally rich and appropriate learning assessment. These cannot be treated separately, for the research on effective schools clearly demonstrates that it is the cumulative effects of such coupling that promote significantly greater and better learning.

If teaching for 21st-century content and skills is the objective, what are the consequences of our not getting these linkages right? Extensive data collected from the Collegiate Learning Assessment program over the past six years tell part of the tale. The CLA is a value-added performance measure that assesses critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem-solving, and writing, using constructed essays only; nearly 400 colleges and universities and 170,000 freshman and senior college students have participated. Since the CLA assesses college freshmen just as they begin postsecondary education, its results represent a useful snapshot of the effects of our K-12 system, as well as what may be happening in colleges and universities. There is also the College and Work Readiness Assessment for use by high schools, which is helpful in assessing grades 9-12.

The primary purpose of the Collegiate Learning Assessment is to allow each campus to judge how well its students are meeting its standards in comparison with other colleges and universities. And while there is abundant evidence that colleges and universities do make real differences beyond chance in teaching reasoning and written communication, the data from the test also suggest an unacceptably large percentage of college freshmen and seniors cannot write or reason well, given anyone’s minimal definition of proficiency. As depressing as these results may be, they are not surprising, given that we know from other research that college professors are as knowledge- and comprehension-focused as their high school counterparts, if not more. This should give little solace to those who believe content-competent teachers (and surely Ph.D. professors are content scholars) are sufficient to the task of teaching thinking skills within their disciplines much less across them. The tight coupling of content, pedagogy, and assessment is just as crucial in “higher” education.

A nation now at more risk needs both economic and educational stimulus. On the education front, we have a great deal more knowledge about high-quality teaching, learning, and assessment than we are using. Both our school system and undergraduate education require significant improvement if we are to significantly raise the quality of learning needed for life in a new global reality. We should be content with nothing less.

Special coverage marking the 25th anniversary of the landmark report A Nation at Risk is supported in part by a grant from the Broad Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the April 22, 2009 edition of Education Week as Our 21st-Century ‘Risk’


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