21st century skills: another disappointment
I am trying NOT to write off the 21st century skills movement as a sham, but its leaders don’t make it easy.
When Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel's publisher sent me their new book, “21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times,” I had hopes. The authors are both members of the board of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the jacket flap said. They hold important positions at major Silicon Valley companies, Oracle and Cisco Systems, respectively.
The 206-page hardcover book looked nice. It included a DVD with scenes of students and teachers in action. There were pictures of two cute elementary school kids on the cover. Were the 21st century skills people finally going to show us how this idea actually works in the classroom? Would they have data? Would there be lesson plans, and detailed testimony from students and parents and teachers? Were they going to prove wrong those of us who could see nothing in this movement (here is a previous column) but a lot of buzz words and jargon describing principles of teaching and learning that have been with us for many decades?
I wish I could answer those questions positively. A hyper-sensitive author myself, I don’t like to pan books. I write about many books in this column and so am sent many more in the mail. If a quick read tells me the work in question is dreck, I just toss it in the reject pile. Time and space are too precious to be wasted on negativity.
But the phrase “21st century skills” has become so common in conferences and newsletters and journals and luncheon handouts and even presidential speeches, and so lacking in meaning, that I feel an obligation to look carefully at all serious attempts to define it.
Trilling and Fadel have failed to do so in any useful way. I am not saying they are trying to pull something over on us. I see no sign that the Partnership, based in Tucson and Washington, D.C., is using its revenue to buy beach mansions in Bali. They are well meaning people who want to change the world, but they trip over themselves trying to explain how this will happen.
I sense Trilling and Fadel are smart tech guys who just don’t know much about real schools with real kids who have difficulty learning how to read, write and do math. The perspective of much of the book is from thousands of feet up, as if the authors were on a jetliner flying into San Francisco's airport. They can't see the scuffed floors and trash-strewn playground of a public middle school in Oakland, but can use their laptops to write nice sentences about how the six emerging principles of the movement are “vision, coordination, official policy, leadership, learning technology and teacher learning.”
I wish they had at least found an editor who knew enough about schools to weed out the bits of ignorance that pop up throughout the manuscript. Here is an example: “Recent standards and assessment practices have focused students on memorizing the content that will be required for high-stakes exams. These often-stressful exams can determine the future learning and career path of a student and are also used (and often misused) to judge the quality of an entire school and the educators in it.”
They don’t have it all wrong, but two major errors in two sentences is not a good average. Preparation for high-stakes exams such as state tests or the SAT is often narrow and repetitive, but is mostly about recognizing how to attack certain questions and has little, if anything, to do with memorization. Those tests have little effect on learning and career paths. If you can’t pass the low-grade standards of a state high school exit exam, your grades also are likely to be low and your prospects already compromised. Preparation for the SAT never makes enough of a difference to change lives---whatever happens you will get into a college at your level, which is a good thing.
If you've never read a book on education policy or history, or know nothing about advances in classroom technology, “21st Century Skills” might have something you need. The DVD is much better than the book in showing classroom examples of what the authors are writing about. But I wish the disc I found in my book was easier to access. I struggled to play the videos from an assortment of interesting schools.
I wish what I saw was a big departure from project-driven learning as it has been done in U.S. schools for decades. I also yearned to know what portion of the school year was NOT devoted to projects in these schools. Some of the videos suggested that what I was seeing was not a typical day. The book has much material on West Virginia’s school innovation plans, which sound interesting, as new policies often do, but gives few clues to whether they have had any significant impact on classroom results.
The real-world examples written up in the book are set off in shaded boxes, and seemed pitched at about sixth grade level. One of them profiled Deb Austin Brown, a West Virginia fifth grade teacher who participated in a 21st century skills program and learned how to take her students through a project.
“Students chose a successful historical or contemporary leader, researched what helped make that leader a success, and created Web pages that captured their findings,” then shared what they had done with students around the world, the book said. It was a nice story, but other than the web page. it did not seem any different from the group projects my classmates and I did in the middle of the 20th century, mounting our findings on big cardboard displays and showing them off at a special night for parents and classmates.
I am not going to give up on these people. Their hearts are in the right place. For their next project, maybe they could show us what the movement is doing to solve one of our most daunting educational problems---the 40 percent of urban school children who haven’t learned to read well enough by fourth grade to study independently. When I couldn’t find much about that in the book, I looked in the index for the page numbers associated with that important subject: reading.
That word was not indexed. It is a skill that students are going to have to learn in the 21st century, and maybe even a few centuries after that, before our frontal lobes are wired into the great neural worldnet. I still am willing to be convinced that the 21st century skills movement is not a waste of time and energy for fine men like Trilling and Fadel, but this book didn’t win over me or the many other, somewhat more polite, skeptics out here with me.
| October 23, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
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