Finally some sense about 21st century skills--part one, the Jerald report
Just when I was losing hope of any practical advice on how our schools might adapt to the new century and the new economy, two smart people have come to save me. The first, Washington-based education analyst Craig Jerald, has produced a report, astonishingly clear and insightful for a topic usually riddled with hyperbole. The second, educator Tony Wagner, is the author of a ground-breaking book I should have read last year, but that's me, always having to catch up.
Today I will examine Jerald's report, since it is relatively new. Next week I will review Wagner's book. The week after that I hope to have a dialogue with Wagner, since we have some differences that will be easier to resolve if he can defend himself against my possibly ill-informed gibes.
Jerald is president of Break the Curve Consulting, which specializes in education policy, communications, research and practice. I have known him since he was the boy wonder data expert at Education Week in the 1990s. He understands teaching and can see past the theatrical fog obscuring hot pedagogical fads like the 21st century skills movement and explain what they really mean for schools.
His new report for the Center for Public Education sounds dull: "Defining a 21st Century education." But it was a thrill ride for me. I have been filling my waste basket with 21st century reports that promise much, but seem unable to translate their Star Trek idealism into anything that makes sense for teachers. Jerald's paper, by contrast, carefully describes the corporate, economic, political, cultural and demographic trends that have put our children at a disadvantage, and explains how our teachers can adapt what they already teach, the content knowledge and literary and math skills that everyone needs, to help students think critically, collaborate with others, solve new problems and adapt to change.
There are four paragraphs near the end of Jerald's 70-page report that are so central to the debate over changing education that they are now, at least on my copy, barely readable under my frantic underlining and circling and highlighting. Let me quote them in full:
"It is important to avoid simplistic 'either or' thinking about 21st century skills. Factual knowledge, the ability to follow directions, knowing how to find a right answer when there is one—all of these things will still be important in the 21st century. The key is to develop a curriculum that teaches students those things as well as how to apply what they learn to solve real world problems and helps them to develop the broader competencies increasingly important for success in an ever more complex and demanding world. The right word is “and,” not “or.”
"To that end, applied literacies and broader competencies are best taught within traditional disciplines. Cognitive scientists warn against efforts to teach critical thinking as isolated skills outside of content, and commercial programs that promise they can do so have little to no strong evidence backing them up. Therefore, districts should be especially wary of sales pitches that ask them to spend less time on traditional
subjects in order to fit in stand alone lessons related to 21st century skills.
"Of course, that raises the question of time: How can districts fit all of this into the schedule? Lessons from abroad provide one possible answer. Researchers have found that countries performing better on international assessments have a more focused curriculum that emphasizes a much slimmer set of concepts, each of which in turn can be taught in much greater depth. For example, popular U.S. math textbooks cover almost twice as many topics per grade as do Singapore’s math textbooks. In fact, Singapore’s expect students to complete about one thorough lesson on a single topic per week, while U.S. textbooks students are expected to complete about one lesson on a narrowly focused topic each day. If districts want to teach 21st century skills, they must focus the curriculum, not narrow it.
"Also, as discussed above, since research shows that some interpersonal skills are developed in athletics and extracurricular activities, it makes sense to ensure those programs provide ample opportunities to all students to develop 21st century skills. Teachers of academic subjects should not be asked to bear these new responsibilities on their own."
The last two paragraphs are particularly interesting because they raise issues that are also important in Wagner's book, "The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don't Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need--and What We Can Do About It." Two questions occur to me:
(1) Should we make more time for thinking in school by finding a more efficient --and quicker--way to teach the facts our students need to think about?
(2) If collaboration is so important to the 21st century workplace, and if (as Jerald and Wagner report) students appear to learn the most about teamwork in sports and other extracurricular activities, should we require everyone to participate in games or clubs in the same way we used to make P.E. mandatory?
Figuring out the school day is key. I am one of those people who think we should make it longer, at least for students whose off-hours are not already immersed in study and resume building like the high schoolers in my academically ambitious neighborhood of Bethesda, Md. But I met a scary-bright advocate of adaptive learning a few days ago who seemed to think that computers could teach facts more effectively than human beings, freeing up teachers for the deep conversations that make the best classes, and maybe NOT having to tack more hours on to the school day.
I have been influenced by some school systems, such as Clovis near Fresno, Calif., that put unusual emphasis on afterschool activities. In high school I spent a lot of time on the tennis and cross country teams, and in student government. I lacked talent in those ventures, but the effort taught me much about myself and others. The greatest influence by far in college on my future personal and professional life was an extracurricular activity, the student newspaper.
There I am, doing exactly what I complain the 21st century advocates do, drawing lessons from my own life and experience that might not work in a classroom full of restless adolescents there only because their parents, and the law, require them to be. Jerald says educators are going to have to be very careful to define to everyone's satisfaction what they are teaching when they wedge these new lessons into the old school day.
"There are two dangers if school districts skip the defining stage," he writes. "The first, as we have seen, is that teachers might be teaching the wrong thing, spending lots of time and effort on teaching something not calibrated to the real world demands that have prompted greater attention on 21st century skills in the first place. The second is simply that teachers will not be teaching the same thing. That is important, too, because if they
are not teaching the same thing they will not be able to collaborate on instructional approaches and share emerging best practices."
That makes sense to me. We have a lot of work to do. This is a very controversial topic. It would be best if we try to see everyone else's point of view. Wagner, the subject of next week's Friday column, is a hot-blooded type who appears to want to pulverize the content-loving traditionalists who stand in the way of this new teaching.
Of course, I am exaggerating somewhat what he said. But he does think schools won't change without a fight. I am not sure I agree. Check in the next two weeks and decide who's right.
| December 4, 2009; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Trends | Tags: 21st century skills, Craig Jerald, Tony Wagner, critical thinking, extracurricular activities, factual knowledge, fads
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