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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.

By Jay Mathews  | 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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Some of the skills mentioned are ireelevant and simply lead to more wasted effort. I teach my students in Korea the best skills to improve their ability to learn on their own: 1) improve their memory to remember any concept in any subject,2) get them to read faster and more efficiently so that they can handle textbooks and readoing assignments in a fraction of the time, 3) improve their time manegement skills to accomplish more qnd do what they enjoy doing, 4) improving note taking skills so that in any class they can do well, 5) improve test-taking skills so they will feel confident in any test situation, 6) improve their critical thinging skills to handle any perosnal or intepersonal situation, and 7) improve their writing and speaking communication skills to not only perform better in school, but be able to communicate desires and wishes outside of school.

The best students seem to have these skills; weaker students don't. And what do most schools give weaker students? A longer day and more time to stay behind.

I don't know why people think that more is better when better is actually better. If teachers think of themselves as mere content deliverers rather than educators, students will never progress and will always receive mixed signals in advice and criitism from any one of their 6-8 teachers that they have that day.

Posted by: ericpollock | December 4, 2009 8:08 AM | Report abuse

Descriptions of 21st century skills (in the popular media, at least) don't give any indication that their proponents attend to the different ways that they would play out at different grade levels. K-3 children are (and should be) learning and/or practicing basic "get along in a group" skills focused on impulse control, kindness, patience, self-discipline, respect, open-mindedness, and so forth. These are the skills that set the stage for actual cooperation on a learning task later on. In grades 4-12, the students have become (we hope) self-regulating enough to move on to the skills that get all the hype-- critical thinking, collaboration, etc. But here's a question: how did us old folks who came up under the mid-20th century model, ever succeed in gaining those 21st century skills? pretty much all of us have them. We got them from focus on content to the point where criticial thinking became a natural outcome of what we were learning. They tend to be stgrongest in the realms where we actually spend our time and make our livings now. I think the goal of having each child be a critical thinker in every realm is overblown and unrealistic.

Posted by: jane100000 | December 4, 2009 8:34 AM | Report abuse

I'd be interested in knowing Mr. Jerald's views on virtual schooling, which is increasingly pressed upon school districts and touted as offering training in 21st century skills.

To me the ideal learning model continues to be a group of engaged, interacting students with a skillful and knowledgeable teacher.

What I know of online coursework is content presented in a videogame format with a goal of scoring enough points to pass the course. How do we address seemingly diverging models of good pedagogy?

Posted by: speakuplouder | December 4, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

smart posts. next week we will generate a bit more friction.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 4, 2009 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Bureau of Labor Statistics
In November, both the number of unemployed persons, at 15.4 million, and the unemployment rate, at 10.0 percent, edged down.

Total nonfarm payroll employment was essentially unchanged in November (-11,000). Job losses in the construction, manufacturing, and information industries were offset by job gains in temporary help services and health care. Since the recession began, payroll employment has decreased by 7.2 million.

The health care industry has added 613,000 jobs since the recession began in December 2007.

Wake up America, the jobs of the 21st century are not the computer jobs being directly exported, but the jobs of the bedpan that can not be exported.

This Christmas buy a bedpan instead of a computer for your child and start practicing at home for the American jobs of the 21st Century.

Posted by: bsallamack | December 4, 2009 5:11 PM | Report abuse

21st Century Skills are the same skills students have always needed. First and foremost is that students must learn to read with ease so that their brains are free to concentrate on comprehension of the text.

Students also need to learn how to speak and write correctly so that their thoughts can be clearly understood by others.

If students can read with ease, then they will be more likely to read great pieces of literature when guided to do so by the adults in their lives.

Nothing will ever replace the importance of reading the great books of the world. The classics model sophisticated sentence structure, deep vocabulary, well-rounded characters that exemplify the qualities of human nature, and plots that cause students to think logically and practice the gymnastics of the mind.

Once students can read, speak, and write with ease, they are ready to apply these same skills to their other school subjects.

After all, we cannot expect students to do word problems in math if they are still struggling over what the word problems mean.

We cannot ask them to write scientifically developed lab reports if students are struggling with the vocabulary words and sentence structure they need to fully express their conclusions.

If students cannot use the English language with ease, they cannot and will not read their history books in order to develop historical literacy.

21st Century Skills -- pooh! How about plain, old-fashioned skills that our forefathers used to establish the greatest and most liberty-loving country in the world.

Posted by: wgarner1 | December 4, 2009 10:02 PM | Report abuse


Me thinks our traditional education system is doing a poor job of teaching writing s-kills. And as for great books, um…uh, history, yeah well the most important books are the ones written after the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor, like “Plato for Dummies”.

Our great liberty-loving country is falling short of even coming up on the leaderboard when it comes to education for the globalized technological era. Linguistic skills are important; factual and historical knowledge are important; play is important. However, even if we have well-rounded knowledgeable students, what good are they if they are not trained to be creative and technologically competitive. Keep in mind, when we say “creative” in this day and age of international competition we should mean creating new economic value for our economy—to compensate for the economic value we loose to global competitors (see Richard Florida’s “Flight of the Creative Class”).

What good is liberty if you are poor and angry that you have no job?

Posted by: professor70 | December 5, 2009 8:50 AM | Report abuse


Our great liberty-loving country is falling short of even coming up on the leaderboard when it comes to education for the globalized technological era. Linguistic skills are important; factual and historical knowledge are important; play is important. However, even if we have well-rounded knowledgeable students, what good are they if they are not trained to be creative and technologically competitive. Keep in mind, when we say “creative” in this day and age of international competition we should mean creating new economic value for our economy—to compensate for the economic value we loose to global competitors (see Richard Florida’s “Flight of the Creative Class”).

What good is liberty if you are poor and angry that you have no job?

Posted by: professor70
We need to teach our children to understand the foreign person on the telephone who does not understand or speak English.

As adults our children will be able to use these skills when they need to call their American bank, or the American company that sold them a computer.

These are the skills in the 21st century that should be taught to Americans.

Of course maybe in the future there will be no Americans who need a bank or can afford a computer.

Posted by: bsallamack | December 5, 2009 7:57 PM | Report abuse

The P21 crowd wants schools now to concentrate on both the affective as well as the cognitive domains of learning.

What I believe they're overlooking is one is pretty much a prerequisite for the other. It's difficult to be an effective problem solver or critical thinker if your cognitive domain is anemic or essentially non-existent. The more knowledge you possess the better you're going to be at PS /CT.

So where does that leave poor/minority youngsters from the inner city, the ones already on the short end of the achievement gap? It's a fair bet these kids will be left even farther behind and middle-class suburban students only stand to get richer.

Virtual/distance learning could play an enormous role in equalizing these two worlds but it probably won't because costs will limit access for the poor/minority students, at least at first.

The other sad factor inhibiting balance between these two worlds is CULTURE. Is it a priority to be cool or a priority to be well schooled and/or intelligent? When I see a growing number of young white males wearing their pants down on their hips with their underwear exposed and a baseball cap turned backwards or to the side, I have to believe cool is winning out over intelligent. When I witness absolutely zero gain in the number of minority students taking AP/honors courses I also must conclude cool as the victor.

The real question for the educational establishment over the next decade or so is how to dramatically alter this paradigm. US students are going to have to become more like their Asian peers, where in the end the "geek" gets the girl and the multi-million dollar contract and not the cool (under-educated) athlete.

Posted by: phoss1 | December 6, 2009 7:41 AM | Report abuse

I am very opposed to requiring extracurriculars in school, just as I am opposed to mandatory PE at the middle and high school levels. There are many kids who are already involved athletic and/or non-athletic activities, both school-sponsored and otherwise. Someone who trains or practices several hours a day (swimming, gymnastics, tennis, dance, music etc,) needs more time in school for academics, not less. Just because something is a good idea, like extracurriculars, doesn't mean that it has to be done on school time. Let those kids receive credit toward requirements; the location of the activity shouldn't matter.

Posted by: momof4md | December 6, 2009 9:56 AM | Report abuse

Indeed, the Jerald report is one of the saner and more measured arguments for "21st century skills." Unfortunately he places almost exclusive emphasis on the demands of the workplace. Yes, we all need to be employed, but it is a mistake to let employers determine the values and curricula of the schools.

First, there is much more to school than job preparation. Schools should prepare students to participate in the world, make sense of its phenomena and events, and lead intellectually and emotionally rewarding lives. Jerald mentions some of these things but pays far more attention to the needs of employers.

Second, employers may only see one aspect of what they need. They see a need for teamwork and collaboration--but to collaborate well, one must have something to contribute, and to have something to contribute, one must be able to work alone. Much teamwork, in fact, consists largely of people working alone and conferring periodically. If schools emphasize groupwork at the expense of thoughtfulness, students will not be prepared for teamwork at all. Even less will they be prepared for times when they need to think, work, and act alone. Employers would probably acknowledge this if questioned--but many have got caught up in the jargon of the day.

Jerald does a great job of taking apart the so-called skills and showing how they depend on a strong foundation in the liberal arts. He suggests that we need to focus, not narrow, the curriculum--for instance, by teaching fewer topics in more depth in mathematics. These are fine points, and his concern over students' job preparation is well founded. Nonetheless, the report would be even stronger if he made some distinction between the purposes of education and the needs of today's employers.

Diana Senechal

Posted by: DianaSenechal | December 7, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

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