How to avoid a skills war over 21st Century Ed

What better way to reveal our new makeover than with the release of a major report, Defining a 21st Century Education 

Clearly, the idea that students need to develop 21st century skills is widely accepted. Educators, policymakers, business leaders and parents all recognize that the world has changed and that young people are going to need a deeper bag of tricks just to be able to get a good job that pays the bills, take care of their health and finances, and be good members of the community.

Unfortunately, within the small universe of education policy wonks, pundits and partisans, no idea has so much acceptance that it won’t ignite a firestorm anyway. Some of us still bear scars from the reading and math wars – knock down battles over how these universally valued subjects should be taught. Should teachers emphasize skills like phonics or immerse students in literature? Should children learn math facts or how to think mathematically? Eventually the different camps acknowledged that children need instruction in all these things, and have since entered into a tenuous détente. Of course, good teachers already knew this. But they and their students too often became collateral damage while the fighting raged.

There now appears to be a storm brewing over “21st century skills” – abilities that generally include problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity. In fairness, no one seriously disputes the importance of these skills to preparing students for life after high school. Neither does anyone suggest that schools should teach them instead of English, history, science, math and other academic subjects. But there seems to be a growing division within the ed chattering class based on which is paramount: academic content or skills?

It’s tempting to dismiss this as splitting hairs – or as they call it in eduspeak, “a false dichotomy.”  Yet the players in this debate include some of education’s best-known heavy hitters (see for example, the transcript of this event held earlier this year by an organization called Common Core).

Public education can’t afford to go through a “skills war.” It’s counterproductive and students will pay for it in the end. But there are some real problems with 21st century skills that need to be acknowledged and addressed if we are to avoid it. We need to begin with developing a much more concrete definition of what a 21st century education means that will do two things:

  • Show the public what’s truly at stake for kids and communities both in terms of jobs and day-to-day life. National and state policymakers and business leaders have been calling for an “all kids college ready” agenda for some time. The phrase is basically a quick proxy for the high level of knowledge and skills that high school graduates will need in order to take their next steps after earning their diploma, whether it’s a 2- or 4-year college or a jobs training program. And there’s a sizable body of evidence  that points to the traditional college prep curriculum as a strong predictor of later success in all of these paths. But a large segment of the public still isn’t buying it and needs to be convinced.  At the same time, the “college ready” proponents need to recognize that the traditional college prep curriculum has its own limitations and needs to be brought up to date by being more relevant and hands on.
  • Show educators what 21st century skills look like in the classroom. While nearly everyone agrees that skills like problem solving and creativity are important and necessary, there is not a lot known about how to explicitly teach them or know when students master them. In the absence of tangible, measurable definitions and examples, it’s impossible for school leaders to know what they’re getting and much of what is being sold as 21st century skills instruction is too weak to get kids where they need to go.

In order to address these questions, we asked Craig Jerald, a well-known education writer and analyst, to pull together the best thinking about the world our young people are entering and what that means for education so that we can make sure all of our students are prepared to succeed in jobs and contribute to their communities as adults. The result, Defining a 21st century education  is a rich, concrete, and importantly, do-able description of a 21st century education.

Over the next year, the Center will be exploring the operational implications for moving toward a 21st century education — such as assessment, curriculum, and professional development – so stay tuned.  Patte Barth

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