The Death of 21st Century Skills

My superintendent was looking for an event to attend. He keeps hearing about iPads and 21st Century Skills and digital textbooks and iPads and 1:1 programs and social media and iPads and YouTube and Facebook and Twitter and iPads and he needed some context. He wanted some way to make sense of it all. I suggested the 21st Century Skills Summit earlier this month in Columbus. This one day event was sponsored by the Ohio Department of Education, eTech Ohio, Ashland University, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and several other respected organizations and agencies. I thought the day would provide some great perspectives on the real needs of our students, and the challenges schools face in meeting these needs. I was right.

Karl Fisch started things off with an outstanding keynote focusing on personal learning networks. As we make connections and build our own personal learning networks online, we interact with other professionals and learn from one another. He described the impact of the Did You Know video on his own professional life, and focused on authentic work for students instead of simply preparing them to take high stakes tests on largely irrelevant content. The thing that I love about Karl is that he’s a very unassuming guy. He’s one of us. He’s just a math teacher – turned technology director – doing everything he can to help his students. He might speak in front of crowds of thousands and have millions of views of his videos, but he’s just another guy struggling with the same issues we’re all facing.

Author Dan Pink joined us via Skype. He talked about his books, A Whole New Mind and Drive, and drew connections between his work and the education world. For me, the most poignant moment came when he talked about merit pay. Motivation isn’t the problem with education, he observed. “Teachers are the most motivated group of people I’ve ever seen.” These are the people who are up late planning instruction and grading papers. Teachers are the ones using their own resources to buy classroom supplies. Teachers, in general, care about their students and will do anything they can to help them. But IF motivation were a problem, merit pay wouldn’t fix it. Financial rewards help improve productivity and quality of work in menial tasks. If your job is assembling instrument clusters for cars, or emptying trash bins in a shopping mall, or shelving library books, then merit pay will make you more efficient. But for jobs requiring critical thinking, complex decision making, and creativity, merit pay doesn’t improve motivation.

In the afternoon, Ewan McIntosh provided an entertaining description of his work in the area of problem solving. He contends that problem solving is not as critical as everyone seems to make it. Solving the problem is the easy part. The difficult piece is identifying the problem to be solved. That is, how do you look at a situation, identify the problem that is causing the less-than-ideal conditions, and then describe how solving that problem can alleviate the condition? Once the problem is defined, finding a solution is the easy part. He explained that having students doing project based learning where they’re simply solving contrived, hypothetical, over-simplified problems does not really help students develop their critical thinking skills.

Usually, in these types of events, the educational establishment takes quite a beating. Standardized testing and No Child Left Behind are easy targets, as we have transformed our educational system over the last decade to become a race to mediocrity. We devote nearly all of our resources to ensuring that all students meet a basic level of competency, and then stop focusing on them once they’ve passed the test. But in this case, most of the stakeholders were in the room. The state Superintendent for Public instruction kicked off the day with a refreshing perspective on 21st century education focusing on critical thinking, creativity, communication skills, and collaboration. At our table, my superintendent and I were joined by four Ohio Department of Education employees. Their job is to implement Race to the Top. But rather than being defensive about the program, we had several honest discussions of the challenges and success stories surrounding our schools’ adoption of these new literacies. We also had a state board of education member sitting at our table, and his experience as an elementary and secondary teacher, teachers’ association president, school administrator, and school district board member gives him a unique perspective of education from nearly every angle. He, too, seemed frustrated with the status quo and excited and hopeful about the future.

Interestingly, there was one state agency that wasn’t involved in this event. Back in February, Ohio’s new Governor, John Kasich, named Robert Sommers as the Director of the Governor’s Office of 21st Century Education. There’s not really much information online about this new office. As far as I can tell, they have no web presence, no list of staff members or initiatives or even goals. And they’re separate from the Ohio Department of Education. It sounds like the governor wanted to create a distinct entity completely separate from the current structure to take an objective view of 21st century learning, and then influence policy and budgeting with recommendations for improving education for Ohio’s children. On the surface, one would expect that this office would have a vital role in this 21st Century Skills Summit.

But taking a closer look, Sommers seems to have a completely different view of 21st century education:

Sommers’ answers to the question: “What is your vision of the future?”

  • Technology will be integrated in such a way to personalize education via “mass customization.”
  • Whole group classroom instruction — a teacher addressing an entire class — will be rare if nonexistent.
  • Adult success will be judged in terms of student success.
  • The use of technology and improved management will make education much more cost effective.

We’ll set aside the “rare if nonexistent” comment, because either I’m not smart enough to understand what he’s talking about, or he doesn’t know what those words mean. Evidently, a 21st century school is one that uses technology to automate the process of education, getting children to pass the tests of minimum standards less expensively. There’s no mention of collaboration or creativity or communication skills. There’s no authentic assessment or project-based learning or critical thinking or problem solving (or problem-identifying). This is all about test prep, at the lowest possible cost.

By the way, “student success” is a code word for “student test scores.” And “cost effective” means outsourcing to companies who provide bare minimum services and pay their teachers $30,000 per year with no benefits. “Mass customization” means 60 students per class, generally working individually with little or no interaction with their peers or their teachers. Just so we’re clear.

So it seems that we have two completely different views of 21st Century Education in Ohio. We’re at the point where the term is essentially meaningless. The two visions are so completely different from one another that we can’t use the term anymore to identify a common ground on which to base discussion. So I’m moving on. I’m not talking about 21st century skills or 21st century learning anymore. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (proper noun) focuses on next generation learning. Maybe that’s a better way to think about it. We’re not educating for the 21st century. That term was really cool when the 21st century was still a decade away. But the 21st century is going to be half over before we really figure out what we’re talking about. Let’s focus instead on educating the next generation.

21st century skills are dead. Long live next generation learning.

5 thoughts on “The Death of 21st Century Skills

  1. And this is the problem. Catch phrases and terms get used and end up meaning very different things when you start to unpack them. The deep, ongoing conversation about what learning can be and should be is not really happening. When we begin with the premise that learning is messy and complex, it challenges us to be humble in recognizing simplistic phrases and vision statements only work if founded in a collective understanding that happens over time and over lots of conversations and observations.

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