Saturday, September 26, 2009

Sorting Out Educational Priorities

A group of influential educators called "Common Core" is critiquing the recommendations of another set of education experts called the "Partnersip for 21st Century Skills".

The dispute is over how much emphasis to place on content and how much to place on skills. The organization Common Core, which calls for giving students strong content grounding across academic disciplines, has organized an open letter critiquing the skills-based program put forward by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and calling for the group to revise its goals.

That letter is signed by some big names in education policy, including Randi Weingarten, of the American Federation of Teachers; education historian Diane Ravitch; Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch Jr.; Chester Finn, of the Fordham Foundation; and John Silber, the retired president of Boston University. Some of those people have been on record previously as opposing the 21st-century-skills push.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills promotes the cultivation of a broad range of critical-thinking, creative, and analytical skills among students, including technological know-how, as well as "soft skills," in areas such as communication (right). Those skills are vital to succeeding on the job and in life, the organization argues, and schools should nurture them. Supporters of that approach say they are not overlooking the importance of hard-and-fast academic content, but critics of the skills movement have not been assuaged.

In its open letter, titled "A Challenge to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills," the letter-writers say the approach of the Partnership, or P21, "marginalizes knowledge and therefore will deny students the liberal education they need." They add that "skills can neither be taught nor applied effectively without prior knowledge of a wide array of subjects."

The letter accuses P21 of attempting to "teach skills apart from knowledge," and calls for the program to be "fundamentally revised." As it now stands, it is "undermining the quality of education in America."

There are at least three ways to slice the educational agenda:

Common Core is approaching it from the direction of subject areas: history, science, literature, geography, civics, mathematics, the arts, technology, and foreign languages.

Partnership for 21st Century Skills emphasizes skills such as such as critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving.

I have another way to look at it.

(1) CONTENT - Place the subject areas in historic evolutionary perspective starting 13.8 billions years ago, (A) the universe (Physics), (B) our solar system and Earth (Geography, Geology), (C) life (Chemistry, Biology), (D) consciousness (Neuro-Science, Psychology, Philosophy), (E) civilization (Civics, History, Religion, the Arts), (F) technology (the Industrial Revolution, technology), and (G) Information (computer science, information technology, Web).

(2) TOOLS - Place the tools for learning in a separate list without confusingly co-mingling them with content:
(1) Words (English, foreign languages), (2) Numbers (mathematics), (3) Sounds (speech, music, acoustics), (4) Movement (physical education, sports, dance, robotics), (5) images (drawing, painting, photography, mapmaking, video), (6) objects (manipulatives, museums, sculpture, products, artifacts), (7) environments (architecture, urban planning, landscape, environmentalism), and (8) experiences (theatre, children's museums, theme parks, field trips, video games, toys, experiments, virtual reality).

(3) SKILLS - Place processes for using the tools within content areas in a separate list to include:
(1) Ideation - goal-setting, brainstorming, problem-identification, creative thinking, (2) Research - inquiry, investigation, experimentation, (3) developing Criteria - analysis of needs, assessment rubrics, critical thinking), (4) Visualizing - more brainstorming, generating many possible solutions, sketching, planning, diagramming, (5) prototyping - model making, testing, more hands-on experimenting, craftsmanship, problem-solving, (6) development/production - selecting the most promising possibility, creating the solution, completing the process, fabricating, (7) implementation - distribution, putting the idea into action, making something happen, trying it out, and (8) evaluation - testing, assessment, evaluating, observing results, looking for room for improvement.

The mistake we are making in education is not in choice of content or development of skills but in not providing the learners brains the full range of tools they need to take in information, process it, and output results. The brain is physically structured to process words, numbers, sounds, movement, images, objects, spaces and experiences. Cutting learners off from any one of these (no matter the differences in learning styles) is like cutting out key elements of the food pyramid. All brains work better using the full range of tools they are built to use in solving problems (skills) in a variety of contexts (content)


Joe Schwartz said...


I totally agree with your assessment. I am running an inservice day at my school on October 9 in which I'll be talking about how to INTEGRATE the 21st Century Skills process into our existing lessons. The two have to run side-by-side. Learning skills without any historical or academic knowledge is idiotic - but so is not using skills-based learning to enhance lessons. Buried too deep in their books, students can get lost. Using both methods gives students a firm foothold in the past and also a vision of the future. That is something that all Design Educators should be striving for.

Bonnie said...

Marty, Your list of skills, does it have a hierarchy like Bloom's Taxonomy?

Bonnie Diehl said...

Hirsch is an idiot. Lynn Cheney also has her ideas of what "the correct knowledge" our US kids should learn in school. Ralph Waldo Emerson advocated pluralism. I love Jason Scorza's book "Strong Liberalism." Variety is not only the spice of life but essential for survival. Like evolution diversity, pluralism is our safest bet.

Martin Rayala said...

The Skills (basically the research process and the design process) are usually sequential but many designers and researchers say that in actual practice they don't necessarily do them in order or feel they may skip some. For teaching an actual class I often condense them to (1) ideation (in which I throw in the research); (2) visualization (in which we do a lot of sketching and diagramming); (3) prototyping (in which we test and model our concepts); and (4) presentation (in which we present to the class because many projects in school settings don't actually get produced or implemented.)