The 21st century skills movement has a problem. It’s a problem that can’t be solved by all of the innovation, creativity and information literacy lessons under the sun, yet it can be deftly handled by a little bit of science knowledge. Call it the tree octopus problem.
The Partnership for 21st Century Skills describes its mission as to serve as a catalyst to position 21st century skills at the center of US K-12 education. Based on “hundreds of hours of research, development and feedback from educators and business leaders across the nation,” it has developed “skills maps” for educators to help teach the supposedly new skills of demonstrating originality and inventiveness in work and developing, implementing and communicating new ideas to others. To its credit, the Partnership does not dismiss traditional curricular content, but rather ”advocates for the integration of 21st Century Skills into K-12 education so that students can advance their learning in core academic subjects.”
So what does a 21st Century ELA lesson actually look like in the classroom? Here’s an example of a 4th grade “information literacy” activity taken directly from the 21st Century Skills Map.
Outcome: Evaluate information critically and competently.
Example: Students are given a teacher-generated list of websites that are a mixture of legitimate and hoax sites. Students apply a website evaluation framework such as RADCAB (www.radcab.com) to write an explanation for deciding whether each site is credible or not.
“RADCAB,” if you’re not familiar with it, is a trademarked “critical thinking assessment tool for online information” that teaches kids to evaluate the information on a website. RADCAB is an acronym for Relevance, Appropriateness, Detail, Currency, Authority and Bias. OK, RADCAB, say hello to my little friend, the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, an endangered species and Internet cause célèbre.
RADCAB features a rubric that helps students evaluate online information. Level 3 of 4 (the “Research Pro” level, and presumably a reasonable goal for all learners) includes things like “I create ’slam-dunk’ keywords from my research questions and use them to find relevant information” and “I leave information sources quickly that are too hard for me or offend my core values.” Nothing very helpful in determining if the Tree Octopus is for real or not. The rubric also tells us we are research pros if we “look for copyright information or ‘last updated’ information” in the source. Very well: The tree octopus site was created in 1998 and updated within the last two months, so it must be a current source of tree octopus information. We are also research pros if we ”look for the authority behind the information on a website because I know if affects the accuracy of the information found there.” Merely looking for the authority tells us nothing about its value, but let’s dig deeper. The authority behind the site is the “Kelvinic University branch of the Wild Haggis Conservation Society.” Sounds credible. It is, after all, a university, and one only has to go the extra mile to be a Level 4, or “Totally Rad Researcher.” The Tree Octopus site even carries an endorsement from Greenpeas.org, and I’ve heard of them (haven’t I?) and links to the scientific-sounding ”Cephalopod News.”
It’s possible to spend countless hours looking at the various RADCAB categories without getting the joke. Unless, of course, you actually know something about cephalopods — such as the fact that they are marine invertebrates that would have a tough time surviving or even maintaining their shape out of the water — then the hoax is transparent.
Here’s where we come smack up against the limits of information literacy skills in the absence of content knowledge. Researchers at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education asked 25 seventh-graders from middle schools across the state to review the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus site, the results were unsurprising:
- All 25 students fell for the Internet hoax;
- All but one of the 25 rated the site as “very credible;”
- Most struggled when asked to produce proof – or even clues – that the web site was false, even after the UConn researchers told them it was; and
- Some of the students still insisted vehemently that the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus really exists.
If you were on the research team you might fairly conclude that science knowledge was lacking in the 7th graders in the study. (One dead giveaway on the site is the reference to the Tree Octopus’s natural predators, the bald eagle and the sasquatch.) But the team at the University of Connecticut saw things differently. Their verdict: “Classroom instruction in online reading and other ‘new literacies’ is ‘woefully lacking.’”
(Cue the sounds of palms smacking on foreheads)
It’s one thing to talk about how 21st century skills can “advance learning in core academic subjects.” It’s quite another to put it into practice. To a hammer, everything is a nail, and to 21st century skills enthusiasts, it’s all about technology tools, information literacy, innovation and collaboration. All the rest is ”facts you can find online in a maximum of 20 seconds.” So the question for the Partership for 21st Century Skills is this: are you prepared to argue just as strenuously for content standards and a broad, rich curriculum as for innovation, critical thinking and problem solving standards? Because ultimately 21st Century skills without content knowledge is a non-starter and probably a step backward. Dan Willingham proved to be not just a great cognitive scientist, but a good history student recently when he noted a familiar pattern in education:
Pendulum swings between an emphasis on process (analysis, critical thinking, cooperative learning) which fosters concern that students lack knowledge and generates a back-to-basics movement that emphasizes content, which fosters concern that student are merely parroting facts with no idea of how to use their knowledge, and so on. In calmer moments, everyone agrees that students must have both content knowledge and practice in using it, but one or the other tends to get lost as the emphasis sweeps to the other extreme.
Wise words. Maybe if we start listening, history will stop repeating itself.