21st Century Skills Fadbusters

by Robert Pondiscio
February 25th, 2009

Who you gonna call?

Diane Ravitch, E.D. Hirsch and Dan Willingham played FadBusters at a panel discussion on 21st Century Skills hosted by Common Core in Washington, DC on Tuesday afternoon, along with Ken Kay, who heads the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21). 

For those who have only just arrived on our planet this morning, the highly visible and well-financed 21st Century Skills movement seeks to put information and communications skills, critical thinking and problem solving “at the center of US K-12 education.” Ravitch pointed out that the zippy name notwithstanding, most of the ideas promoted by P21 have been with us for over a century.  “After examining the materials associated with P21,” she quipped, “I concluded, to quote the noted philosopher Yogi Berra, that ‘it’s like déjà vu all over again.’”

There is nothing new in the proposals of the 21st century skills movement. The same ideas were iterated and reiterated by pedagogues across the twentieth century. Their call for 20th century skills sounds identical to the current effort to promote 21st century skills. If there was one cause that animated the schools of education in the 20th century, it was the search for the ultimate breakthrough that would finally loosen the shackles of subject matter and content.

Bending over backwards to applaud its motives and goals, Hirsch nonetheless observed that the entire premise of 21st Century skills rests on a flawed assumption about critical thinking, problem solving and innovation:  “The error at the heart of P21 is the idea that skills are all-purpose muscles that, once developed, can be applied to new and unforeseen domains of experience,” he noted.  “This error is fundamental, and it is fatal,” he said. 

It will lead to the same disappointments as the idea that reading comprehension is a how-to skill that can be developed through strategy drills. On the contrary, reading comprehension, communication, critical thinking, and the rest are inherently constituted by specific knowledge. More than that, if you have domain knowledge yet lack mere technical proficiency, you will nonetheless perform more skillfully than a proficient person who lacks relevant knowledge. There are many experiments supporting this, going back to de Groot’s famous 1946 experiments with chess masters. Incautious claims about the transferability of 21st-century skills from one domain to another are very misleading. No, let me put it more strongly. The how-to concept is just plain wrong.

The fallback position of 21CS proponents has become something to the effect of “we’re not saying academic content doesn’t matter.  Kids need content AND skills.”  But Dan Willingham pointed out that it’s inaccurate even to conceive of skills and factual knowledge as separate.

I often hear people say ‘Yes, yes, of course, knowledge is important. After all, you need something to think about.’ But there is more to it than that. Knowledge is not just something that skills operate on-knowledge is what enables skills to operate in the first place.

“Everyone understands that memorizing facts without skills is not enriching,” Willingham noted. ”People forget that training skills without facts doesn’t work.” 

All credit and praise to Kay for taking on the challenge of defending 21st century skills in the face of such skepticism.  He nonetheless found himself backpedalling, continually reminding the audience that P21 believes content is important.  Ultimately, he conceded that the principal contribution of the 21st Century skills movement is ”offering a vision of a desired outcome.” Students need to be prepared to be more engaged civic participants and highly skilled workers. “It’s not our job to develop the model,” he said. 

Alas, there was little in Kay’s comments that suggests he gets the idea that his vision cannot be realized by the specific methods he is promoting.  Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine a Middle Ages version of Ken Kay, “offering a vision” of alchemy as the proper purpose of education.  “It’s not our job to develop the model,” he might have said.  “We’re merely articulating a vision that says the transmutation of lead into gold and discovering the elixir of life are vital 14th century skills.”

Good luck with that. 

A broad, solid knowledge-based curriculum is square one for developing “21st Century Skills.”  Inspired, creative teaching–not wish fulfillment codified by squishy, ill-defined standards–gets us the rest of the way.  That might not fit on a bumper sticker, but it might work.


  1. Robert,

    I liked the Tuesday Boston Globe editorial on 21st century skills. Note of the reference to Connecticut’s practice(s):

    * * * * * * * * * * * *

    Globe Editorial

    A 21st-century caution
    February 24, 2009

    STATE education commissioner Mitchell Chester says he is surprised at the sharp criticism of a task force proposal to introduce “21st-century skills” – such as media literacy, critical thinking, and working in groups – into local classrooms. But he shouldn’t be shocked. The 21st-century skills movement could return Massachusetts to an era of low academic standards.

    In November, a task force made its case why “straight academic content is no longer enough” to ensure student success in college and the workplace. The authors urged state education officials to introduce 21st-century skills into teacher training and curriculum guides. Since then, state education officials have elaborated little on what that might mean in practice. But critics, including the nonprofit Pioneer Institute, have made a powerful case that the plan could set back education reform efforts in Massachusetts by advancing a set of soft, vague skills at the expense of academic content.

    Before the Education Reform Act of 1993, Massachusetts classrooms were adrift, without solid curriculum frameworks or a comprehensive statewide test to assess student progress and diagnose deficiencies in knowledge. After great efforts to implement standards-based education and create a graduation requirement test, Massachusetts students routinely outperform their national counterparts and perform on a par with the best international students, including those in Japan and Singapore. The first duty of the state Board of Education, which is scheduled to hear an update tomorrow on 21st-century skills, should be to protect these hard-won gains.

    Ten years ago, students in Connecticut outperformed their Massachusetts counterparts on a national reading assessment test. But after education policy makers there shifted focus from an emphasis on content knowledge to the “how to” methods favored by the 21st-century skills movement, test scores plummeted. Acknowledging the error, Connecticut educators are reintroducing methods favored in Massachusetts.

    In fact, there is strong evidence that emphasis on basic skills leads to success at reasoning and problem-solving. Fourth-graders here ranked second worldwide in science and tied for third in math last year on the sophisticated Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study exam.

    Given such success, the burden should be on 21st-century skills proponents to prove that their methods offer a better way to prepare students for college and the workplace. So far, they haven’t done that. And while they say 21st-century skills will only complement the state’s current efforts, it’s not clear that the approach can be implemented without de-emphasizing academic content.

    Teachers and parents across the state just don’t know enough about 21st-century skills. The unnerving part is that the proponents don’t seem to know much more.

    © Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 25, 2009 @ 5:51 pm

  2. Great post, Robert!

    Comment by Ben F — February 26, 2009 @ 12:48 am

  3. The problem here is that this debate mis-places the source of the “21st century skills” rhetoric. Yes, people in ed schools, state ed departments, etc. like the shtick, but Adobe, Apple, Microsoft, etc… It is a *corporate* initiative. Obama continues to define our educational goals in terms of the economy. You don’t have to pound ed professors two feet further under ground to win the argument. You have to convince Google that you’re right, and that’s not going to be easy.

    Comment by Tom Hoffman — February 26, 2009 @ 10:11 am

  4. Great post, Robert. Ravitch, Hirsch, and Willingham did an excellent job of calling P21′s bluff–and bluff there is aplenty.

    The P21 documents billow with vagueness. They themselves contradict Ken Kay’s claims of “common ground” or of “integration” of skills and content.

    Here’s an example of vague language. The P21 “Transition Brief: Policy Recommendations on Preparing Americans for the Global Skills Race” contains the following recommendation:

    “Create an Office of 21st Century Stills within the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Labor at the U.S. Department of Labor. This office would guide the development of a national workforce development policy that ensures every aspect of the workforce pipeline is infused with the same set of 21st century skills.”

    Ah, yes, let us create an office whose purpose is to infuse vagueness with vagueness. That will work wonders!

    As for disregard of subject matter, consider the strands of the “21st Century Skills Map” for English (see also the silly projects recommended there):

    Creativity and Innovation
    Critical Thinking & Problem Solving
    Information Literacy
    Media Literacy
    ICT Literacy
    Flexibility & Adaptibility
    Initiative & Self-Direction
    Social & Cross-Cultural Skills
    Productivity & Accountability
    Leadership & Responsibility

    This is problematic for the very reasons that the panelists cited. As Diane Ravitch said, “Through literature, for example, we have the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of another person, to walk in their shoes, to experience life as it was lived in another century and another culture, to live vicariously beyond the bounds of our own time and family and place. What a gift! How sad to refuse it!”

    P21 blatantly refuses to give such a gift to students. There is little if any room in the P21 scheme for the study of literature on its own terms. The skills maps are quaggy with social skills and so-called media literacy. They would have students create a soundtrack for a poem, or a commercial for a story. Sad stuff.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — February 27, 2009 @ 12:28 am

  5. A broad, solid knowledge-based curriculum is square one for developing “21st Century Skills.”


    I will be making one revision: A broad, solid knowledge-based curriculum in the liberal arts disciplines is square one for developing “21st Century Skills.”

    Not the interdisciplines.

    Which don’t exist.

    Comment by Catherine Johnson — February 27, 2009 @ 11:00 am

  6. I think it’s important to understand where the Partnership comes from: it is an alliance of tech companies, which want to carry on selling technology to schools, and the NEA, which opposes accountability (there are no state tests for “21st century skills”).

    Win win.

    My own district has adopted a new 20-page Strategic Plan that is all about “technology” and “21st century skills.” The Plan does not mention college preparation or SAT scores, but does include “media literacy.”

    21st century skills and media literacy will require the ongoing purchase of “technology,” and my district is well set-up to achieve this mission. In a tiny district of just 2000 students, we have an Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction, & Technology; we also have a full-time “Technology Coordinator/Chief Information Officer,” who is a tenured teacher.

    Once a year the district hosts a “technology fair,” at which vendors hawk their wares to parents, and in the summer teachers are sent to “Technology Camp.” There they are taught to use technology “dynamically.”

    Then there’s the new “library,” now being called a “library/media center.”

    In the new library, books are an afterthought. The big news, and the reason the library was built (I presume), is the “technology.” (“Technology” is the term the district always uses, btw. We are buying & implementing & integrating “technology.”)

    The district newsletter has published a photograph of the new library. In it we see 3 children glued to computer screens, riveted by what they see there.

    Apparently they don’t get enough screen time at home.

    You can spot a book or two in the blurry background.

    Comment by Anonymous — February 27, 2009 @ 11:21 am

  7. What does “A broad, solid knowledge-based curriculum” mean?

    Could the problem be the standard exams and not the redefinition of learning skills and content? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for measuring students abilities and knowledge. But change is the only constant, so I should learn more about the exams before reaching any conclusions.

    Comment by Jorge de Jesus — February 27, 2009 @ 11:39 am

  8. Anonymous,

    Tech companies teamed with the NEA seems almost oxymoronic. Tech companies have all but saturated schools with computers for the past decade and a half. The only thing left for them to pedal now is their educational software. The NEA wants nothing to do with this new software for fear it could start replacing teachers and classroom aides. The NEA is also leery of the new software for fear it could increase class size because of all the extra “help” it will provide for classroom teachers.

    The NEA has lobbied long and hard to prevent the R&D of this new software. I cannot image them suddenly rolling over for its acceptance now.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 27, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

  9. Oh dear, technology fairs have taken the place of book fairs. Surely this is a capitalist conspiracy. I am currently enhancing my education via an online version of academia. For a portion of some research I needed to delve into some volumes that have not recently been reprinted. Actual books. Without some online databases, however, I would never have been able to locate said volumes. Without the online university, I would have been unable to attend school.

    It is of interest to me that some want to create a dichotomy between skills and content. When such silliness is foisted, I am always tempted to look underneath to see if I can discover a truer agenda. Can it be that the purveyors of truth with regard to what specific content constitutes an acceptable education feel threatened by examining anything that they have not listed in their curriculum?

    I am a big supporter of liberal arts in education, as it has provided me with both knowledge and skills that have carried me through a changing world of employment and interests for a good many years. Certainly reading good literature built the chorus of exemplar voices in my head that provided models of good writing–but I also needed the honing edge of presenting written work to someone who could provide feedback into my own barriers and successes in communicating. My ability to “see into” that literature was enhanced by disciplines with regard to looking at character development, symbolism, theme, organization–all those pesky “strategies.”

    I certainly cannot fully appreciate any literature outside that of my contemporaries without an ability to see it within the context of a time and culture, and understand the motivations of the author as well as the words. And I cannot do these things without understanding that history, culture, literature–and many other things are related, and the separation of “disciplines” is not ordained, but rather an organizational feature laid over the things that we believe that we know. Perhaps there are no “interdisciplines,” but then–are there disciplines?

    Comment by Margo/Mom — February 27, 2009 @ 2:42 pm

  10. This entire thread makes clear the painfully ironic truth that a misplaced faith in technology can actually lead us backwards.

    Comment by Robert F — March 1, 2009 @ 10:21 pm

  11. It sure is easy to tear apart the research of many highly educated and knowledgable people by presenting nothing but fear of an unpredictable and mercurial future.

    In fact, P21 is not alone in expressing the very important idea that schools have, for too long, tinkered with the notion that core knowledge = success. If only. It would make our lives much easier. We could all go out and purchase E.D. Hirsch’s books (yes, he has as much to gain from this argument as Google!) and be done with it. The fact is that how we access information, organize information, and communicate information has changed around us. We can ignore it and continue to use only the dated books on our shelves, or we can do what all successful businesses and societies do. We can adapt. Not throw away everything of our past, but accept that things must be done differently.

    While you were out convincing people that P21 has thrown out content, you have forgotten that you have ignored context. P21 and others understand that content is essential. But learning how to access it is the key to lifelong learning, not cramming kids with noncontextual information and sending them into the world to figure out what a has to do with b.

    Instead of ganging up on Ken Kay to prove your point, you might have thought about the fact that frankly there are many things that we can find more easily online rather than listening to our teachers drone on, saving time to apply that new information to the higher order thinking that will separate our students from the ones you would have our schools create.

    It is so easy to write P21 off as a fad. I think it is just as easy to write core knowledge off as a quaint but dated concept. Neither gets us very far.

    Comment by dzukor — March 2, 2009 @ 10:32 pm

  12. What research on the part of these highly educated and knowledgable people are you referring to? If there were research supporting the ideas and methods of P21, there wouldn’t be any disagreement.

    Any fair reading of Hirsch’s comments on this would lead to the conclusion that he *supports* the goals of P21, but has misgivings about the route. A fair reading of P21s “support” for content in the curriculum would indicate they’ve spent less time thinking this through than they ought to have. Everyone — and I mean EVERYONE agrees with the goals outlined by Kay and P21. So they’ve gotten us all the way to the starting line. Bravo. But you don’t cure a disease by correctly diagnosing it.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — March 2, 2009 @ 10:44 pm

  13. Is it possible that Common Core is being misrepresented? The following commentary appeared in The Ohio Gadfly following release of Governor Strickland’s plan for education:

    Here, unfortunately, the governor seems to have thrown into the hopper just about every trendy education notion that he and his advisers have ever encountered. He yearns for standards that incorporate both solid academic content and the development of trendy skills (e.g., media savvy and interpersonal skills) that are essentially devoid of content. According to the D.C.-based Common Core, “No one who knows a lick about curriculum would put these two ideas together,”

    Perhaps this was an error?

    Comment by Margo/Mom — March 2, 2009 @ 11:17 pm

  14. I have to admit to being a bit confused about this discussion. Are you worried that P21 is advocating to get rid of content? I don’t read it that way. Instead, I think they are advocating to look at what content we are teaching. I think you would agree that some of it needs to be thrown out either because it is outdated, has become less important, or because it can be found so easily. Other content remains as important as ever.

    As for Margo/Mom’s comment, I don’t see why media literacy is “trendy”. We have many new tools that are effective tools for accessing information. Why shouldn’t we teach our students to use them? The rich discussions that come from talking about what information is found online makes for deeper reflection about the content. It doesn’t make us devoid of content. That is kind of impossible.

    I’m starting to think this is a chicken/egg discussion. Whether you focus on skills or content, our students need both.

    Comment by dzukor — March 3, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

  15. Perhaps there are no “interdisciplines,” but then–are there disciplines?


    Comment by anonymous — March 5, 2009 @ 10:32 pm

  16. About Us

    Our History

    The Partnership for 21st Century Skills was formed in 2002 through the efforts of the following entities and individuals:


    * U.S. Department of Education

    Founding Organizations:

    * AOL Time Warner Foundation
    * Apple Computer, Inc.
    * Cable in the Classroom
    * Cisco Systems, Inc.
    * Dell Computer Corporation
    * Microsoft Corporation
    * National Education Association
    * SAP


    * Ken Kay, President and Co-Founder
    * Diny Golder-Dardis, Special Advisor and Co-Founder

    Comment by anonymous — March 5, 2009 @ 10:35 pm

  17. The only thing left for them to pedal now is their educational software.

    Public schools are purchasing SMART Boards for all of their classrooms and iClickers are next on the list. Since the SMART Board people also manufacture SMART Tables, I assume schools will soon be discovering a need for SMART Tables, too.

    Meanwhile my neighboring school district is using iPods in English class, and two weeks ago the Times carried a story headlined Industry Makes Pitch That Smartphones Belong in Classroom.

    There is no end in sight.

    Comment by anonymous — March 5, 2009 @ 11:00 pm

  18. I have yet to see any implementation of 21st century skills that would lead me to believe that it’s anything other than puffery. In my son’s school, SmartBoards only give the impression of doing something important. Blogs are used in sixth grade to entice kids to write (badly, with poor spelling, bad grammar, and no punctuation). Thematic learning involves Googling, cut and paste, and printing pretty (awful) reports on a color laser printer to put in a very bad portfolio done in art class.

    Technology, like the calculator, could be used to expect more from kids. In reality, it’s used as an avoidance tool. With word processors, kids could be expected to rewrite reports several times, and teachers could be expected to provide more feedback. (21st century skills work for teachers too.) They could be expected to identify and obtain quality data from the internet and analyze graphs they produce on a spreadsheet. Schools go through the motion of 21st century skills, but the biggest obstacle is low expectations.

    Twenty-first century skills could be more, but it’s really an excuse for less. You have to look behind the technology and find the educational philosophy.

    Low expectations.

    Comment by SteveH — March 5, 2009 @ 11:49 pm

  19. Dzukor, you say P21 and others understand that content is essential. But learning how to access it is the key to lifelong learning, not cramming kids with noncontextual information and sending them into the world to figure out what a has to do with b.

    I’m not sure what you are intending to say here. What is noncontextual information? Can you give an example? I thought that information was essential for being able to put something into context. For example, when a biologist takes a sample picture of something reasonably small they often put a match into the picture to give a sense of size – in other words they add information to provide context. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single piece of information that doesn’t add context to something, somewhere. That of course doesn’t mean that there isn’t such a piece of information, the top of my head isn’t that good a reference source. But it does mean that I am curious.

    And content is essential for being able to access new information. Very few writers or film or TV directors or radio broadcasts provide all the background information necessary to understand everything they wish to say. E.D. Hirsch provided an example of the problems in looking things up without a lot of content knowledge:

    Imagine an expert and a novice looking up the entry “planets” on the Internet and finding the following:

    planet—any of the non-luminous bodies that revolve around the sun.The term “planet” is sometimes used to include the asteroids, but excludes the other members of the solar system, comets, and meteoroids. By extension, any similar body discovered revolving around another star would be called a planet.

    A well-informed person would learn a good deal from this entry, if, for example, he was uncertain about whether asteroids, comets, and meteoroids should be called planets.A novice, even one who “thinks scientifically,” would learn
    less. Since he wouldn’t know what planets are, he probably wouldn’t know what asteroids, comets, and meteoroids
    are. Even the simple phrase “revolving around another star” would be mystifying, because he probably wouldn’t know that the sun is a star. Equally puzzling would be the phrase “other members of the solar system, since the term “solar system” already requires knowing
    what a planet is.


    As for sending kids into the world to figure out what a has to do with b, I thought that’s what we wanted – kids who can think critically?

    You also say that “the fact that frankly there are many things that we can find more easily online rather than listening to our teachers drone on”. Can you provide some support for this “fact”? For example, a teacher can teach you things that you didn’t even know existed, but how can you look those things up online if you don’t even know that they exist? Every now and then I stumble across something online that I didn’t know existed, but I would hardly call that an easy approach. Also, it’s not just enough to find something online, you then need to understand it and be able to remember it well enough to use that information in the application of the higher-order thinking skills. This requires practice, which a teacher can supply.

    Can I suggest that you spend some of your skills looking up some cognitive science research into the role that knowledge plays in critical thinking?

    Comment by Tracy W — March 6, 2009 @ 6:08 am

  20. Steve says: “Twenty-first century skills could be more, but it’s really an excuse for less. You have to look behind the technology and find the educational philosophy.” I believe that you are right. Teachers still tend to see computers as fancy typewriters. Rather than using the malleability of digital papers–to make editing suggestions, they tend to stick to paper copies, turned into the basket on the teacher’s desk, as “final.” I had a teacher (actually an OT who was supposed to be helping my son overcome some writing barriers) who insisted on handwritten work first, then typed and printed and the electronic version disappeared.

    Comment by Margo/Mom — March 6, 2009 @ 3:59 pm

  21. Anonymous, you are the rare individual that is able to apply critical thinking to the claims of the futurists. I respect your anonymity, but if you would like to continue this conversation, please email me at neoreadteach@yahoo.com.

    Dzukor’s comment that E.D. Hirsch has as much to gain here as Google doesn’t make sense. He or she is comparing a scholar who has written three books on education and donated a significant amount of the resulting income to starting a non-profit organization to a billion dollar corporation seeking many more billions. There is no comparison.

    Computers have been in schools for decades now, and yet those who promote them always continue to claim that there is a crisis to be solved by, guess what?, paying more money for their products and services. Why is this so? I think there is a crisis, but I also think, as some have said all along, that technology is not the answer. Technology corporations and their defenders always blame the most convenient scapegoats, classroom teachers, who don’t use the technology effectively as the story goes. As the years go by and more generations are short-changed, this claim begins to remind me of the point made by E.D. Hirsch about progressive education and Communism. They always claimed that their ideas were sound, but that they were never put into practice correctly. It is long past time that we considered other answers.

    Comment by Robert F — March 8, 2009 @ 5:51 pm

  22. “21st Century Skills Fadbusters ? The Core Knowledge Blog” ended
    up being certainly engaging and educational!
    In todays society honestly, that is very difficult to carry out.
    Thanks a lot, Elvin

    Comment by http://tinyurl.com/primfay32750 — January 26, 2013 @ 6:24 am

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