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.