21st Century Skills: A Guide for Clear Thinkers

by Robert Pondiscio
March 2nd, 2009

In politics, “issue framing” means presenting an issue in a way that is most likely to get others to agree.  A classic example of this is in the debate over abortion.  No one is for or against it; they support the “right to life” or the “right to choose.”  Reject a cleverly framed issue and you risk finding yourself on political, moral or ethical thin ice.  This is why those who are opposed to military actions must turn cartwheels to “support the troops.”  It’s essential that you praise the men and women in uniform if you wish to criticize what they are being ordered to do. 

21st Century skills is a masterpiece of issue framing.  Who can possibly argue against students being able to innovate, think critically and solve problems?  The beauty of a well-framed argument is that it keeps its opponent forever on defense.  A classic piece of political wisdom is ”if you’re explaining, you’re losing” and critics of 21st Century Skills have to spend a lot of time explaining why something that sounds so attractive and desirable doesn’t make a lot of sense, or simply won’t work. 

That brings us to the peerless Dan Willingham, who patiently and clearly unpacks several of the problems with the 21st Century skills movement.  Dan stole the show at last week’s Common Core panel discussion in Washington, and his piece today on Britannica Blog lays out in a single reading three flawed assumptions made by The Partnership for 21st Century Skills:

1. Knowledge and Skills are separate.
2. Teachers don’t have cognitive limits.
3. Experience is equivalent to practice.

Pay careful attention to point #2, for it’s enormously important, and with the exception of Willingham, it has gone completely undiscussed. As currently conceived, 21st century skills enthusiasts expect teachers to do a job that is literally beyond the cognitive abilities of almost all of us.  Not just beyond the limits of most teachers but beyond the limits of most human beings.

Everyone’s cognitive system has limits. We can’t remember everything that happens to us. We can’t pay attention to five things at the same time. This is important in the classroom because the methods that P21 encourages teachers to use (as the ones most likely to develop 21st-century skills) are incredibly demanding—so demanding that almost no one can use them effectively without a great deal of preparation and training. The demanding methods include project-based learning, small-group learning, and others in which students have some voice in the direction of the lesson plan. These methods are difficult because it’s so hard to plan for them; you can’t know what’s going to happen in the classroom until you get there.

Willingham points out that teachers already believe the teaching methods promoted by P21 are the best ones.  “Yet classroom observation studies show that very few teachers use them, almost certainly because they are so difficult to use.”  He went into even more detail on this point at his Common Core presentation. 

If you’re uncomfortable with the giddy promotion of 21st century skills, here’s the start of your “support the troops” position.  the 21st Century Skills movement is conscripting you in an unwinnable war.  They want you to do a job that is beyond your –  or anyone’s — cognitive capability.  It will be easy (and facile) to say as Ken Kay did at the Common Core event last week that just because something is hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.  Diane Ravitch recently pointed out that we’re already gullible about the myth of the miracle teacher.  Now P21 wants to up the ante. 

If we’re serious about closing the achievement gap and raising the level of performance of American education, we can’t be serious about asking teachers to walk on water and labeling them failures when they drown.  Any credible reform has to be reasonable and achievable.  21st Century Skills, as currently conceived, fails dismally on both fronts.   If we’re serious about equipping children with these important skills, we need to be equally serious and clear-eyed about what it will take, about what works and what doesn’t. 

Right now P21′s take on education is a clear case of Garbage In, Garbage Out.  And when it fails, as it inevitably must, guess who will be blamed?