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?


  1. I’m too tired for a concise thoughtful response because I just drove back from Atlanta and got stuck in the traffic jams near Memphis. After the last one which held up traffic for us for an hour we saw the problem- just a little drift of snow.

    Had it been within the cogntive abilities of every driver to slow down and speed up at the precisely optimal rate, there wouldn’t have been a line of traffic backing up for miles.

    The same analogy has been us to explain #2 of Willingham. If we were capable of a 100% focus on 100% of children’s skills, 100% of the emotional needs, 100% on differientiated instruction etc. then we would have never fallen behind and produced the traffic jam of high schoolers with 5th grade skills. All we had had to do was be perfect and we would have never had a problem.

    If we had higher expectations for drivers …

    Comment by john thompson — March 2, 2009 @ 12:10 pm

  2. I would hasten to point out that the Core Knowledge folks have sought to “frame” the 21st Century skills discussion as one of content vs skills. Those who favor teaching skills then must oppose the teaching of content.

    Comment by Margo/Mom — March 2, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

  3. MM, I have to respectfully disagree with you. I think I’ve been fairly consistent in saying that you can’t uncouple skills from content, and not making it an either/or proposition. My primary concern is how the 21CS idea plays out in classrooms. I fear the message that teachers hear is the same old “content doesn’t matter, we need to teach kids to be problem solvers and critical thinkers.” There’s already next to no academic content in low-achieving schools. We simply can’t afford to sell these schools yet another bill of goods.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — March 2, 2009 @ 5:03 pm

  4. Robert, I appreciate how you highlighted Willingham’s point about teacher limitations. Twelve years into this career, I’m finally beginning to stop feeling bad about not being able to manage a project or complex hands-on assignment brilliantly. Ed school, professional journals and principals have given me the impression that this stuff is what the GOOD teachers around the country are doing. But where are these good teachers? I’m beginning to suspect that there are few, if any, who really do a solid job with these fancy lesson plans. Of course, there are those who can make a project run smoothly and have a superficial gloss (I can do this), but how many of these slick-looking projects really reflect big-time learning? In my experience, the ratio of time spent to actual learning is quite bad in these multi-day or multi-week activities. A well-crafted lecture, with a few hand-drawn cartoons and hands-on props, seems a much more efficient (and feasible, for a mere mortal teacher like myself) vehicle for conveying knowledge. Likewise a good BBC video with teacher interruptions. The fancy methods can LOOK good –but I’d like to see proof that they’re widely applicable among non-genius teachers, and that they actually teach students well.

    Despite its shaky foundations, I fear that the 21st Century Skills movement will take root because, to a lay person, it seems so self-evidently sensible, and because of education leaders’ lamentable bias toward anything that offers them VISIBLE signs of learning, even if other methods lead to learning that is copious but INvisible.

    Comment by Ben F — March 2, 2009 @ 9:38 pm

  5. Robert:

    You say–”I fear the message that teachers hear is the same old “content doesn’t matter, we need to teach kids to be problem solvers and critical thinkers.” There’s already next to no academic content in low-achieving schools. We simply can’t afford to sell these schools yet another bill of goods.”

    Sorry–but the message I hear is that trying to teach skills means removing the (nearly non-existent) content. This discussion gets difficult because so many things are tossed into the “21st century skills” bucket. Some of it is project-based learning, some is cooperative learning, some is the introduction of technological literacy., some relates to “social studies” or language study. Many of these things refer to different instructional methodology as much as additional content.

    But I would suggest that while classrooms are not bereft of content (in fact the cry from teachers is that they are expected to cram in too much)–many do a poor job of ensuring that students achieve measureable learning objectives. My experience teaches me that using methodologies that stress cooperation and collaboration (a key element in Japanese classrooms–where the “I” is severely downplayed in favor of the “we”) may be indicated throughout the educational process. Teachers need to understand how to work collaboratively–because it takes an individual, overburdened, teacher way too long to put together a cache of meaningful learning projects and activities that result in learning. Schools are rather famously resistent to this kind of sharing and collaboration, however. As a result, districts lay out pacing guides and implement regular assessments throughout the year to ensure that all of the required material is “covered.” I don’t know any classroom teachers that find this helpful–but it makes a world of sense if education is only about ensuring that students are “exposed” to the right content.

    I agree that there are some teachers who will salute the 21st century flag in the belief that it means an end to standardized testing and an easier path in which they can once again be the sole arbiters of what it is important for their students to learn. I would argue that the means by which such learning is evaluated must be held to a high standard, and combined with existing standardized tests. If student projects are evaluated according to clear rubrics and by evaluators outside the classroom (even teachers evaluating each other’s students within the same school), the opportunities for “anything goes” thinking are diminished. I know of several schools that use similar means of evaluation very successfully.

    It is, I will admit, to have honest conversations about reform in education, because so much dishonesty, or denial, pervades the conversation. So many teachers complain about the stress their students face when tested, or what a poor assessment is possible through a multiple choice test. Yet they rely on similar means of testing, and cry out to be allowed to fail students who do not measure up. After so many years of hearing that “the tests” have changed teaching and teachers no longer have time to teach creatively under pressure to “teach to the test.” Yet, when the discussion turns to balancing the assessment equation by including some of the so called “softer” bits of education, we hear that teachers never really implemented all that “project-based” stuff anyway because it was too hard.

    If I had to guess, I would say that the highly performing schools are already including a good bit of what might be considered 21st century skills–while the lower performing schools are too busy cramming for tests (with poor results). To continue “as is” means that one more time, the kids on the bottom of the socio-economic pile get short-changed.

    Comment by Margo/Mom — March 2, 2009 @ 10:01 pm

  6. Willingham makes great points. Of course someone will come along and say, “But look! There are teachers doing it right now! All teachers need is extra professional development.”

    There may well be teachers with an extraordinary ability to keep track of many things going on in a room at once. But not every teacher is like that–and those supreme multitaskers may not be so good at other things, like focusing on a single problem.

    Now, suppose it were possible, with extensive professional development, to bring most teachers up to speed with the “new” methods. Would this be a wise use of resources? No. We’d be putting tremendous time and effort into process, for the sake of process. It would be like the Workshop Model and worse. PDs would focus on the management of the little groups and the various gadgets.

    Willingham writes, “This doesn’t mean that students should never do projects—it means that we should be clear-eyed about the challenges that projects present, and have a plan to meet them, rather than to simply suggest that projects (and other methods) are a good idea.”

    I agree. Projects make sense when they honor the subject matter and are feasible. P21′s suggested projects not only require considerable resources but often dilute, distract from, and oversimplify the subject matter. Claymation, audio commercial, blogging projects, and social activities should not take over English class. Students will learn to think critically about literature only by delving into it, spending time with it, and resisting distractions and flashy things.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — March 2, 2009 @ 10:11 pm

  7. I am thankful some attention is being focused on the unreasonable expectations placed on teachers: that there is some acknowledgment that it cannot ALL be done. This is especially true when you look at what teachers should be able to expect – that because a student is in a certain grade they have passed certain benchmarks which are designated by the state to assure us the students have the minimum skills necessary to accomplish grade-level work. Unfortunately, this is often not the case.

    As a high school teacher, I’ve been expected to conduct Socratic Seminars, but never trained in how to do so. I found and purchased a book on such, read up, developed a lesson plan, and presented it. I received poor marks on an evaluation for that, because the method I’d read and produced was not the same method (a modified version) that the school preferred.

    Ditto Marzano’s 9, by which we are formally evaluated at my new school. No training, no available materials (his books) in case I want to read up on them. Ditto small group learning, the student portfolio, PBL’s, and a whole host of other programs brought in via 20 minute PowerPoint at staff training without any supporting texts or ongoing training. And I should be able to demonstrate these methods and techniques in a classroom with learning disparities ranging from semi-literate to college level in 90 minutes on Mondays, 70 minutes on Wednesdays, and 45 minutes on Fridays. (Actually, our school has 9 different schedules, which also impact Tuesdays and Thursdays, early release Wednesdays, pep rally days, testing days, Homeroom days (once a 6 weeks – I’m expected to provide a meal for 25 students to enhance our “bonding”), actual homerooms (once a day), and other events.) Band-aids for gaping wounds and all that. I’d love to have a classroom in which levels were as simple as below expected, at expected, and above expected. I’d like to able to say the only thing I do in the summers is relax.

    Comment by Redkudu — March 2, 2009 @ 10:17 pm

  8. Clearly, people do learn to “to innovate, think critically and solve problems.” How does that happen?

    Comment by Tom Hoffman — March 3, 2009 @ 11:06 am

  9. I would be hesitant about adopting Japanese methods, because of the vast cultural differences. Japan has a very homogeneous population, with high value placed on education, high liklihood of a very-involved mom at home and high liklihood of out-of-school tutoring.

    Comment by momof4 — March 3, 2009 @ 11:44 am

  10. May I just thrown in that not all students have unlimited cognitive ability, either, and that throwing at them all of this perfect activities-based, multi-sensory learning processes may just overwhelm them and cause them to give up.

    Comment by tm willemse — March 3, 2009 @ 12:59 pm

  11. Her is another point well made over at the Gadfly: http://www.edexcellence.net/flypaper/index.php/2009/03/re-human-capital-or-elitism-constraining-charter-scale-up/

    Comment by tm willemse — March 3, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

  12. In the old days, teachers didn’t have to re-invent the wheel every day. In the 1950s, teachers all had lesson plans which they used year after year (the older the teacher, the grubbier the paper). When you got a substitute teachers, she (and it was always a she) would leaf through the lesson plan, and you usually got a lesson that wasn’t too far adrift from the previous day’s work. A new teacher coming into the school was often bequeathed the lesson plans left by the retiring teacher (teachers were eternal–often as not, they’d spend their entire career at the same school). Many teachers modified their lessons as time went on, but no more often than necessary. Not that there weren’t plenty of fads about, but there wasn’t any pressure to adopt them. One of the big changes that hit just before my day was allowing southpaws to write with their left hand. Now that was earth-shaking.

    At my first year at the U of Michigan–in 1961–we’d often stay up drinking coffee in the Union until 1 o’clock in the morning, engaged in precocious intellectual disputes (almost invariably good-natured). And believe it or not, no one had ever made the slightest attempt to teach us ‘critical thinking skills’. Unfortunately, Michigan wasn’t the best place for undergrads: seminars were, more often than not, run by graduate students on teaching fellowships, and they already had more than enough to do without having to teach.

    Fast-forward to 1989 at the U of East Anglia in Norwich. The quality of the teaching is immensely better–seminars are run by top-flight scholars, most of them excellent teachers. Insofar as there were enough mature students to make a quorum, seminars were even better than staying up until one o’clock in the Union coffee bar. But the students who came fresh from school were utterly devoid of intellectual curiosity. Whenever we took breaks for coffee, their conversation seldom progressed beyond what they’d watched on television.

    These students were the first fruit of what is known as the ‘Plowden generation’ in the UK. In 1967, Lady Plowden (one of the great and the good who run Britain from behind the curtain, so-to-speak) issued her infamous report calling for, among other things, project-based learning. Obviously, changes in education don’t occure overnight, but by the 1980s most of the old-style teachers were gone. There was a strong reaction against these changes from politicians of every stripe, and for a while the worst excesses the Plowden Report were checked. Alas, in 2007 the Gilbert Review put ’21st century skills’ at the top of the agenda.

    The Tories, who are almost certain to win the next election (it must occur by June 2010) will be constrained by the kind of skillful propaganda campaign mentioned in this article. We can only hope that financial stringency, coupled with a lack of enthusiasm by teachers, will succeed in stopping this banal bandwagon. One can only wonder how its sponsors can believe such obvious drivel.

    Comment by Tom Burkard — March 6, 2009 @ 11:47 am

  13. Perhaps this is covered in comments but it is amusing to me that some of the teachers with the most cognitive limits (i.e., don’t know anything about their content) are the ones pushing some of the teaching techniques described as modern or “21st century.” Case in point… I have seen a teacher that does a unit labeled as “differentiated instruction” in a world geography course that is text worksheets and meaningless projects (like building the Great Wall of China out of sugar cubes). None of the resources are really evaluated (if you do ANYTHING when building your sugar palace, you get the credit) and reports written for other projects aren’t critical evaluated. Based on the teacher, he can’t even answer any question about projects without the teaching guide for the textbook. How is he supposed to evaluate the advanced projects? The answer… he can’t.

    Comment by Jason — March 6, 2009 @ 1:29 pm

  14. Jason–I think that your fears are well founded. However, I would note that in the current environment of “rigorous content” that teacher is leafing through released items from the state test and using it to construct a “curriculum” based on “preparing students for the test.” I don’t know that either is to be desired. However, in an ideal world, or a minimally responsible one, the projects might be arrived at collaboratively so that even the unprepared teacher has some guidance, and they would be graded by a panel outside the classroom based on some meaningful and explainable criteria related to learning objectives.

    Comment by Margo/Mom — March 6, 2009 @ 3:51 pm

  15. Wow… that is scary. If grading starts to happen outside the classroom, why not hire some minimum wage flunkie to babysit the kids so we don’t have to waste teacher salary on a babysitter? Who is this panel?

    Comment by Jason — March 6, 2009 @ 4:54 pm

  16. I just graduated with my BS in Elementary Education, as a non-traditional student, (52-years old,) and began teaching at the start of the school year. In my education to become an educator, we were taught to use 21st Century Skills in teaching. I used to sit in my classes and wonder, “Whatever happened to the way it used to be?” During my practicum hours and methods classes, I had to use these new techniques, so I know that they can work. However, they cannot work for everything.
    What I do is select a main topic, i.e., State History. I teach a unit on our state, and assign students different states in the Union. This can either be individual, paired, or grouped. For this particular unit we used the entire month, but I normally allow two weeks for the entire unit. With the state unit, we were able to cover State History, Geography, Math, Writing, Reading, Technology, and Speaking. That is every subject that a student learns in school. In other lessons, throughout the two weeks, I cover most of the general information, and then at the end the students present their information. They do get graded according to a rubric which they have at the beginning of the assignment.
    Like I say, it can’t work for everything, but it does work, it is more interesting for the students, and it is a lot easier on the teacher.

    Comment by 1st Year Teacher — March 6, 2009 @ 7:24 pm

  17. Tom Burkard,

    Thanks for a great post!

    First Year Teacher,

    Yes, projects “work”…at keeping the natives from revolting, at making life manageable for the teacher, at the all-important task of giving the LOOK of engaged learning. But you might ask yourself, is this an efficient way for them to acquire knowledge? What if they could learn three times as much using other methods, like direct instruction? Furthermore you might ask, are they learning what they ought to be learning? Might it not matter that the kid who did the project on Rhode Island hasn’t learned much about the other forty-nine states?

    You say the project is “more interesting for the students”. I have seen students really get into their projects, though I often see projects that reflect weeks of wasted time. Don’t think that creative lectures, documentaries, and stimulating whole-class reads can’t be very interesting to students –it can often be a lot more interesting for students than research (i.e. leafing through reams of barely-comprehensible texts), jumping through the hoops on a rubric, and coloring (or the other non-academic elements of the project).

    If you haven’t already, I’d suggest you read E.D. Hirsch’s The Knowledge Deficit. It makes a compelling case that imparting a carefully-selected body of knowledge is the best thing teachers can do for their students, and that all methodologies should be judged by how well they do this.

    Comment by Ben F — March 7, 2009 @ 2:06 am

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