21st Century Snake Oil

by Robert Pondiscio
February 3rd, 2009

Yesterday, Alfie Kohn; today Tony Wagner.

Jay Greene goes after the education guru on his blog and in an op-ed in the Northwest Arkansas Morning News.  The Fayetteville Public School system has purchased 2,000 copies of Wagner’s The Global Achievement Gap and is holding a series of public meetings, according to Greene, on how Wagner’s vision for 21st century skills ”might guide our schools.”  Be afraid, says Jay.  Be very afraid. 

It’s hard to get people to think critically about people who push a focus on critical thinking.  To be for critical thinking is like being for goodness and light.  The tricky part is in how you get there.  To the extent that Wagner has any concrete suggestions, he seems to be taking folks down the wrong path.  He wants less emphasis on content and less testing.  But he shows no evidence that higher levels of critical thinking can be found in places or at times when there was less content and less testing.  In fact, the little evidence he does provide would suggest the opposite.

Joanne Jacobs weighs in as well, pointing to a Sandra Stotsky op-ed on Tony Wagner, and noting succinctly: “I don’t see excess knowledge as a big problem for today’s students.”

Cultural Literacy Bonus:  Check out the illustration atop Jay’s blog post.  It’s Bugs Bunny dressed as a Wagnerian Valkyrie from the cartoon, What’s Opera, Doc?  Can you imagine a kid’s cartoon using Wagner’s Ring Cycle as the basis of a parody today?  It’s a bromide to suggest that entertainment has been dumbed-down over time, but it’s hard not to notice the difference in the vocabulary of Mary Poppins, for example, or the Rex Harrison version of Doctor Doolittle compared to contemporary kids’ fare.  Quantifying the change in cultural references and vocabulary level in children’s entertainment over the last 50 years or so would make for an interesting study, if it hasn’t already been done.