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Thread: The value of so-called "21st-century skills"

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  1. #1
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    Default The value of so-called "21st-century skills"

    Today's Boston Globe contained two interesting pieces on so-called 21st-century skills.


    I say "so-called" not because I doubt the value of these skills, but rather, take some exception to their being so labeled.

    In November of 2007, I attended the "A New Day for Schools" conference held at the UMass Boston campus. As part of the agenda, I sat in on a session entitled, "Integrating 21st Century Skills: Deepening Learning Opportunities and Student Engagement."

    A panelist who worked for Intel spoke of the "employment gap:" those skills valued by employers but too often missing from job candidates (based on a national study of 400 companies).
    1. Professionalism/work ethic
    2. Written/spoken communication
    3. Teamwork/collaboration
    4. Critical thinking/problem solving

    This list aligns well with the skills cited in the Globe editorial ("media literacy, critical thinking, and working in groups;" "reasoning and problem solving") and the Globe op-ed ("Think strategically. Use technology. Work collaboratively. Communicate effectively. Recognize how the world around you connects with everything else;" "problem-solving, financial and business literacy, global awareness, and innovation").

    The editorial isn't so much against these "soft" skills as it is cautious about how teaching them might displace "hard" academics. In particular, the piece lauds how well Massachusetts students perform against the best international students, counseling the state Board of Education to "protect these hard-won gains." The editorial concludes: "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."

    For its part, the op-ed piece cites a report by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education's Task Force on 21st Century Skills. That report spells out in some detail how to integrate these skills into the K-12 curriculum. The op-ed piece ends: "This is hard work, and must be done in a careful, thoughtful way, but it must be done."

    Like so much in life and education, common sense tells us that an appropriate balance must be found between the poorly-named "hard" and "soft" skills. For my part, as an employer, I prefer to help employees with strong "process" skills (of the 21st-century variety, which in my opinion include reading, writing, and math) acquire "content" than I do the converse.

    To that end--both employment narrowly and citizenship more broadly--I continue to encourage the Wayland Public Schools and its administration to keep raising the bar regarding the thoughtful (and where possible, evidence-based) integration of "process" and "content." I'm curious to hear the thoughts of others on this topic.

  2. #2
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    The assumption seems to be that learning one kind of skill can only occur at the expense of learning the other kind. I suspect this to be a false tradeoff. One can learn both kinds of skills in a synergistic manner, for example collaborating as a team to understand and report on period in history, or a culture, or a style of government, or a technology. Well-chosen synergies might actually accelerate skill acquisition by making the activity more exciting and memorable.

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    Dave, well said--my post would have been better had I said that explicitly. The Maura Banta op-ed piece in favor of these process skills made precisely that point.

    But even Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews, a critic of the 21st-century skills movement, was forced to rethink his position after reading a recent report by the Education Sector. The turning point for him was a simple phrase: The best learning happens "when students learn basic content and processes . . . at the same time that they learn how to think and solve problems."

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    Default Philadelphia Story

    Interesting, tangentially related story on Philadelphia's "School of the Future." The eSchoolNews.com piece begins as follows.

    When it opened its doors in 2006, Philadelphia's School of the Future (SOF) was touted as a high school that would revolutionize education: It would teach at-risk students critical 21st-century skills needed for college and the work force by emphasizing project-based learning, technology, and community involvement. But three years, three superintendents, four principals, and countless problems later, experts at a May 28 panel discussion hosted by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) agreed: The Microsoft-inspired project has been a failure so far.

    (more) ...

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    Default re: Philadelphia Story

    Poor leadership and miserable execution will kill any endeavor, regardless of its qualities.

    This quote from the article supports a point I've made here before:

    "We naively thought, I guess, that by providing a beautiful building and great resources, these things would automatically yield change. They didn't," said Jan Biros, associate vice president for instructional technology support and campus outreach at Drexel University and a former member of the SOF Curriculum Planning Committee.
    Last edited by Dave Bernstein; 06-01-2009 at 06:47 PM. Reason: add title

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    Interesting opinion piece in today's Boston Globe inelegantly arguing against process skills.

    The author apparently knows no gray, writing "But skill-centered, knowledge-free education has never worked." To my knowledge, even the most ardent "process skills" advocate has never come remotely close to advocating for such a silly thing.

    No, we need knowledge and process in balance. But to read this article, you'd never get that sense. To channel Dr./Ms. Ravitch, "knowledge-centered, skill-free education has never worked."

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