21st Century Ignorance

Peter Wood

Today’s mail brought a review copy of The Education Week Guide to K-12 Terminology.  Not the most scintillating title, but the cover, which has a metallic blue sheen, is sort of scintillating.  Buried beneath the sheen is an obscure photomontage of a school bus, a hand steering a mouse, and a clock in an empty school hallway showing that it is eighteen minutes past twelve.  We grasp significance where we find it.   

This shiny little book is an unexpected delight.  It starts with “A Nation at Risk” and ends with “Zone of Proximal Development,” and in between is like a caravan crossing the intellectual desert of contemporary pedagogy.  Where else would one find a definition of “book study” such as this:  “A means of teacher professional development that involves teachers gathering regularly to discuss a book or books relevant to their work.”  It would appear that actually reading a book is not necessary to “book study,” as up-to-date teachers use the term.   

The Guide to K-12 Terminology unlocked what for me were other mysteries:  “distributed leadership”  (“Formal and informal networks in schools that determine which people are influential”);  intruder drills (what to do when the armed maniac arrives); popcorn reading (“student ‘pop in’ to read during a teacher-led reading exercise.)  Even the cross-references are illuminating.  “Due process.” (“See Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.”)   Some words that you might think are too ordinary for a specialized glossary get defined anyway:  curriculum, diploma, illiteracy.   

And though the authors strive mightily to give plain, unbiased definitions, sometimes they slip.  “Critical thinking” occasions the comment, “Increasingly, educators believe that schools should focus more on critical thinking than on memorization of facts.”   Increasingly?  This false distinction has been in play for over a century, since Dewey and his progressive pals first introduced it.  Sometimes public schools seem to be fighting their own hundred years war on “rote memorization.”   It is a meaningless battle.  Memory is an indispensable part of learning, and “critical thinking” along with a lot of other intellectual skills would be impossible without it.  The only real question is:  what should we commit to memory?   

A new answer is racing around the edu-world—so new that it isn’t even in shiny blue Education Week Guide to K-12 Terminology.  The new answer for what students should learn is called “21st century skills.”  I first heard of it while following the battle in Massachusetts over the fate of that state’s successful two-decade-long and enormously expensive rise to the top in student performance.  The current governor, Deval Patrick, a warm friend to the teachers’ unions, has launched reforms aimed at taking the rigor out of his state’s curriculum frameworks.  His alternative?  21st century skills.  

Well, of course. Bay Staters don’t want to be caught teaching students sixth century Massachusetts skills, such as how to build fish weirs in tidal basins; or twelfth century skills, such as how to steer your longboat back to Iceland; or nineteenth century skills, such as how to run efficient woolen mills.  But what exactly are those 21st century skills?  If you care to dig into the matter, you have numerous options, such as Learning for the 21st Century by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills; or Twenty-First Century Skills  by the Meitiri Group; or Massachusetts’ own

Partnership for 21st Century Skills.   But if you want a short answer, “21st century skills” are…“critical thinking.”

Yes, once again.   

As a friend recently put it, “Of the numerous dumb ideas to float through k-12 education since the late 1980s, 21st century skills might very well be the dumbest of all. It used to be that just the teachers unions and ed school dunces pushed this stuff. Now, the B-school jargon has fused with the Ed-school jardon--making a new hybrid super jargon.”

There is, however, some organized resistance to this nonsense.  In Massachusetts, Charles Chieppo and Jamie Gass at the Pioneer Institute have been waging a tactically brilliant, Stonewall Jackson -in-Shenandoah-Valley campaign, outwitting Governor Patrick at every turn.  Their recent overview of Patrick’s attempt to rid Massachusetts of successful school standards took the measure of 21st century skills.  They recount that Patrick’s [ “21st Century Skills Task Force” was charged with rewriting curricula to ensure that “Massachusetts students are prepared to succeed in a fast-changing economy.”   It called for replacing a rigorous state history with: 

project-based assessments that require students to demonstrate skills like ‘global awareness,’ a change likely to crowd out topics like the Constitution or causes of the Civil War. 

And they quote the former state senate president Thomas Birmingham, one of the architects of education reform, expressing his worry that the 21st Century Skills Task Force “may threaten to…drive us back in the direction of vague expectations and fuzzy standards.”  

There is also nationally organized resistance.  A year ago New York University Professor Diane Ravitch helped to found a new group called Common Core, to promote liberal education.  Last month Common Core held a panel discussion “to critique the idea of 21st century skills.”  Ravitch’s own critique of this empty-headed reform movement is withering:    

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. 

If the politicians, the denizens of ed schools, the hapless teachers, and trend-happy business leaders who support the “21st century skills” movement and who never tire of praising “critical thinking” were actually capable of it, they would read Ravitch and forthwith seek amnesty.  Of course, they won’t.  Nothing is more certain than the eagerness of the education establishment to embrace the next magic formula.    

The Education Week Guide to K-12 Terminology has an entry under “Scripps National Spelling Bee.”  Of course, spelling is not a 21st century skill by any stretch, but for some reason spelling bees remain popular.  The shiny blue Guide lists some recent Scripps winners, including Sai R. Gunturi of Dallas, who won in 2003 by correctly spelling “pococurante.”  It means “indifferent, nonchalant.”  For example:  ‘Though it was eighteen minutes past twelve and the school hallway was empty, the teachers were pococurante.  They knew that the students were hanging out somewhere practicing their 21st century skills.” 



Image: Pixabay, Public Domain

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