I’ve noticed a new buzz word hovering around educational circles these days. It’s called 21st century learning. My first reaction to this is: aren’t we living in the 21st century? And doesn’t that mean that any kind of learning we engage in is 21st century learning? Well, I suppose that’s unfair. What the people behind this term really mean, I think, is that there are a host of new abilities and skills that are required to be successful in this particular century, and they don’t include jousting tournaments (11th century), Aristotelian logic (13th century), madrigal singing (16th century), or laying down railroad tracks (19th century).
So, what are these new skills? I went online and checked out the number one Google site for this term and discovered The Partnership for 21st Century Skills. They have a graphic that details what seems to encompass this term. It includes: 4 C’s: critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity. It also includes the 3 R’s (reading, writing, and arithmetic) (I thought these were 19th or 20th century skills!). Let me get back to creativity. It seems to me that creativity has been useful in just about every century since recorded time. But it has also seemed to me that the schools are generally quite antagonistic to creativity. I’m reminded of a quote from the anthropologist Jules Henry, who wrote “The schools have never been places for the stimulation of young minds. If all through school the young were provoked to question the Ten Commandments, the sanctity of revealed religion, the foundations of patriotism, the profit motive, the two-party system, monogamy, the laws of incest, and so on, we would have more creativity than we could handle. “ Oh yes, we’ll allow them a little token creativity (“think of as many uses for a paperclip as you can”), that is, if there’s time after the standardized tests (which are a great stifler of creativity), but if we really committed ourselves to creativity in the schools, then those tests would have to go, along with grades, textbooks, worksheets, and most of the other pablum that is doled out to students on a regular basis.
Moving along to the rest of the 4 C’s, communication and collaboration don’t seem to be unique to the 21st century – we’ve needed those skills since the Stone Age. And criticial thinking – well, this was very big in the 1980’s, especially in the form of Socratic questioning (which makes them 5th century B.C. skills). But again, if we really engage students in thinking critically about everything, then we’re back to creativity and its threatening aspects to school bureaucratic structure.
There are some other 21st century skills listed, including Information, Media, and Technology skills. Now, here, we’re talking something genuinely 21st centuryish. But is this something we need to teach students, or are they already up to their eyebrows in technology? I’m afraid there’s a little bit of the Luddite in me coming to the fore when I say that part of living in the 21st century involves keeping technology (blogging, tweating, posting, texting etc.) at bay so that we can continue to experience ourselves as whole human beings. Back in the 1980’s (why do I keep going back there?) I knew a guy named Craig Brod who wrote a book called Technostress. The book didn’t do very well. They didn’t even do a paperback edition of it. But I’ve noticed the term surfacing from time to time on the internet. And it seems to me to be a neglected concept. I think 21st century skills should include the ability to cope effectively with Technostress, and keep it from fragmenting the soul, or whatever is left of it.
Perhaps 21st century skills should involve the process of staying human, even as forces around us seek to dehumanize ourselves. This might mean retreating into a good 19th century novel from time to time, or keeping a 20th century perspective on humanity (we’re retreating in time from the Holocaust and the World Wars and I fear perhaps forgetting what we must never forget). Of course, we’ve got a whole new bunch of problems. Perhaps 21st century skills should include radiation management (e.g. what to do if your nuclear power plant blows up), or Terrorism 101 (to understand and prevent it, of course!). Speaking of terrorism, it seems one of the problems with that, is there are a group of people still living in the middle ages who are being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, and they don’t like it.
At any rate, I think this term 21st century skills, is, overall, a bit silly. Can’t we just say that our kids need a quality education, without having to dress it up in 21st century guise? Of course, educators love to throw around buzz words. I’m still throwing around “multiple intelligences” as a buzz term, even though many would argue that it’s “so 1990’s”! So I understand the penchant for dressing up education concepts in a pretty bow (no, that metaphor sounds a little too 18th century!). But can’t we just stand back a little and say that what we really want for our kids is to be passionate about learning, kind to others, and thoughtful in their actions? I suppose there is much more to it than this but I think these skills would pass muster in just about any century. What do you think?
Thomas Armstrong is the author of If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education.
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