About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

21st Century Skills: Education’s New Cliché

I would like to open 2010 with a commentary on "21st Century Skills" that I published in Truthdig on December 8. For most of you unfamiliar with Truthdig, I recommend checking it out. It's a lively online forum on politics and culture.


Also, by coincidence, right around the same time my Truthdig piece was published, Education Week ran a story on possible connections between the 21st Century skills movement and technology companies seeking profit through 21st Century Skills reforms:


A quick separate piece of news. During the week of January 7 to 13, I'll be interviewed by Krista Tippett on her American Public Media show, "Speaking of Faith." It airs on a lot of public radio outlets and is also available online.

OK, now to the commentary on 21st Century Skills.


In all the current talk about school reform, there is one phrase that you will hear in every proposal, whether it comes from the president or the local school board. That phrase is 21st century skills. Provide students with 21st century skills for a 21st century economy. The label is a powerful one, heralding a new era, high-tech and prosperous.

But like so much in education reform, an idea that has some merit can quickly get reduced to a cliché. In one document I read, the phrase 21st century skills was repeated 25 times in less than two pages. And once you make your way through the cant, the 21st-century-skills approach has some troubling implications for education.

What are these skills? There are a number of definitions and lists, some running up to nine pages. Here’s a summary drawn from the Southern Regional Education Board. Twenty-first century skills include the ability to use a range of electronic technologies to access, synthesize and apply information. The ability to think critically and creatively and evaluate the products of one’s thinking. The ability to communicate effectively and collaborate with others, particularly in diverse and multicultural settings.

The range of skills is admirable, as is the intention that they apply to all students—an equity imperative. But what’s new about them? They sound like the skills one would have gotten from a good 20th century education—or from a lot further back than that.

You’ll find discussion of evaluating evidence or communicating effectively in Aristotle. The exception would be the emphasis on electronic media, but even here the underlying competencies—evaluating sources, synthesizing information—are good old-fashioned ones.

Why begrudge the 21st-century-skills advocates their use of the politically effective mantle of newness?

The characterization of these skills as new implies that they haven’t been taught before. And this characterization plays into the inaccurate claim—popular in some conservative reform circles—that America’s schools have failed on a grand scale. This dangerous claim keeps us from drawing on what we already do well, and creates a false separation between one educational era and another. The rhetoric of the new plays into our easy dichotomizing of “old is bad / new is good” and our fetish for the next big thing—the examination of which ought to be a 21st century skill.

Of broader concern is the philosophy of education embodied in this reform.

As extensive as some of the lists of 21st century skills are, there are topics you won’t find: aesthetics, intellectual play, imagination, the pleasure of a subject, wonder. The focus of the lists—even when creativity is mentioned—is overwhelmingly on utility and workplace productivity.

The irony is that a rich engagement with the subjects that are central to this skills-based reform—mathematics, science, electronic technology—involves for many young enthusiasts (not to mention experts) these same imaginative and aesthetic qualities. But the utilitarian concentration of the lists on production precludes these less tangible, but intellectually important, aspects of a good education.

The 21st-century-skills philosophy of education is an economic one. The primary goal is to create efficient and effective workers. Twenty-first century skills for the 21st century organization man and woman.

The economic motive has always figured in the spread of mass education in the United States, but recently it has predominated, edging out all the other reasons we send kids to school: civic, social, ethical, developmental. Even those 21st century skills that do deal with the civic, such as cross-cultural understanding, are expressed in terms of workplace effectiveness.

Take, for example, these items drawn from the advocacy group Partnership for 21st Century Skills:

  • Understand, negotiate and balance diverse views and beliefs to reach workable solutions, particularly in multicultural environments.
  • Leverage social and cultural differences to create new ideas and increase both innovation and quality of work.

These are worthy, and we certainly could benefit from their spirit of cooperation. But the focus is very much on getting something done in the workplace. There are other important educational and civic goals related to interacting with others of different backgrounds and beliefs. For starters, there is knowledge of cultural practices—of the very notion of culture—along with the appreciation of our common humanity. There might be nothing immediately “leveraged” from such understanding, but it has great civic and personal value.

This is a promising time for education. Reform is a priority in a number of states, and the federal government is about to infuse an unprecedented amount of money into the schools. All this is happening at a time of great anxiety about the economy, so a focus on the workplace has understandable appeal. But we need to be careful to not let that anxiety narrow the purpose of education in America, regardless of what century we are in.


  1. I'm struck by the parallels (some congruent, some not) of this "new cliche" with an Op-Ed piece in Sunday's LA Times by William G. Tierney. http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-tierney3-2010jan03,0,7259745.story The organism of reform has many heads, and I'm inspired by your optimism regarding forthcoming federal money.

  2. There's a little pathos in the term for me...because at the back of the term is fluency in electronic media, which kids can- and do- teach themselves, while the grand pooh-bahs are snapping their fingers and claiming to be hepcats. Or something.

  3. I actually have to say that I think there are some differences and is a certain newness that you are neglecting in this response. I fully appreciate concern over the growing rhetoric where expressions in education become accessories and fundamentally meaningless.

    But - when I was in school (graduated high school in 02 - college prep courses) I was not really pushed to analyze or synthesize often. I was subjected to the traditional transfer of knowledge from teacher to student, and subsequent regurgitation of said knowledge back to teacher from student. And in Aristotle's time, I don't think the public and youth had access to information at a rate that can even be compared to the bombardment our students today experience in their lives.

    Overall, I'm sure that some people have been teaching analysis and synthesis and critical thinking, etc throughout all of time, but I do not believe that it has been a focus of the educational community on a grand scale.

    I believe that we should be grateful that it is being encouraged, even if those advocating for it are less sincere than we might like.

    And for what it's worth, I think that the primary purpose for a public school system IS economic, though I think that ethics and morals go alongside most critical thinking educational paths.

    I really appreciate how thoughtful your post is. My question, I suppose, is who or what you are pushing against exactly? What do you want to see change?

  4. This is good food for thought. Politicians and lobbyists have been hijacking good language since the beginnings of language and politics.

    I suppose that I am lucky. The district that I work in has always talked about the creative aspects that you are looking for whenever they talk about 21st Century Learning.

    Without researching it, I would have to guess that "creating good workers" has been at the center of education the world over for as long as we have had economies. It would take a major shift in world view for that to change significantly. When politicians talk about the need for creative thinking it's typically because they hope that someone will discover that next big thing that will spark an economic revival or surge.

    I do agree that we need to be careful about drawing a line between what is ahead in education and what has already happened as if the old has nothing of merit. If there wasn't good education happening before the 21st century, how in the world did we end up with stem cell research, cloning and all these technologies that are changing the way we see the world now?

    Well, that's enough thoughts for now. Thanks for the thoughtful post.


  5. I appreciate the post Mike. I want to say something about economics, here and elsewhere in the world. There is an obvious urge to "keep up with the Jones'" the Jones' being China, Germany, Brazil, etc, and their educational and industrial engines for material wealth and growth.

    This push to "stay up with" has become more urgent, and is predicated upon our unquestioned belief that 1) the worldwide material growth of 20th Century will always continue, and 2) the US should and can maintain/regain prominence/dominance. Our society tends to understand these assumptions as God given rights or universal truths. Are they?

    What if this current economic downturn is the beginning of the end of our growth and material engine? Think natural limits on water, cheap oil, income from selling real estate to each other. In that case, "the ability to communicate, aesthetics, intellectual play, imagination, the pleasure of a subject, wonder" and "civic, social, ethical, developmental" education seems to me to be even more important. These elements support the moral underpinnings of a 'society,'--any society. They are also important because their utility and exercise don't depend on unlimited growth and resource use, and they are important because they give students the tools for transitioning our society into a (perhaps) new world and new economic reality. Bravo.

    Playing with electronic dohickees, and worshiping technology (even if it is for ecological and energy "fixes") may simply be distractions that mindlessly hold to the status quo, eg the American Dream of 1950, and delay our chances for a thoughtful transition. Thanks again Mike, for being a champion for common sense, and a compassionate society.

  6. You make an important point, Mike. As the racial picture in America changes and full participation and full access to opportunity for all Americans finally appears on the horizon, it becomes ever more important that our public schools prepare all of our students to be ready to take advantage. Policies like NCLB and Race to the Top are big and clunky and clumsy. They are blind to the individuals who walk into the classroom—teachers and students.
    So it is important to remind school systems, schools, teachers and communities, that if we set our classrooms towards encouraging all of the talents and strengths our children possess, then the students themselves will find their places in the economy and take care of the future. Engage them in word play and numeracy; free them to explore their interests by providing them with those skills that have developed and been passed down over millennia; show them respect for the individuals they are, and well never have to worry about where the next great idea is to be found.”

    By the way,“The rhetoric of the new plays into our easy dichotomizing of “old is bad / new is good” and our fetish for the next big thing—the examination of which ought to be a 21st century skill.”To use a 21st century phrase— ROFL.

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