Times Out Of Joint
In his 1935 essay “The Teacher and His World,” John Dewey wrote,
The sum of the matter is that the times are out of joint, and that teachers cannot escape even if they would, some responsibility for a share in putting them right.
While John Dewey may have been writing in the earlier half of the 20th century–at a time when the US was in the slow and painful process of recovering from the Great Depression–he may as well have been writing about our times–with economic fear and anxieties, a rapidly changing workplace, and technologies which have helped to foster a global network facilitating the flow of information and capital–in the beginning of the 21st century. The idea of a set of 21st Century Skills, regularly discussed in the blogosphere and reported on in both the educational and mass news media, can be thought of as an attempt to address some of the fears, anxieties, and uncertainties surrounding this changing world through education.
This is especially true among the educational technology community, which has by and large embraced the idea of the 21st Century Skills in its various forms. As the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21), the leading organization advocating for this approach to education, is largely comprised of a partnership of technology and media companies and corporations (plus ASCD and NEA and a few others), much of the emphasis of the 21st Century Skills framework is based on using and engaging with media and technology for educational purposes in interesting, collaborative, and creative ways. Although the P21′s framework is not the only one (c.f., pp. 15-20 of Friesen and Jardine’s report, 21st Century Learning and Learners, for a fairly comprehensive overview of the various approaches to 21st century skills), it is by far the most referenced, has made the most headway in policy terms, and is generally what is referred to when “21st Century Skills” is invoked generically.
The Partnership’s 21st Century Skills
The P21′s take is fairly complete, and is represented in the nice rainbow graphic below of the “Student Outcomes,” which are “…the skills, knowledge and expertise students should master to succeed in work and life in the 21st century.” Of note is the emphasis on interdisciplinary literacies (although for some strange reason, “Environmental Literacies” have not been fully developed–could this be on purpose?), innovative and creative thinking and collaboration, business and financial acumen, and, for lack of a better term, project management skills. These are all crucial in order to succeed in what Richard Florida describes as the creative class, or what Robert Reich more soberly calls symbolic analytic professions.
Student outcomes of the 21st century as envisioned by P21
Critiques of 21st Century Skills
As with many frameworks, P21′s 21 Century Skills have also been the target of criticism from the blogosphere. There are many ways to slice these critiques. Melanie McBride has an interesting critique and suggestions based on (socioeconomic) class distinctions and identity politics. Tom Hoffman critiques the idea of separating knowledge from skills, as well as favoring white-collar jobs. Hoffman, and others including Jamie MacKenzie, Alfie Kohn, and Core Knowledge, are concerned over the fact that business is setting the educational agenda.
I would agree on this last point, and it points to a disturbing cultural trend all around. Hannah Arendt foreshadowed this critique in her masterfully insightful book The Human Condition. Framing her argument in terms of the rise of society and the social realm (as opposed to the pluralistic and political ideal of the public realm) she writes: “…in a relatively short time the new social realm transformed all modern communities into societies of laborers and jobholders…” (p. 46). The 21st Century Skills focus more on competition and productivity rather than a focus on helping children become good, just and whole people. While many of the critical thinking skills described in the 21st Century Skills are important and worthwhile, there is still many missing, such as listening, caring, reflecting, and conserving.
By far, however, most of the criticisms emanate from the Core Knowledge Foundation (CK), headed by E.D. Hirsch and Diane Ravitch. The argument that they present has been picked up, repeated, and turned into a talking point. It is the standard critique of progressive education, that “skills” are elevated above “knowledge.”
Fair enough, and part of my own critique of P21′s 21st Century Skills also includes some aspects of this. Friesen and Jardine, who are Canadian and not at all attached to the Core Knowledge Foundation, critique what they call the emphasis on “generic skills” in 21st Century Skills. They instead call for a focus on “living disciplines of knowledge,” in which curriculum is cast as a “landscape” and teachers and students take on responsibilities for nurturing the knowledge with which they are engaging:
This idea of a landscape in which one learns to work and dwell, within which the relatedness and interdependence of those things which the field sustains are essential to their well being, in which one’s actions are those of obligation to and care for that well-being, in which others have come before us and work has already been done–these matters define how knowledge is in fact organized in the world.
“Setting-Right” The World
I find the take of Core Knowledge (CK), in contrast with Friesen and Jardine, to be a reductionist approach to knowledge and knowing: I am uncomfortable with the idea that “core knowledge” can be collected, anthologized, standardized, and tested without losing something. I also find that CK’s approach to lack any Socratic “critical examination of oneself and one’s traditions,” which Martha Nussbaum in her book Cultivating Humanity holds up as one of three capacities for cultivating a humanistic citizenship through education. In a sense, CK’s approach closes off the hermeneutic circle so that new meanings cannot be gleaned or constructed.
CK’s approach can also tend to a romanticism of the past, such as Dr. Ravitch’s post on 19th Century Skills. While I appreciate Dr. Ravitch’s historical perspective–that many things we value and should bring to new generations about what it means to be human have been around for awhile–I find that she is, quoting Jason Jones of The Daily Show, “hearkening back to a simple, more fictional time.”
What is missing in CK’s approach is what Hannah Arendt, a sharp and thoughtful critic of progressive education, refers to as a “setting-right” of the world. By “the world,” Arendt is referring to the world of human understanding, learning, and works, which is, she rightly asserts, well worth the effort to adopt a sense of “…conservatism, in the sense of conservation.” She writes further in her essay “The Crisis in Education”:
Basically we are always educating for a world that is or is becoming out of joint, for this is the basic human situation…. To preserve the world against the mortality of its creators and inhabitants it must be constantly set right anew. The problem is simply to educate in such a way that a setting-right remains actually possible, even though it can, of course, never be assured. Our hope always hangs on the new which every generation brings; but precisely because we can base our hope only on this, we destroy everything if we so try to control the new that we, the old, can dictate how it will look. Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child, education must be conservative; it must preserve this newness and introduce it as a new thing into an old world… (pp. 192-193)
Larry Cuban points out that teachers in their own right are often “conservative,” in that they make incremental rather than fundamental changes in their actual day-to-day practices. In the case of P21′s 21st Century Skills, this may be the right thing to do. Some questions arise: Do teachers resist those fundamental changes because of the critiques listed above, or is it another example of what Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley refer to as “adaptive presentism,” a way for teachers to deal with the deluge of change and reform which bombards them from outside the classroom? Do teachers adopt P21′s 21st Century Skills because they think it is the best way to teach their students about the world, and to prepare them for their place in it?
Alfie Kohn has admitted that teachers often use “21st Century Skills” as a way to talk about ‘relatively sophisticated intellectual activity – the sort that includes critical thinking, creativity, and learning about ideas “in a context and for a purpose”….’ And one teacher has really made 21st Century Skills her own.
These questions and concerns highlight another theme which permeates much of Hannah Arendt’s work, which I have drawn heavily upon in this post, that of the need for thoughtfulness. She ends The Human Condition with a passage from Cato: Numquam se plus agere quam nihil cum ageret, numquam minus solum esse quam cum solus esset–”Never is he more active than when he does nothing, never is he less alone than when he is by himself.” This passage flies in the face of the 21st Century Skills, but her famous thesis around the banality of evil, that evil arises from thoughtlessness and “spreads like a fungus on the surface,” requires deep thinking and consideration. So to with the 21st Century Skills, and the pressing need for considering where they come from and for what ends.
I end with another passage from Dewey’s “The Teacher and His World,” and while Arendt and Dewey disagreed on much, on the necessity of thoughtfulness they seem to concur:
The question is whether they [teachers] are doing so blindly, evasively, or intelligently and courageously. If a teacher is conservative… at all events let him do it intelligently, after a study of the situation and a conscious choice made on the basis of intelligent study. The same thing holds for the liberal and the radical.