As happens every so often, I was involved in a briefly intense Twitter discussion yesterday where I followed my usual habit of pushing (provoking?) hard just to explore my own (and others’) thinking. This one, however, I felt sort of deserved a follow-up, so here’s my attempt to summarize my current draft thinking.
The genesis of the discussion was a tweet by Will Richardson:
I pushed back a little with:
And away we went with lots of other folks chiming in along the way.
I understand the basic criticisms of calling these 21st century skills, namely that we’re ten plus years into the 21st century already and that many (most? all?) of these skills were important before the 21st century. And I also understand Will’s basic premise that, as crucial skills, these shouldn’t be taught in isolation in a separate course, but should be embedded – and modeled – in all of our classrooms.
But here’s the thing. I think there’s no one right way. I think in our passionate desire to effect the changes we think our students need, we sometimes fall into the same trap as many of the so-called reformers that we daily deride. Would it be so horrible to have a 55-minute-(or whatever)-a-day course called “21st Century Literacy Skills” taught by someone who’s pretty immersed in this arena? (For those of you who have heard Will passionately speak about these literacies, would you be averse if he was available to teach that to your students?). And, yes, these ideas should be talked about, explored, and modeled in all classrooms in addition to that one course, but if a school decided to dedicate time for that course, would it be so bad? (As Chris Lehmann has often said, if you value something let me see where it lives in your schedule. I think a case could be made that having a course in every kid’s schedule dedicated to this would show that you very much value it. Although it’s not the only way.)
But I also think it’s okay if a school decides that, no, these should be embedded in all of our courses and we’re not going to teach a separate, pull-out course specifically about these skills. There’s not one right way to do this and, if we insist there is, then we take away something I think is vital to making this whole school thing work: flexibility and personalization. (I think perhaps the only good thing I said at EduCon was that all education is global, but it’s also local.) The teachers in the classrooms with their kids, with their very individual students, with specific backgrounds and learning conditions, and very specific wants, needs and passions, need to be able to address those needs as they see fit, without folks criticizing that that's "so 2005." (And, yes, I’m as guilty of that as anyone. Mea culpa.)
I also think that much of the angst over the “21st Century Skills” label is misplaced. While I agree with folks who say that many of these skills were important pre-21st century, I disagree with some of their conclusions. First, I think that while many of these skills (collaboration and communication immediately come to mind) were very nice to have in the 20th century, I think you could often get by without them. I would suggest that for most of the professional jobs that many folks aspire to these are now necessary and prerequisite skills, not just “nice-to-have” skills.
Moving beyond employment, I also think they are necessary skills to be effective citizens in the 21st century. As the Twitter discussion unfolded, Zac Chase, Laura Deisley and I broke off into a side discussion around being an informed voter in the 21st century. Zac pushed back suggesting that really today isn’t all that different in terms of being a voter, saying that sure there are a lot more people talking about stuff, but in the end are they really saying anything that’s changing the process? (More from Zac around these ideas). Laura and I, representing the – ahem – older crowd, suggested that based on our experience, we feel it really is different. That the wealth of information available about candidates and issues, the various forms of media used to convey that information, and the ability to interact socially and at a distance around them makes being a voter/citizen much, much different today.
This is different, and it requires different skills.
And while I understand and partially agree with the argument that “Hey, we’re eleven years into the 21st century, shouldn’t we already be teaching these skills and let’s just get on with it instead of talking about them like they’re new,” I also think that some are overlooking one pretty important point: we still have eighty-nine more years left in the 21st century. I think too many folks hear “21st Century Skills” and think of a fixed, standard set of skills that are settled and clearly defined. But I think they’re still evolving, and will continue to evolve (transform?) in ways that are really hard to imagine at this point. Is it so bad to use a label that forces us to look forward? (Did educators in 1911 know what the next eight-nine years were going to bring? Would it have been bad for them to be talking about 20th Century Skills?)
That was one of the essential ideas of the presentation that shall not be named – that we live in exponential times. If Kurzweil is right in his prediction that by mid-century a $1000 computer will exceed the computational capability of the human race, then life is going to be radically different, and our brains have literally not evolved in such a way for us to truly understand that. Our brains do a pretty good job of projecting things out linearly, but we suck at exponential (which is a really important point that Kurzweil makes several times).
Here’s the example that I use with my Algebra class to demonstrate this. Take a standard piece of Xerox paper and fold it in half. Then fold it in half again. And again. And again. How many times do you have to fold it in half until the thickness equals the distance from the Earth to the Moon? (Yes, understanding you couldn’t physically fold it in half that many times, but assuming you could.) Go ahead, take a gut-level, intuitive guess of how many times. Answer below.
Richard Miller, chair of the English Department at Rutgers, says that
We're living in the time of the most significant change in human expression in human historyand that
We are no longer grounded in the printing press; what you see before us is the networked world.The networked world is different than the world in the previous centuries. Yes, we’ve always had networks. The cavemen had learning networks. They knew who to go to learn about hunting, and who was the expert on gathering, and who to learn from about how to defend the tribe. And our networks evolved and expanded over time, and include our extended families, and our neighborhoods, and our places of employment, and often a professional community. And they includes books, and 20th century media like radio and television. But I still don’t think that compares to the potential (realized by some, not by others) of our learning networks today. I have teachers on six continents that I learn from every day. Many of whom I’ve never met face-to-face.
This is different, and it requires different skills.
Miller goes on to say,
To compose, and compose successfully in the 21st century, you have to not only excel at verbal expression, at written expression, you have to also excel in the use and manipulation of images. That's what it means to compose . . . All of our students, regardless of discipline, regardless of major, can come together and work on this central activity of multimedia composition. That’s writing in the 21st century. It’s multiply authored, it’s multiply produced.I think that if you agree that multimedia composition is a “central activity” of communication in our current time, then that requires some things to change.He also says,
We do not have a pedagogy on hand to teach the kind of writing [composing?] I'm describing. It needs to be invented.Invented certainly suggests there’s something new here.
Jason Ohler defines literacy as “being able to consume and produce in the media forms of the day.” Is anyone going to argue that the “media forms” of today are not significantly different than media forms previously? Or that our ability to not only consume, but produce them, is not significantly different? Different not only in form, but in ubiquity, presence, function, and impact? As the National Council for the Social Studies says,
We live in a multimedia age where the majority of information people receive comes less often from print sources and more typically from highly constructed visual images, complex sound arrangements, and multiple media formats.This is different, and it requires different skills.
The National Council of Teachers of English says,
Because technology has increased the intensity and complexity of literate environments, the twenty-first century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, many literacies. These literacies are . . . multiple, dynamic and malleable.21st Century Skills, however you define them, are not static. They are “multiple, dynamic and malleable.” If folks want to use "21st Century Skills" as a catch-all label, I think that’s fine. If folks don’t want to use that label as a catch-all, then that’s fine as well. I think we need to move beyond arguing about the label, beyond saying there’s one right way to do this. If “literacies” is an accurate description, then it’s a core set of skills that all students (people) need to have, and I suspect having a course dedicated to it and/or embedding it in all classrooms are both better approaches than dismissing them because of the label.
Today is different, and it does require different skills. So what’s so wrong with having different approaches to help students learn those skills? There's no one right way.
Oh yeah. 42. Forty-two folds for the thickness of the paper to equal the distance from the Earth to the Moon. Most folks’ intuitive guesses are five or more orders of magnitude off. We suck at exponential. If we’re so bad at imagining that, then what else do we lack the capacity to imagine?