Tuesday, February 08, 2011

No One Right Way

(I apologize in advance if this comes off as more rant-y than usual – if that’s even possible. This is very much thinking out loud, so take it for what it’s worth. It's certainly not intended to be directed at anyone, the people I mention are all helping me think through this. And, of course, I very well may be completely wrong. On to the post.)

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 history
 and 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?


  1. So thanks for taking this deeper, Karl. (I wish this would happen more in my kids' classrooms.) Good stuff for the most part.

    We're basically on the same page, but as usual, that initial 140-character Tweet (with a few characters left over) very poorly communicated my frustration. I don't disagree that we shouldn't be so angsty over the 21st Century Skills phrase, or that schools should be able to teach a course in 21C Literacies. The problem, however, is that course too often becomes the easy button, the way that we get around doing the really hard work of going deep into our curriculum to build these literacies into all aspects of what we do in schools. If we offer the course or the unit, we can check that box without every really making all this stuff that is really different show up anywhere else in the learning we do. I've seen it...I see it in many of the schools I get a chance to visit.

    So, I really wasn't saying that there was one right way as much as I was suggesting that this is one wrong way. The kind of skills we're talking about here transcend disciplines and grades. To isolate it out suggests, to me at least, an unwillingness to see the bigger picture, the one that is so different.

  2. I think I see what Will is saying, and I see it in our schools all the time. The teacher librarian at our school (yes, we're still lucky enough to have teacher librarians) is often tasked with teaching kids "21st century skills," but I don't know how often anyone else incorporates them into their classrooms. In our secondary buildings, those things are seen as the "computer teachers" jobs. I don't understand that mentality!

    As a music teacher, I'm lucky enough to have flexibility in what I teach so I can learn with my students about making connections, collaborating, communicating, etc.

    And Karl, I completely agree with you. Things are different. We ALL need to be teaching and learning differently... I just don't think that "school" is catching up quickly enough.

  3. Will - That was fast.

    Yeah, I know we basically agree, just used your tweet to force me to write something. And I know that course can become the easy button, but it doesn't have to and I think we need to be careful about assuming that it always does. Broad brush strokes . . .

    Michelle - We also pretty much agree. I just think we should be careful about tarring a school that creates such a course just because we've seen it done poorly. I think a teacher librarian is an excellent person to lead that effort, as long as they are leading and not doing a solo act.

  4. My concern about the conversation is that all of the talk about skills tends to situate both 20th and 21st century literacy skills as examples of autonomous literacy (Street, 1985). This is highly problematic. Being literate is a cultural practice that is always informed by who we are and are not. Separating that from a set of autonomously sitated skills allows us to imagine we can transmit "literate behaviors" to and from people. How one organizes the experiences we call "literacy" matters and understanding that those practices are culturally (in)formed requires more emphasis. The more important question I think is not what the "course" will be called, but thinking that such learning can and ought to be reduced to a set of skills that can be transmitted and assessed (I am sure someone has already written a 21 st century literacy skills rubric). it won't matter a hoot so long as we continue to think that skills are transferable commodities that are striipped from sociocultural contexts. What we value, believe, understand, and privilege is our Discourse. Coming to understand the power and limitations of such ought to be the work we most privilege at hand.

  5. struck a chord.
    reminded me of this: http://tinyurl.com/63k4frt

    if it resonates, super.
    if not, ignore.

  6. Karl,

    Understanding that we are all basically agreeing here, I'll have to split the hair and move in Will's direction here, and here's why:

    When you place those specific "skills" within the confines of one class, those skills tend to stay in that class unless there is a conscious effort not only by the staff, but also by the students, to port them to their other practices. How many times have we heard teachers/students say "that's the blogging class," or "don't take teacher x because he/she makes you add to his Moodle discussion board every night?" Or worse, "Isn't that 21st Cent. Literacy class where they are supposed to be doing that stuff? because I have content to cover..."

    I'd rather see the community come together and decide which aspects are going to be present in all classes, which aspects of "21st Century skills" they feel are valuable enough to be deal breakers for each of their disciplines.

  7. Patrick - Well, splitting hairs when dealing with Will and me is a challenge in and of itself. I'm sure Will will be relieved as this is the first time anyone has ever agreed with him over me.

    If it was up to me, I would prefer the approach you and Will suggest. But it's not up to me. Or to you. Or to Will. It's up to each school to make the best decision for that school and their students. I'm finding it a little hard to understand how we can all be so sure we know what's best for every single situation out there.

    So, if the choice is a school that ignores this issue completely, or a school that teaches a separate course (and hopefully also integrates across all courses), you'd suggest the school ignore it completely?

  8. Not that I have any standing in this conversation, as I am merely an Audio Visual Educational Sales Representative or what most educators refer to as a vendor, I am however a member of the International Society for Technology in Education, also known as ISTE.

    Karl knows me from work we've done for his school. Most of it good.

    ISTE does provide a rubric for teachers called NETS (National Educational Technology Standards) for Teachers and for Administrators.

    For Karl or any of his colleagues that would like, I have a couple of hefty NETS publications that I am willing to lend. The first is "Preparing Teachers to Use Technology". The second is a NETS "Resources for Assessment". I have read them but have no immediate need for them.

    It just so happens that I am one of those people who loves to learn for the sake of learning. One of my favorite publications in the Journal of Research on Technology in Education. It's always filled with interesting articles.

    One study in a recent edition, did an expose on students learning of different grade levels using a popular movie making software program with students required to execute different roles in a timely completion of a motion picture project. The quick of the matter is that the Juniors and Seniors under three different dynamics never finished their projects on time, but only one group of sophomores did. The authors postulate that the habits that the older, more experienced students had gained, failed them because changes in the version of the actual movie making program changed during the course of the experiment. The sophomores hadn't Lolo'd (a sales term meaning Locked On Locked Out)themselves into preset patterns of using the program.

    This speaks to Karl's point of the pace of change. It's moving faster than your brightest students.

    None of us will master all of the facets of technology - the hardware or the software.

    There's a reason I'm not a teacher and it has to do with patience. I admire each and everyone of you because you possess an innate strength that most of the rest of us don't possess... or at least you should if you're going to be good at your job...and that's patience.

    Seriously, if anyone would like to take me up on my offer of my "lending library" please let Karl know.

    David Alley

  9. I am a student in Dr. Strange's EDM310 class at the University of South Alabama. I enjoyed reading your post. I agree there is no "one right way" of going about teaching technology. A lot of schools are struggling with budget cuts, and I think that technology could be added in every class, not just one. I also am optimistic about the 21st century. I loved that you made the comment we are only 11 years in, we have "89 more to go." This shows that yes we've come a long way, we still have many more years to go. Great post!

  10. I am a student in Dr. Strange's EDM310 class at University of South Alabama. Dr. Strange's class is about 21st Century literacy skills. By the end of our class we should have a working knowledge of media communications, current and future technologies and how to use them, and how to use the technologies legally and safely. So this post hits home. In our case this is a separate course to learn these skills. I like the idea of having a separate class that focuses and can get really in-depth with the skills. I also feel that it should be embedded in other courses as well. I do not think that the labeling should be such a large issue though. The importance should be focused on the skills. As educators I believe we should be literate in skills that are necessary today and help us with what ever future skills we are going to encounter. I believe that we should try and embed these skills in our teaching if possible. We should be teaching our students what they need to know and how to use the technologies available to them. I really enjoyed this post. Thank you for sharing.
    I will be commenting on another post of yours in two weeks, March 6, then posting a summary of both posts on my blog if you would like to read my post. My blog is http://TidikisMirandaedm310.blogspot.com