Thursday, January 1, 2009

21st Century Questions

Oh, Ben, Ben, Ben! I was so enjoying a quiet, unfettered afternoon - and there you go again - over at The Edge of Tomorrow posting 21st Century Clarification on New Year's Day! I've been following your conversations since reading your December 20 blog post 21st Century Confusion, in which you expressed concerns and reservations about the movement promoting 21st Century Skills (or literacies) in our nation's schools. I need you to know that I purposefully clicked away from your blog on December 20. Frankly, I was feeling too weary and too worn with the hype of the season to begin an explanation of the critical need for immediate attention to 21st century skills in our schools. I did "tweet" a DM to you, just to let you know I'd be back to share what I hope will be a clarifying rationale for the pressing call for 21st century school reform. I didn't expect to be roused, however, from the complete peace and relaxation of New Year's Day by the post 21st Century Clarification! It's a great post, Ben, but, you see, I'm like the old, wounded bull in the picture on this topic. Your recent post is the bright red cape that provokes me to respond. Your blog just happens to be the skilled matador on this New Year's Day - the engine that fanned my fire. You are not the enemy, Ben. You are obviously a bright guy seeking clarification on a movement you are trying to understand. That's a very good thing. I hope I do not let you down.

Your fundamental point of confusion becomes apparent when you express doubt over the 21st century "concept" and beg the question, "What does it mean to be literate?" You must understand that the 21st century skills movement is not a philosophical "hair-splitting" exercise over nomenclature. It is a very serious, very real, and incredibly important action initiative that must be examined and processed by every educator because - like it or not - our profession is being redesigned by the nation's need for a workforce that epitomizes the 21st century skills.

Let me take you on a step-by-step journey to make my point. We'll hit the high spots. I know where we're headed. I've lived it. Bear with me, I'm going to try to be very, very clear because I'm counting on this to make a difference for you, Ben.

Point 1: The first call for skills essential to success in the 21st century came in 1983 in a report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education entitled A Nation at Risk. This call to action spoke of the "tide of mediocrity" that characterized the American education system. The report extended literacy to “Five New Basics” - English, mathematics, science, social studies, and computer science. A Nation At Risk specified that all high school graduates should be able to “understand the computer as an information, computation and communication device; students should be able to use the computer in the study of the other Basics and for personal and work-related purposes; and students should understand the world of computers, electronics, and related technologies."

That was 1983 - twenty- six years ago. I ask you, Ben: Has education produced students with basic knowledge in the core disciplines and computer science TODAY? Are we there yet? OR - are we still at risk for not producing students with the essential skills for success in 1983?

Point 2: In 1991, eight years after the release of A Nation At Risk, the U. S. Department of Labor and the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills released "What Work Requires of Schools: A SCANS Report for American 2000. In a nutshell, the SCANS Report called on schools to produce students with "three essential skills: 1.) A solid foundation in the basic literacy and computational skills, 2.) thinking skills necessary to put knowledge to work, and 3.) personal qualities that make workers dedicated and trustworthy."

That was 1991 - eighteen years ago. I ask you, Ben: Has education responded to this call to produce a nation of high school graduates that have mastered basic literacy and computation skills, thinking skills, and workplace ethics TODAY? Are we there yet? OR - are our businesses still looking to public schools to produce students with essential skills for success in 1991?

Point 3: On June 29, 1996, the U. S. Department of Education released Getting America's Students Ready for the 21st Century; Meeting the Technology Literacy Challenge, A Report to the Nation on Technology and Education. Recognizing the rapid changes in workplace needs and the vast challenges facing education, the Technology Literacy Challenge launched programs in the states that focused on a vision of the 21st century where all students are “technologically literate.” Four goals, relating primarily to technology skills, were advanced that focused specifically on: 1.) Training and support for teachers; 2.) Acquisition of multimedia computers in classrooms; 3.) Connection to the Internet for every classroom; and 4.) Acquiring effective software and online learning resources integral to teaching the school's curriculum.

That was 1996 - thirteen years ago. I ask you, Ben: Has education responded to this call to produce a technology proficient teacher corps and technology equipped classrooms with high speed internet access TODAY? Are we there yet? OR - is our nation still looking to public schools to provide teachers that use technology to support instruction in the basic literacies by producing students with new, high tech skills?

Point 4: In 2001, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) No Child Left Behind established a statutory requirement that underscored the growing consensus regarding the importance of technology literacy - the ability to use computers. The law says: “To assist every student in crossing the digital divide by ensuring that every student is technologically literate by the time the student finishes the eighth grade.” Another goal encourages “the effective integration of technology resources and systems with teacher training and curriculum development to establish research-based instructional methods that can be widely implemented as best practice by State educational agencies and local education agencies.”

That was 2001 - eight years ago. I ask you, Ben: Has education responded to this call to produce technology proficient students by the end of the eighth grade? Are our teachers using technologies to teach based on research-based instructional methods TODAY? Are we there yet? OR - are our public schools ignoring the law requiring that students master basic computer literacy and have opportunities to learn core subjects using modern technologies and research-based practices?

Point 5: In 2002, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills published Learning for the 21st Century. Here is an excerpt: "To cope with the demands of the 21st century, people need to know more than core subjects. They need to know how to use their knowledge and skills-by thinking critically, applying knowledge to new situations, analyzing information, comprehending new ideas, communicating, collaborating, solving problems, making decisions.” This important document, designed to influence policy ,called attention to the need for students to know and be able to do "more than core subjects" for success in life and work in the 21st century. These skills were advanced and are often referred to as 21st century skills:

  • critical thinking
  • apply knowledge
  • analyze information
  • comprehend new ideas
  • communicate
  • collaborate
  • problem solve
  • making decisions

Now, I know you say these skills have always been important, Ben. I agree. The point, however, is not whether the skills are important or not. It is well established that the skills are important. The point is whether or not we are teaching these skills and students are learning them in schools.

That was 2002 - seven years ago. I ask you, Ben: Has education responded to this call to produce students with competencies beyond basic literacy and knowledge in core subjects? Are our schools empowering students with opportunities to construct knowledge in a manner that facilitates development of the 21st century skills? Look at the bulleted list again. Do we see students developing these skills in public schools TODAY? Are we there yet? OR - are are educators scratching their learned heads and grappling with whether or not to call the competencies "skills" or "literacies?" Now you see where I'm coming from, Ben. It is way, way, way too late to debate and "wordsmith." Our profession is failing miserably to respond to twenty-six years of policy, programs and even statutory requirements designed to improve the ability of students to perform and contribute in a high performance workplace. Our students are losing while we are debating.

Point 6: Now we are in trouble. In 2007, The Report of the NEW Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce: Tough Choices or Tough Times made our nation hyperaware that "World market professionals are available in a wide range of fields for a fraction of what U.S. professionals charge." Guess what? While U.S. educators stuck learned heads in the sand, the world's citizens gained 21st century skills! Tough Choices spares no hard truth: "Our young adults score at “mediocre” levels on the best international measure of performance." Do you think it is an accident that the word "mediocre" is used? Let's see, I believe we saw it w-a-a-a-y back in 1983 when A Nation At Risk warned of a "tide of mediocrity." Tough Choices asks the hard question: "Will the world’s employers pick U.S. graduates when workers in Asia will work for much less? Then the question is answered. Our graduates will be chosen for global work "only if the U.S. worker can compete academically, exceed in creativity, learn quickly, and demonstrate a capacity to innovate." There they are again...those 21st century skills!

What we have here is a fundamental GAP between what our nation's workplace (and the global workplace) need and what our schools are willing to deliver. After twenty-six years of warnings, suggestions, policies, programs and LAWS, I am humiliated to admit that our profession is still quibbling about the "definition" of 21st century skills. I am mortified when I see brilliant educators debating "verbiage" when the barn ( schoolhouse) is burning and our children are endangered.

Ian Jukes asks a good question in his paper "That’s the Way We’ve Always Done It." Jukes says, "For what world will today's schools prepare our students?"

I'd like to add to these good questions to Juke's prompt:

  1. Will our schools continue to prepare students for the Agricultural Age - that shaped our current school schedules?
  2. Will our schools continue to prepare students for the Industrial Age - that shaped our current instructional designs?
  3. Will our schools continue to ignore the demands of the Information Age - that shaped the nation's current demand for school reform?
  4. What will our profession do with the demands of the Conceptual Age in which an educator's economic function is to create new ideas, new applications of technology for learning, and new content that addresses the 21st century skills?
Jim Carroll, a leading international futurist and innovation expert makes a salient point his article “What Comes Next? A Trends Perspective 2008.” I'll use Carroll's important point to conclude these thoughts. Carroll says:
“Learning is what most adults will do for a living in the 21st century."
Think about this, educators, please. As adults, we'd better start learning how to reform our schools for the 21st century. In tough financial times, do you really think there will be funding for educators that find it important to debate the definitions and split hairs about the value of 21st century skills? There is twenty-seven years of documentation and a federal law to answer your concerns about the need for 21st century skills. Read it! Our job now is to learn how to create learning environments in which our students have opportunities to practice and to demonstrate these skills - in our schools - and in life as they take their place in the highly competitive global workplace.

Ben, thank you for your willingness to open the discussion. I hope this bit of historical perspective is useful as you continue your search for professional meaning in the 21st century. I wish every educator would take this discussion as seriously as you so obviously do. You care. So do I.