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.


  1. Thanks so much, Beth, for explaining so clearly what is crucial - and overdue - in education. How long did it take to put this together? It's the best thing I've read for a long time (was going to say all year but that's not going to work).

  2. Beth-

    Excellent post. It most certainly helps me on my journey to get wherever it is that I'll end up when this is all over. I'm going to try my best to organize my thoughts as much as possible, so please forgive me if I'm unable to do so. Your post is rife with outstanding information, and I'm still working to process it all.

    -I'm am very open to the notion that literacy is an organically changing concept. It has changed, and it will continue to change as we experience change in our society. However, it was originally based on the communication of ideas, and I believe it remains so today. Initially we communicated through speaking and listening. The advent of the written word added reading and writing. An argument can be made that we should add viewing and showing, but beyond that, is there really any other way we communicate our ideas? My main issue with the current use of the term literacy is that people have started using it synonymously with proficiency. Even A Nation At Risk did so when they expanded literacy out to mean basic proficiency in specific content. Isn't math proficiency called “numeracy”? What if I started saying we need to be culturally numerate? It doesn't make sense, in the same way saying someone can be culturally literate makes no sense. Literacy is rooted in the generating and gathering of meaning through communication.

    -So if we were all to agree that literacy means the way we draw meaning through communication, and we all started then working toward much of what you are discussing as the way we engage such literacy, imagine how incredible the learning experience could be for our students. We wouldn't have all this confusion about what literacy even is, but rather, we would be searching for the new ways to enrich and reach deeper levels of engagement that we've never reached before. That should be our goal. You are absolutely correct that we need to start engaging beyond the way we've always done it. I'm advocating for the same. I just want us all working off the same foundation so there isn't confusion about where we're going.

    -I love the way you delineated the progression of emerging (and some well-established) skills that are important to the success of individuals in our society. Yes, we haven't noticed much change in any of those areas as you pointed out. The problem is, we're not going to see any improvement if we keep using nomenclature that immediately sets these ideas up as passing fads. The 21st Century convention makes those skills appear as if they are yet another part of the swinging pendulum that teacher so woefully dread. If we framed them as timeless truths, transcendent of eras, we would likely get much more traction as teachers would view them as bedrocks of teaching rather than passing, disposable ideas.

    -The more I'm reading of what people think of the entire literacy, skills and 21st Century concepts, the more I see we are all closer to being in agreement than perhaps we realize. Action is the obvious next step for us all, but like I've been saying, I think we need to reach some level of concurrence before we all storm the walls of the Current Conventional Castle.

  3. I think what Ben is alluding to is that it's coming down to semantics, which demonstrates the importance of common vocabulary. Isn't it wonderful that we have these media to share our thoughts, and connect with those who are not only like-minded, but those who can open our minds to other perspectives.

  4. Hi, Tania, Ben and Linda,

    I agree that the communication tools we are using enable a powerful form of discourse - in a relatively new communication format. The tools dramatically improve our ability to learn from and with each other. The real-time publication tools we are using change the way we form our thoughts, check our reasoning, research our topics and analyze our positions. Because these communication tools are more efficient, expedient and robust than others, I am convinced that they enable a more sophisticated form of literacy - and, therefore, enhance learning.

    I actually agree that common definitions facilitate communication. I am delighted with the current conversation - but troubled that educator's might even consider eliminating "21st century" from the conversations about literacy, numeracy, finance, health, etc. SOMETHING must awaken our profession to the fact that our schools are NOT YET approaching a learning context that is remotely serviceable to the students or the public we are charged to serve. The term "21st century" has been carefully crafted by our stakeholders (business, government, parents, policymakers) in an attempt to "shake and wake" education into the 21st century. Predicating terms like "literacy" with the term "21st century" is an attempt to differentiate and distinguish between the paper/pencil methods currently used in the schools and the tools we are using to communicate and learn with each other. The "21st century" descriptor is crafted to call attention to the need for a newer, more relevant context for teaching literacy - or numeracy - or finance - or anything!

    As you continue this discussion, will you think in terms of using "21st century" as an adjective that is positioned to describe the powerful tools and methods that offer potential to advance literacy in this amazing age? Use it as you might use adjectives to differentiate between "personal literacy" and "universal literacy." But, please USE IT. We are finally, after 26 years, beginning to gain ground in the schools by heightening awareness to the need to upgrade all of our teaching methods, materials, and tools to better serve society in the 21st century. It is very difficult for me to think that the 21st century descriptor can be dismissed by educators while our schools continue to function in 19th century mode. It is difficult to imagine - but, I'll tell you, there are many who believe that education will continue dismissing the call from our stakeholders to upgrade our schools. Indeed, many concur with Lewis Perelman (1992) - and have for over a decade. Perelman's important book, SCHOOL'S OUT, predicts much of what we see in schools today: "...schools breathing the death pangs of its demise."

    If there is any hope that the "21st century" label can advance the school reform effort - let us support it. Our profession depends upon our collective awareness that radical change is needed - and needed now.

    Thank you both for persisting in your effort to fully understand this critically important topic.

  5. Beth,
    I enjoy your writing and more importantly your passion for education, its progress and our students. When it relates to the necessity of these shifts in our classrooms, I can't agree with you more. In fact, I would shout from the rooftops that our students must be equipped with these skills in order to be successful in an evolving world culture.

    In 1983, I understand that groups were already seeing an emerging skill set that would be required of the population as technologies were exponentially growing. I also agree with labeling, at that time, those skills as 21st Century. That was something that fostered an idea of the future. If we've been using that term for 30 years, is it driving home the point that we want?

    I was 6 years old in 1983. I was starting my formal education. I was being taught the Dewey decimal system and using card catalogs. It would be at least 8 years before my parents, both stellar teachers, would invest a few thousand dollars in their first Apple 2c. I typed my college applications in 1995 on a electric typewriter. It wasn't until I got to college that email existed in my world. I made my first webpage in 1998 as part of a class requirement using Netscape. So, was I not literate? Was I not prepared for what the future holds for me?

    I say that wasn't true. I am equipped with a set of timeless skills... the ability to read, write, communicate and acquire knowledge and adapt (which I define as literacy). I was instilled with curiosity and confidence to think critically and solve problems. These skills have prepared me for life, not just the 21st century. They have allowed me to be excited about changing mediums for communication and technologies.

    I have twin boys who are 5, and my view of education is evolving rapidly as I watch them grow and develop. I know what I want my children to know and be able to do. At the core of that is solve problems, assimilate information and love learning as vehicles for those things change around them. The medium through which I expect them to have to do this is via various forms of technology. As more and more teachers are adapting their teaching practices to reflect their own positive experiences with technology, I see change happening in positive ways. I see children and their parents who are the forces for change because they recognize the benefits of the technological skill sets they are acquiring (and I teach 4th grade). The way I see it, in our world, the ability to prepare students for the technological world in which they live is simply "best practices."

    Thank you for continuing this conversation with me. Do not be sad. Have faith. We are fighting passionately on the same team!

  6. Hi,Kelly,

    I hear you. I really, really do.

    May we think for a moment about the scores of children in our schools today who must depend on the public schools to provide them with opportunities to "solve problems, assimilate information and love learning using various forms of technology?" Most of our nation's children do not have the advantages you experienced as the daughter of two educators. Few have the advantages you are able to provide for your very fortunate twins.

    May we shift to consider the education landscape today? Most of our nation's children do not have a teacher like you - who mastered technologies as a young adult and now incorporates opportunities for students to "solve problems, assimilate information and love learning using various forms of technology." The vast majority of our nation's students are still writing spelling words five times each, doing worksheets and copying definitions from the back of the book. Their teachers generally ignore the technologies at their fingertips as an instructional/learning tool. In far too many cases, the technologies have not even found their way into the classrooms. Children in these situations are those with the most needs in our society. Public school is their one opportunity to gear up for life and work in a knowledge-based, technology-driven, global world.

    That is why I am saddened when bright, talented, forward-thinking educators question the value of using a "21st century" label. We're not all there yet. The label is about pressing the "21st century" issue until all teachers understand that success means preparing students for success in THEIR world. That can only happen when all educators abandon the comfort of justifying the status-quo based on their conviction that what prepared "us" for success today is sufficient to prepare our students for success tomorrow.

    I know we are on the same team. It is my highest hope that our best and brightest teachers will champion the 21st century movement - as, like it or not, it is the movement with momentum at this time. It is backed by the powerful, the wealthy, the learned and the well-connected. Another option for us...develop an entirely NEW movement and a NEW term, if needed. What's important here is rallying around a cause that shapes a profession in which ALL members are responsible and accountable for ensuring that ALL students receive a 21st century education in the 21st century.

  7. I think that's where we are headed, and I believe that we are much closer to it than any of us realize. If we can develop a unified front, we will make a greater impact on the policy makers, parents, teachers and students.

    I believe this movement to change practices is going to swell from the ground up. As more and more teachers are using new technologies to reach students and prepare them for the future, other teachers are seeing the benefits. Progress, at least in my experience, is happening because kids are talking about the "cool stuff" that is happening in my room. They are going back to their homeroom teachers and talking. Now, those teachers are coming to me, curious and open. Parents are regularly checking our class blog and wiki. They are talking to their friends and in the community. Word is spreading because of the positive experiences that students are having. As more and more teachers are starting to explore these technologies, I believe that will grow.

    I'm ready to develop our unified and powerful front so that we can make the changes that we so desperately need. Thank you for being on this journey with me. If we could help all teachers develop a PLN like ours, it would be the easiest thing in the world!

  8. Beth, you're hitting the nail on the head. Thank you for eloquently expressing the urgency that must not go unheeded. I'm reading the Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner right now, and he mentions a great deal of the evidence you've cited. Have you read it? I think it's a pretty good read. Looking forward to continued online conversations about this!

  9. Beth!, Whew, this is so logically presented, thanks I will be referring people to this excellent read.
    Cheryl Oakes

  10. Lucy and Cheryl,

    I wonder if you have ANY IDEA how important your voices have become in shaping the school reform movement? Long before I began this blog, joined Twitter, or entered the global conversation, I recognized your excellent work and followed from a distance. Thank you for your tireless work toward gaining educational "buy in" and full participation in the move to upgrade our schools for the 21st century.

    Lucy, I ordered The Global Achievement Gap! Thank you for recommending! And...thank you both for reading this blog and comments!

  11. Beth -

    One of the best posts I've read in a long time. You have eloquently summarized our plight as educators and as a society. Because I teach a high school Web 2.0 computer class, I include a fair bit about globalization and the "flat world". Without fail, my students always experience dropped jaws when they realize that others around the world - who often are better educationally prepared than themselves - will be the ones poised to get the jobs of the future because they will work for a fraction of the price.

    I hope to share your post with our district's Web 2.0 professional learning community. Again, a job well done!!

  12. Happy New Year Elizabeth! I have tagged you to join me in special meme among our Professional Learning Network.

    "To maintain engagement with creative forms of self-expression throughout adult life", I hope you will join me by: A) writing a "7 Things You Don't Need to Know About Me" post and B) tagging 7 other people in your PLN by listing them at the bottom of your post. See 7 Things You Don't need To Know about Me

  13. Beth, I am one of those teachers stuck in the old days. At least I was until I read your blog. I have never read a clearer more dynamic explanation of why I need to enter the 21st Century. I have only this complaint, too long between posts.

  14. Oh, man, Wayne! I KNOW it is too long between blogs. I am ashamed! I used to have time. Where did my time go?

  15. Wayne, I am with you! I feel that I am stuct in the old days. I know that in the "old days" almost every kid could read and write and do math, in the 21st century that is no longer true. We need to adapt to the technological times and meet our students' needs by using what they are already immersed in at home-technology.