Defining 21st Century Education — my critique

Defining a 21st Century Education: At a glance

[Why do you feel the need to define it at all? It is just some arbitrary point in time. Just because some piece of paper says we are in a new century and millennium we have to refine education? The Jewish and Chinese calendars are completely different. So it isn’t even universal.]

The last few years have brought much talk of “21st century skills” but little certainty about why and how skill demands are actually changing. Will students really need better or different skills to succeed in life and work in the 21st century? If so what trends are behind such changes? And what specific kinds of knowledge and skills will be most important?

Broadly speaking, five major lessons emerge from the expert research and opinion on what kinds of knowledge and skills will most benefit students in the future:

Students who obtain more education will be at a great advantage; increasingly, some postsecondary education or technical training is essential for an opportunity to support a family or secure a middle-class lifestyle. [Wrong on premise number one. The middle class has been disappearing for the past 20-30 years, even as more people go to college.]
The need for traditional knowledge and skills in school subjects like math, language arts [English?], and science is not being “displaced” by a new set of skills; in fact, students who take more advanced math courses and master higher math skills, for example, will have a distinct advantage over their peers. [Only if they go onto college and major in STEM, and possibly not even then. If we use NTs as the people suited for STEM then only about 10% of us are NTs. Also, requiring more math and science in high school will not make more STEM college graduates.]
At the same time, for success both on the job and in their personal lives, students must also better learn how to apply what they learn in those subjects to deal with real world challenges, rather than simply “reproduce” the information on tests. [Ah yes I am sure that knowing Geometry or Calculus will help in retail sales.]
Students who develop an even broader set of in-demand competencies—the ability to think critically about information [How can they when they are not given as much information? High school graduates will NOT be getting jobs that require critical thinking ability. Even if they did they do not have the knowledge base to apply it to. The more time you spend teaching this the less time you spend teaching fact and general knowledge.], solve novel problems [Again why are they solving novel problems as high school graduates? Save this for college!!!], communicate and collaborate [Communicate? What do you think English is for? This is where communication gets taught!!! You do not need computers to do it!!! Collaboration? Again, there is no need to teach this. It will happen naturally in a work environment.], create new products and processes [These should be left to college graduates, not high school level!!!], and adapt to change [Life is all about change. They will adapt. That is what humans are good at. It does not need to be taught.] —will be at an even greater advantage in work and life. [No they will not. Even if they are it is not necessary to teach them in K-12.]
Applied skills and competencies can best be taught in the context of the academic curriculum, [Again, why is there a need to TEACH it?] not as a replacement for it or “add on” to it; in fact, cognitive research suggests that some competencies like critical thinking and problem solving are highly dependent on deep content knowledge and cannot be taught in isolation. [Exactly what I have been saying. You cannot teach these skills at a K-12 level. It will take away from learning the knowledge base.]

A number of major forces are reshaping skill demands. Those forces include:

Automation.  Because computers are good [Not necessarily. They can and do go bad.] at following rules and recognizing simple patterns, they are increasingly being used to substitute for human labor in “routine” jobs. Therefore, any job that mostly entails following directions [All jobs require following instructions. Assembly or test instructions, for example. Another one is following the boss’s commands.] is vulnerable to automation, including so-called “white collar” jobs like accounting. As a result, there are fewer jobs that call for routine thinking work and routine manual work; [most new jobs are retail sales jobs that can be done by high school students or high school dropouts. Or are in healthcare.] between 1969 and 1999, the share of Americans in blue collar and administrative support jobs plummeted from 56 to 39 percent [17 percent is a plummet?]. At the same time, there is increasing demand for skills that computers cannot mimic, such as the ability to solve unpredictable problems and the ability to engage in “complex communications” with other humans, along with foundational skills in math, reading, and writing. [Yes the 3Rs are still important but they are being neglected in favor of computers? I know so.]

Globalization.  Advances in digital technology and telecommunications now enable companies to carve up work and send tasks to be done wherever they can be completed best and cheapest. [Alright, but this does not mean we need to change education. This is more of an economic problem and not one of any deficiency in education.] At the same time, political and economic changes in places like Russia, Eastern Europe, China, and India have freed up many more workers who can potentially perform such jobs. As a result, many more Americans are competing for jobs with a huge number of foreigners in an increasingly global labor market and—just as significantly—collaborating with workers in other countries when they do land a job. So far the impact of globalization has resembled that of automation, reducing demand for less-skilled labor. However, some economists predict that highly skilled workers in other countries will increasingly compete for more intellectually demanding and higher paying jobs, which will force Americans to offer not only strong traditional skills but also high levels of creativity and innovation in order to stay competitive. [This has been happening since at the 1990s, if not before. But again, this is not an educational issue.]

In a global knowledge economy, economic growth depends on human capital. One team of economists recently predicted that if the United States improved its students’ performance on international tests to the level of top performing nations, its gross domestic product would be an additional five percent in higher 32 years from now—enough to entirely pay for K-12 education—and an astonishing 36 percent higher in 75 years. Unfortunately, high school students in the United States perform worse on a number of international assessments than many of our economic competitors, [On average yes. But the top scorers are Americans. It is these top scorers that will lead us in the future and not the average scorers or below average scorers. We still have the most top scorers by far than any other country.] and our historic advantage in attainment of secondary and postsecondary degrees is rapidly eroding as other countries improve and expand educational opportunities. [Again, it is not an educational problem it is economic. Our cost of living is high here compared to most countries and this would require higher labor costs that price us out some markets. Right now we have a glut of college graduates that cannot get jobs as does China even with their booming economy. On top of that our history has not been very long of being on top.]

Education in and of itself does NOT guarantee a better job or better life.

Corporate change. Because of technology, globalization, and other competitive forces, companies have radically restructured how work gets done.   Many companies are now “flatter” organizations with less hierarchy and much lighter supervision where workers experience greater autonomy and personal responsibility for the work they do. Work also has become much more collaborative, with self-managing work teams increasingly responsible for tackling major projects. [Where? I tried that back in the early 1990s—self directed work teams. We all had 15 or more years of experience with the company. We had gotten rid of our supervisor and reported directly to our manager. It did not last long though.] Increasingly, such work teams are global in nature, which much of the interaction taking place electronically. [Much of jobs of the past took place electronically too. Phones etc.] Jobs have become less predictable and stable. From project to project and from year to year, employees must adapt to new challenges and demands. [Regardless, it still does not mean it needs to be taught.]

Demographics.  The U.S. population is rapidly becoming both older and more diverse. The 65 and older population is expected to more than double between 2008 and 2050 (while the 85 and older population is expected to more than triple), and so-called “minorities” will constitute the majority of schoolchildren by 2023, of working-age Americans by 2039, and of all Americans by 2042.  That creates a two-fold challenge for schools: First, they will need to be able to teach a more diverse group of students. [If the kids know English at the start then this will not be a problem.] Second, they will need to prepare those students to collaborate in diverse job settings and function in a diverse society. [NO THEY WILL NOT!!!!!!]

In fact using computers a lot will lead to not interacting with others therefore collaboration will be harder to achieve. You need to interact with humans and not machines to collaborate. The use of computers will come naturally and easily. No need to teach them.

Risk and responsibility.  Individuals increasingly shoulder a greater burden of risk and responsibility for their personal well-being. Three intersecting spheres that illustrate the trend are job security, health care, and financial planning:

Job security. Several decades ago, [Even the 1990s jobs were not lasting long, 4-5 years on average. This is not all that new.] most companies still valued and rewarded loyalty, but with increasing reliance on human capital that has changed. The vast majority of major companies now make continued employment contingent on performance, [More on whether or not your job is needed anymore.] while only a small minority reward seniority or loyalty.
Companies used to provide pensions that guaranteed retirees a defined level of income based on longevity and salary, but those plans have largely been replaced by “defined contribution” plans where employees are at least partly responsible for making decisions about how to invest money for retirement. The success of those investments determines whether and how comfortably they can retire.
Individuals are being asked to understand complex health-related information to make more decisions about their own medical care; at the same time, they are shouldering a greater share of medical costs. [This you are wanting to teach in school?]

Students will need to be able to use what they learn in school to understand critical information—including numerical health and financial information—in order to make sound decisions that ensure their well-being. [They will need to understand English. Teach English.]

As a result of these forces, three kinds of learning are becoming increasingly important if not essential for students to succeed in work and life:

1)    Traditional academic knowledge and skills. The belief that students will no longer need to learn the academic content traditionally taught in the school curriculum is false. [I agree but most of the computer advocates seem to think that these are just not as important any more.] Students will need strong math and English skills to succeed in work and life, for example. [Not any more strong than in the past, though.] A strong academic foundation also is essential for success in postsecondary education and training, which itself is increasingly necessary for anyone who wants to earn a middle class wage. [Again, the middle class is disappearing. A strong academic foundation is essential but no more than before.]

2)    Real world application, or “applied literacies.” Students will need not just knowledge but also “literacy”—the ability to apply their learning to meet real-world challenges. [No they will not, at least not to be taught it in K-12. High School graduates will NOT be our future leaders. Again, anytime you teach technology you are not teaching your English or science, or whatever subject. Technology is just a distraction.] That applies to all subjects, including English, math, science, and social studies.

3)    Broader competencies. Students who develop an even broader set of competencies will be at an increasing advantage in work and life. Based on employer surveys and other evidence, the most important seem to be:

The ability solve new problems and think critically; [As you get experience in your job you will be able to know what works and what does not work—critical thinking. But until you do then you will not know how to solve any problem. These skills come over time and cannot be nor should not be taught in school, K-12.]
Strong interpersonal skills necessary for communication and collaboration; [This again will come naturally. No need to teach it.] Creativity and intellectual flexibility; and Self sufficiency, including the ability to learn new things when necessary. [Give some examples of this.]

How should school districts prepare students to meet these challenges? [THEY SHOULD NOT AT ALL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!]

Employers consistently rank collaboration very high on their list of “must have” competencies, which is not surprising given changes in the workplace. [No. They want their people to work at cross-purposes. Of course they want them to work together. This is not something new. It has always been that way. We have never taught it before so why now?] This broad competency is best understood as a cluster of related “interpersonal skills” that give one the power to interact effectively with others, including the ability to communicate effectively both orally and in writing, to relate well to others and cooperate with them, to negotiate and manage conflicts, and to lead through persuasion. When asked about these separate interpersonal skills, employers rate graduates worst in oral and written communications. [Of course. They are on their computers all of the time. They do not interact with people much. What, they need a bunch of leaders? I do not think so.] But classroom teachers should bear the only responsibility: Research shows that athletics and other student activities (yearbook, student government, etc.) can help students develop skills related to leadership and teamwork and have a positive impact on later earnings. [These are not needed either. Not everyone is a leader.]

Experts predict that creativity and innovation will become more important [I love it. These have always been vital. You are acting as if you just found out these things and now we must change in order to correct the short comings. But creativity and innovation will come from only a few individuals and chances are they will not follow the mainstream. They will not fit in very well.] given economic trends, both for individual corporations and for the U.S. as a whole. While there is a large body of research and advice about encouraging creativity in students,  school districts should first carefully consider how they are defining this competency since it can mean many different things to different people. For example, a recent study found significant differences in how district superintendents define creativity compared with what employers need. While superintendents ranked the ability to solve problems as the most important indicator of a creative person, employers said it is most important to be able to identify problems. Employers also thought it much more important that students be comfortable facing a problem with “no right answer,” which suggests that schools must find more ways to give students more complex and unstructured problems and fewer multiple choice questions. [You will need to a very broad basis – knowledge base from which to build on. Students will need to explore their belief systems in order to answer the complex question that appear to have no single answer. This takes time most of it as an adult. The study of Philosophy, Ethics, etc needs to be done and then pretty much only in college.]

What are the implications for planning?

First, it is clear that districts should aim to prepare all students for postsecondary education or advanced training. [NO, NO, NO!!!!!! Not no but Heck no.] Beyond that, districts must do a better job attending the application of knowledge and skills, going beyond simply teaching students to “reproduce” what they are taught within familiar contexts, as well as encouraging students to develop broader competencies related to critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity. [No they should stick to the 3Rs, mostly.]

It is important to avoid simplistic “either or” [This is a logical fallacy. The Either-Or Fallacy. So, yes that is true.] thinking about 21st century skills. Factual knowledge, the ability to follow directions, knowing how to find a right answer when there is one—all of these things will still be important in the 21st century. [Yes. I agree.] The key is to develop a curriculum that teaches students those things as well as how to apply what they learn to solve real world problems [NO NO NO again.] and helps them to develop the broader competencies increasingly important for success in an ever more complex and demanding world. [Most of these skills will be for college graduates.]

To that end, applied literacies [Should not be taught at all – K-12.] and broader competencies are best taught within traditional disciplines instead of as separate subjects. Even so, some might ask how it will be possible to do so while still covering all of the content in the official curriculum. For ideas on how to make room in the curriculum, districts can take a cue from countries that perform well on international assessments: focus the curriculum by emphasizing a slimmer set of knowledge and concepts that can then be taught in much greater depth. [Might work. But again, school at this level in particular is meant to give a very broad knowledge base of facts, up to Junior level college.]


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