Innovate Or Indulge?

Ted Mitchell and Jonathan Schorr discuss the issue of innovation and what the feds can do in a new essay.   Obviously, I’m in favor a more robust federal role here, too.   But, I can see the other side of the argument.  Not the Petrilli argument that it’s politically futile, which I don’t buy.   Rather a conservative argument that there really isn’t a lot new under the sun here and it’s self-indulgent to think that outside of some technological and curricular innovations there are big breakthroughs waiting to happen as in fields like medicine or aerospace.   In other words, to borrow from football, the pushback on this idea should be that policymakers should focus on blocking and tackling rather than razzle dazzle.   I don’t buy that either and think there are some big new ideas out there around delivery of education, still it’s a real issue to debate.

But, one place I do think we’re self-indulgent is this idea of “21st Century Skills,” which is why I liked Jay Mathews’ recent column so much.   Have the skills really changed that much?  Analysis, critical thinking, problem solving?  We’re not the first society where those skills have been needed or valued.   What’s changed is the need —  for both equity and economic reasons — to give many more students a high quality education that allows them to develop these skills.   In other words it’s about broadening access to a good education rather than a radically different conception of what a good education is.   If dressing that up as 21st Century Skills helps sell an equity agenda, that’s great, otherwise we are flattering ourselves some about just how revolutionary the world we live in really is.

9 Replies to “Innovate Or Indulge?”

  1. For K-12 schools, I think this post is largely on point. But I’d argue that there is a true “21st century skills” that is not addressed effectively at the undergraduate level right now: interpreting aggregate data. A traditional humanities curriculum, for example, does not tell students how to translate writing footnotes into”reading horizontally” (Slate editor Jacob Weisberg’s term for navigating hyperlinks in online articles and blogs). This is perhaps one reason why “the core” has come back into vogue at many selective colleges–a basic familiarity with the humanities canon trains students to link obscure references in their heads rather than on the page, which saves them time online. A traditional lab science curriculum does not prepare premedical students for evidence-based practice, which requires evaluating information from genomic and proteomic databases and contextualizing disease in terms of demographics. It is by now cliche that the amount of stuff on the Internet is daunting, but the fact that statisticians are becoming niche celebrities (say Nate Silver and Chuck Todd in the election cycle, or Eduwonkette on your own turf) seems to say a lot about how this skill is being taught in American schools.

  2. I would agree that 21st century skills, at least as we describe them, are nothing new. What is new, though, is that we are seeing virtually every job is going to require some sort of mastery of those skills. The days of truly unskilled labor is now gone. Even a recent high school grad (or drop-out) hoping to get what many would call a basic “blue collar job” now requires some proficiency in technology and math and literacy and problem solving and teamwork. That is where the shift is happening. Instead of it being the skills that many need, they are now the skills everyone needs.

    Moreover, in years past, we expected the business community to supply these skills to their workers as part of worker training and preparation programs. Today, employers are expecting it of our school systems. That’s what makes experiments — such as Virginia’s new approach to high school diplomas and redefinition of career education in secondary schools — so important. The burden of equipping future workers with 21st century skills is now placed squarely on the shoulders of K-16.

  3. Andy,
    I am puzzled why you went after 21st Century skills and strayed from your most important points about education innovation. I heartily applaud the idea of properly structuring and expanding the federal role in catalysing innovation in education. But it is important to better understand what innovation really is. As Clay Christiansen suggests, big ideas start off as small sometimes bad ideas on the margins. And as Tony Bryk seems to suggest, a reinvented R&D infrastructure in education can stir innovation if there is a laser like focus on solving problems at the local level. Indeed we need to reinvent R&D in education as a leading edge stimulus for innovation and transformational change in pursuit of ambitious goals like closing achievement gaps, acquiring 21st Century skills, and helping all kids achieve to high levels.

  4. As a native of the mid-20th century, I resent the idea that thinking — or “critical thinking” — is a 21st century innovation. We used to think back in the day. We invented Saran Wrap!

    Employers are quite willing to train workers in specific job skills but they want them to start out literate, numerate and able to show up on time and get along with co-workers and the boss.

  5. Andy –
    I would say yes and no to what you’ve written. Yes, you’re right that a piece of the 21st century skills agenda is about broadening access to high quality education. But, as Tony Wagner makes clear in his new book, “The Global Achievement Gap,” our so called high-quality schools fall short when it comes to teaching the kinds of analytical and problem solving skills that are essential in the 21st century. Were they important in previous eras? Of course, but globalization and rapid technological advances mean that these kinds of skills are that much more important now than in the past. And there’s another argument as well. Over the past 6-8 years we’ve seen massive growth in retrograde instructional resources. Scripted curricula, and mind numbing direct instruction are the norm in far too many schools. There’s nothing in these kinds of instructional resources that supports critical analysis and problem solving. 21st century skills are not a fad, but a reality and we need to ensure the figure prominently in the upcoming reauthorization of ESEA.

  6. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills agrees that critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration and the “soft SCANS” skills were present in 20th century schools, but obtaining these skills wasn’t a requirement for all students. Rather attaining these skills was reserved for gifted students, while, at the same time, gifted students weren’t required to look at the inherently important life and vocational skills that currently all students need.

    Today, quite simply, all students must possess a full range of skills if they are to succeed. According to employers, new entrants into the workforce need not only the basic skills, but also a range of applied skills, most notably professionalism, teamwork, oral communication, ethics and social responsibility and reading comprehension. Other countries are graduating students capable of this. Since businesses expect these skills in their employees, they will go to where they have the best chance of securing highly-skilled workers. Changes in society and the workplace have necessitated a change in the types of skills all, not just gifted, students possess and – according to employers – the skills that will ensure success are 21st century skills.

  7. Thank you for highlighting the article. After nine years on a state board of education I have “hit the wall” on thick tomes carefully researched and filled with compelling graphics on why and how we should change education- especially secondary education. Many times they “feel” like Marie Antoinette pronouncements: “We haven’t taught them to read, write and do math; let’s prepare them for the workplace through showing how relevant education is to them!”

    While high schools are labeled “drop out factories,” we are asking high schools to recover years of lost instruction when students come to them illiterate and innumerate.

    Just as we would never have gotten to the moon by perfecting the internal combustion engine, I believe that we will never provide access for all children to a high quality education without revolutionary innovation in education- both in delivery and in construct.

  8. Kristin,
    You made an astute observation: “we are asking high schools to recover years of lost instruction when students come to them illiterate and nnumerate.”
    We spend so much time trying to play “catch-up” and prepare students for standards-based assessments that we have little time for the absolutely necessary skills for today’s high school graduates: critical (higher level) thinking skills and problem solving. Ken Kay makes an excellent point that “new entrants into the workforce need not only the basic skills, but also a range of applied skills, most notably professionalism, teamwork, oral communication, ethics and social responsibility and reading comprehension.” When are we going to teach those essentials? Professionalism, ethics, and social responsibility are alarmingly absent from today’s high school students. I am a proponent for a required course that would cover these skills. Where is their room for it in the curriculum now? We are constantly paying the price in education for a lack of morals taught by the decaying family unit.

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