If Lynne Munson’s take on the 21st Century Skills meeting this week is accurate then it’s no surprise why there is a lot of skepticism and concern and it’s no wonder they didn’t invite the press. The type of rhetoric she cites rigthly sets of alarm bells with a lot of people. Update: See this related response and this post. Update II: A conceptual breakthrough? Reading the response of P21’s Paige Kuni to Munson’s post you can see the opportunity for possible common ground here. Kuni writes:
I believe that by creating schools that adopt the approaches P21 supports, students will be able to make connections of how a changing form makes butterflies more successful in the ecosystem. That they can think critically about how life cycles connect to evolution. And that they could extrapolate to other topics such as how product lifecycles in business are the same or different from butterfly lifecycles in making companies successful. When they are 25 if they cannot recall the name of one-step in the lifecycle- it isn’t important as long as they possess the learning skills that allow them to access that information when they need it (search- cut- paste).
It’s easy to dismiss this as being against content, but in fact it’s how most of we mortals access content outside of the primary areas we work in or engage with on a regular basis. So, for instance, today I couldn’t write out the periodic table, or likely even a single column of it, if my life depended on it but I do know the basic elements of it – pun intended – and the basic principles and can access more specific information should I need it. In other words I have the basic conceptual understanding to get the specifics as needed. To use a more recent example, to understand some of the debate about the AIG bonuses one needed to understand that the Constitution does have some language about bills of attainder and ex-post facto laws. Did someone need to know that the relevant passage was Article I, Section 9, the third item? No, probably not. Do they need to understand conceptually why the founders would have included such language and what it means? Yes. But, only experts needed to deeply understand the case law about how courts have interpreted that language in analogous situations and how and how much it applies to criminal rather than civil proceedings.
But in both these examples, the periodic table and AIG, some level of content depth is needed to be able to have a conceptual understanding and do the things that Kuni describes. And, and this is key, you have to acquire that depth at some point and it doesn’t happen for most people — especially low-income students — by accident. That’s the content piece. Unfortunately, the P21 adherents, who tend to be big technology boosters in the first place, tend to jump to the search and cut angle of what makes the era we’re living in so allegedly revolutionary before they really discuss basic the content/conceptual understanding issue that underpins it. They’re hardly the first people in education to do that. So if they’d get a lot more specific around the content piece and all the issues attendant to that (curriculum, human capital, professional development, etc..) it could help ease some of the skepticism that is really becoming pervasive today.