AFT’s American Educator looks at 21st Century Skills in a big package.  Ravitch, Munson, Senechal…Dan Willingham and I offer our take on the substantial challenges here (pdf).

8 Replies to “Skill’d”

  1. From the article by Rotherham and Willingham: “Advocates of 21st century skills favor student-centered methods—for example, problem-based learning and project-based learning—that allow students to collaborate, work on authentic problems, and engage with the community. These approaches are widely acclaimed and can be found in any pedagogical methods textbook; teachers know about them and believe they’re effective. And yet, teachers don’t use them. Recent data show that most instructional time is composed of seatwork and whole-class instruction led by the teacher.”

    It’s interesting how cautiously written this article is: the dynamic duo never actually come out and say that group-centered methods are preferable; just that teachers prefer them and yet don’t use them. Nonetheless, this part of the article quite mysteriously lacks the skepticism that the rest of the article has towards other trends in education. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it suggests that they agree with teachers on this particular issue. Makes me wonder if they’re trying to avoid alienating certain people. Like the Challenge Foundation. Just wondering.

    Reading this section of the article there seems to be a sense that problem-based learning and “authentic problems” are needed. Yes, these approaches are widely acclaimed in the pedagogical methods textbooks. I’ve seen them and so have many other ed school students. In terms of math education which is probably not Andy’s expertise, the “authentic problems” given in these methods textbooks which the two authors seem to think are worthy of discussion ,are contrived “real world” problems that usually obscure the mathematical principles to be learned, in favor of data mongering and tedious exercises designed to show how math is really used in the real world. They seem to think that classes led by the teacher 1) are inferior and 2) do not lend themselves to interaction, appropriate scaffolding, and discovery.

    Secondly, they expect readers to swallow the assumption that group work is not used. It is being used increasingly in lower grades, thanks in part to programs that require their use, such as Everyday Math, Connected Math Program and Investigations in Number, Data and Space to name a few.

    Project-based learning (or inquiry-based learning) if it is used at all, is effective with students having large domain knowledge; it is not effective at lower levels. And classroom management is only one of the reasons why. And certainly, even for students with large domain knowledge, a steady diet of it is not a good thing.

    Where it is being used without classroom management issues in lower grades, is usually in higher SES settings in which the students are also benefitting from help from parents, tutors and other outside sources. The constructivist approach (excuse me, I mean problem based learning approach) is given credit where it isn’t due.

  2. “Recent data show that most instructional time is composed of seatwork and whole-class instruction led by the teacher.”

    Question: is this a good thing or a bad thing? Your article doesn’t answer this explicitly; perhaps I should be discovering the answer through self-guided, hands-on activities.

    My self-guided, hands-on experience, incidentally, has suggested to me a reason why one might conclude that lots of seatwork and whole-class instruction is a bad thing. In my experience, the most affluent schools disproportionately eschew these strategies, while the most dysfunctional, impoverished schools disproportionately make use of them.

    This makes me wonder if whether there’s perhaps a selection bias against seatwork and whole-class discussion that might cause some people to “discover” that they are a bad idea (at least in America; c.f. “The Learning Gap” on seatwork and whole-class discussion in East Asia).

    As a matter of fact, I happen to have posted something about this selection bias today:

    Katharine Beals
    Author, “Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World”

  3. Rather than demonstrate that the 21st Century Skills movement is extremely ill-defined at best, or more likely, a grand justification for on-going pedagogical fads, the authors claim that some other meaning is more useful, as if saving the flag is an important stategic move. After claiming that all of these skills were necessary for decades or centuries, they then turn around and re-justify “the cause” based on the simple idea that more students need them now.


    Why is it important to prop up a tool that’s used to justify modern ed school thought? Because it is the code word for money?

    Actually, I could make the argument that everything about modern K-8 education is NOT about increasing the number of students that meet some sort of old-time elite educational status. At best, it’s an attempt to keep kids from falling through the cracks or flunking out completely. Look at acutal state test questions and the raw percent correct score they need to meet the low cutoff points. States then translate this low percent to a high percent number of those who get over the low cutoff. There is nothing elite about this. It’s misleading. All the while, high SES parents are picking up the slack at home.

    When I was in K-12 in the 50’s and 60’s, my parents didn’t give me any help at home. Nevertheless, I made it to calculus in high school. You can’t do that now. Curricula like Everyday Math tell teachers to “trust the spiral”. This places the entire onus of learing on the student. If the student doesn’t learn, schools just point to the kids who were successful.

    On top of that, our school (until a few years ago) used the CMP math curriculum in 7th and 8th grades. Not only were students required to manage their own learning, they had to bridge a clearly-defined curriculum gap if they wanted any chance of getting to geometry as a freshman in high school.

    Why is there a need to prop up the idea of 21st Century Skills? Why does there have to be any new or grand justification for providing a better education for more kids? Schools are going in the wrong direction and any new angle with 21st Century Skills won’t solve the problem. Find out why many kids don’t know the times table in fifth grade. Solving that problem will be much more productive. We don’t need more idea people. We need people who care about details.

  4. “Advocates of 21st century skills favor student-centered methods—for example, problem-based learning and project-based learning—that allow students to collaborate, work on authentic problems, and engage with the community. These approaches are widely acclaimed and can be found in any pedagogical methods textbook; teachers know about them and believe they’re effective. And yet, teachers don’t use them. Recent data show that most instructional time is composed of seatwork and whole-class instruction led by the teacher.”
    Such was my Catholic school education, as well as that of my children.

    However did we learn?

  5. There is very little mention of informal learning and that’s why so many people are confused.

    When my own sons were little, they too sat in their seats mostly following the directions of a teacher who did a lot of whole class instruction. Only non-teachers think it’s easy to do anything else when there are thirty students in the class. The only time I observed individualized, student-centered instruction was in an elite private school with fifteen students and two teachers.

    However, my sons came home to hours of discussion with Mom and Dad. They had computers, telescopes, trips to museums, chess lessons and all the books they requested. Basically they received their individualized instruction at home. This is where the “21st century skills” were learned. The home is the source of the “achievement gap.” The sooner we recognize this, the sooner we’ll be able to do something about it.

  6. I second Katharine Beals.

    Whole-group instruction gives students far more teacher-instructional time than cooperative groups or differentiated instruction.

    My school is now committed to providing differentiated instruction inside heterogeneously grouped classes. In practice, this seems to mean that a class opens with a “mini-lesson” (whole group instruction), after which the teacher moves around the room instructing students one-on-one.

    If you have 20 children in a class, a 40-minute period, and a 10-minute mini-lesson up front, how much instructional time does each child receive from the teacher?

    Having experienced U.S. public schools firsthand, I am deeply skeptical of claims that cooperative learning is superior to whole group instruction and “seatwork.”

    How much time do KIPP students spend in whole-group instruction? Judging from Jay Mathews’ Work Hard. Be Nice., the answer is: a lot.

    And how does South Korea manage to produce such good math students with class sizes averaging more than 50 (Wössmann and West) answer: whole-group instruction and seatwork

    We now pay to send our son to a Jesuit high school where the kids learn via: whole group instruction and seatwork.

  7. from The Efficient Use of Teachers by Steven F. Wilson Ascend Learning
    A Penny Saved: How Schools and Districts Can Tighten Their Belts While Serving Students Better

    A principal reason districts cite increasing staffing ratios—whether by adding teacher aides, instituting team teaching, or lowering class size—is the challenge of “differentiating instruction” to meet the needs of an educationally heterogeneous population in each class. But a far more effective—and less costly—solution is to change how classes are formed.

    While much attention has been given to the size of classes, almost none has been directed to how they are formed. Classes are not chance aggregations of pupils; at least in principle, they are composed of students who have mastered the prerequisite skills and knowledge to function in the class. But in most American schools students are assigned to classes based on age—regardless of whether they have demonstrated such mastery. As students move up the grades, their teachers confront an increasingly unmanageable array of undiagnosed knowledge gaps among their students; these gaps impede the acquisition of new skills and explain the dismaying fall-off in student performance in the middle and high schools grades that is a hallmark of American schools. Exhorting teachers to address these gaps through “individual attention” or, to use the current buzzword, “differentiated instruction” is a fool’s errand.

    The SABIS model of class formation proposes an alternative. The SABIS International Charter School in Springfield, Massachusetts enrolls 1,574 students in kindergarten through twelfth grade and has the largest waiting list, nearly 2,700 students, of any Massachusetts charter school. Tenth graders from low-income families outperform their peers in the Springfield district schools by 45 percentage points on the state’s respected MCAS test (92 percent proficient or advanced, compared to 46 percent) in English and 50 percentage points in Math (83 percent versus 33 percent proficient or advanced) and for the past seven years every SABIS Springfield high school graduate has been admitted to an institution of higher learning.39 The school has literally closed the achievement gap by race and income; tenth-graders in the low-income and African-American NCLB subgroups outperform the average student statewide. In 2008, Newsweek named the school just one of three urban “top U.S. high schools” in Massachusetts.40
    Students are placed in grades by skills level, not age. From phonics in kindergarten through AP classes in high school, students are taught each learning objective to mastery. Through electronic assessment tightly keyed to the curriculum, their teachers are alerted immediately when they fail to demonstrate mastery of a skill they have just been taught. Rather than move forward, their teacher re-teaches the concept or arranges for tutoring of individual students by their peers so that knowledge gaps do not form that undermine later learning. A schoolteacher can no more successfully introduce algebra to students who have not mastered division than a college professor can teach an advanced chemistry class to students who have not completed basic courses in the subject.

    So equipped, SABIS teachers routinely succeed with classes of thirty students. Ralph Bistany, SABIS’s founder, sees it is as SABIS’s mission to demonstrate that a world-class education can be delivered affordably and scoffs at those who claim thirty children cannot be taught effectively in one classroom. “First, we need to define the word ‘class,’” he says. “Every course has a prerequisite—concepts that the course is going to use but not explain. That list of concepts determines who belongs in the class and who doesn’t.” If the course is German, and one student is fluent and others cannot speak a word of the language, the students obviously should not be taught together, he explains. At SABIS, students in a class have the same background but neither, he hastens to say, “the same ability nor the same knowledge.” So formed, it doesn’t matter whether the class has ten students or fifty. “In fact, fifty is better,” he adds. “We have worked with classes of seventy in countries where it is allowed, and it has worked like a charm.”

    note: “fifty is better” —–

    I don’t think Wilson is talking about cooperative learning.

  8. Reasons that good teachers 1) do use well-planned, occasional projects for productive learning but who 2) do not embrace project-based learning as the standard instructional model for classrooms:

    1) It has shown no track record for improving student performance by the following measurements: increased numbers of students enrolling in upper level math and science courses, increased SAT or ACT scores; decreased numbers of students in low level courses; or significant increases in students passing state tests. It may provide entertainment but does it provide transcendence? (Teaching such transcendence is a skill that must also be learned by all teachers.) Surely there are some teachers somewhere who have used this highly recommended method of project-based learning on a regular (daily) basis and who can show the longitudinal effects on their students after they went on to other grade levels.

    2) It is expensive to buy materials for 25 students (let alone 150 at the secondary level), even if only six projects are done per year.

    3) It is extremely time-consuming not only in planning but implementation. A good physical education teacher in elementary school, for example, should teach only four classes a day with two periods set aside for planning and setting up the day’s activities/instruction. This would be the same situation required for project-based learning core programs and is another expensive by-product of the program.

    4) Its students’ work cannot be consistently supported (and protected) with high absenteeism of teachers and substitutes who are basically warm bodies in the room. Continuity of learning is essential in all classrooms but keeping students from working on their projects when the teacher is absent is a nightmare.

    5) It cannot be used by “traveling” teachers who have no classrooms, who must leave student projects that take up space for other teachers, and whose projects are unprotected from other classes.

    6) It is important to teach students today, especially in a time that highlights “multi-tasking,” the skill of focusing, listening, and talking on a one-to-one basis. Having students work in groups at all times does not help them learn to focus in depth on individual thought and self-performance. It therefore does not allow them to achieve on their own individual merits and does allow them to avoid accountability in a “group” project.

    7) It does increase management/control issues within the classroom, which adds to the work level of the teacher as she/he must monitor not only students (who have to learn to work in groups) but materials. Any program that increases management problems and shows no positive outcome is not an “effective” program for student productivity/learning.

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