Thursday, March 05, 2015

Forget 21st Century skills - revive 18th Century skills

A mantra (that has now turned into an empty trope) among educators who need a serious sounding phrase to rattle around in conferences and reports is ‘21st Century Skills’. I hear it often, almost always in some overlong, text-heavy Powerpoint presentation at an educational conference, accompanied by a cocktail of 'C' words  - collaboration, communication, creativity, critical skills. Can the real world really be that alliterative?
But does this idee fixe bear scrutiny? In a nice piece of work by Stepahnie Otttenheijm, she asked some youngsters (radical eh?) what 21st C skills they thought they’d need. Not one of the usual suspects came up. They were less vague, much bolder and far more realistic. Rather than the usual 'C' suspects and abstract nouns, they wanted to know how to handle and maintain a strong digital identity, be nice, recognise what’s learnt outside school, learn how to search, use Facebook privacy settings and so on - exceedingly practical these youngsters. My suspicion is that they know far more about this than we adults. It is schools, colleges and Universities that need to be dragged into the 21st century, not their users.
This 21st C agenda is actually quite dangerous. It can harm learners, especially the disadvantaged by giving them the illusion of progress. Knowledge and skills are not separable like oil and water, they are deeply entwined with most critical think and problem solving requiring a depth off knowledge. Willingham point's to the disastrous adoption of 'New Math', a let straight into problem solving which abandoned necessary, prior knowledge. 21st C skills promise short-cuts, short-term gains but at a heavy cost - long-term progress.

18th century skills
I'm all for abandoning this ‘21st century’ label - we're 15% into it already and education has become less interested in these skills, more academic, more test-driven, PISA obsessed and has failed to use the technology that we all use, even during the dull lectures we're still fed. Forget futurists, I want some educational archaeologists that revive 18th century enlightenment values.
Samuel Johnson said, "Lectures were once useful; but now, when all can read, and books are so numerous, lectures are unnecessary. If your attention fails, and you miss a part of a lecture, it is lost; you cannot go back as you do upon a book". The figures who led the charge against the religious basis of schooling and universities in the enlightenment were people like Johnson, who existed outside of the system, enjoyed unorthodox opinion and encouraged real critical thinking. As he said, "Curiosity is one of the most permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect".
What drove him and other enlightenment figures, like Mary Wollstonecraft and Rousseau, was a more sympathetic view of the learner but above all the basic idea of self-improvement and education as a progressive force.
David Hume, my favourite enlightenment figure, and the greatest ever English speaking philosopher, who was rejected by Edinburgh University for being an 'unbeliever', would be shocked to find that find religious studies, and not philosophy, is still taught in schools. "Scholastic learning and polemical divinity retarded the growth of all true knowledge" he claimed.
Why teach the love of a set of incompatible systems of certainty, rather than the love of critical thought, a sceptical disposition and autonomous thinking. On learning he was incredibly progressive, observing that "it is the content, not the person who matters... as you know there is nothing to be learnt from a Professor, which is not to be met with in books, and there is nothing to be required in order to reap all possible advantages from them, but an order and choice in reading them...I see no reason why we should either go to a University, more than to any other place, or ever trouble ourselves about the learning or capacity of the professor."
I'd prefer young people to have the skills that keep them sceptical, critical and independent. Genuine inquiry needs that enlightenment spirit of curiosity, good analytic skills and abandonment of dogmatic positions. To be honest, I suspect they have this in abundance. Like their enlightenment forefathers they don't want to lock up knowledge in institutions but share, discuss, communicate, even hang out in coffee shops.
Collaboration and sharing
Young people communicate and collaborate every few minutes – it’s an obsession. They text, message, chat, post, comment, snapchat, whatsapp, use Instagram, Facebook and tools you're likely never to have heard of. Note the absence of email and Twitter. Then there’s Spotify, Soundcloud, Flickr, Vine, Vimeo, YouTube and Bitorrent to share, tag, upload and download experiences, comments, photographs, video and media. They also collaborate closely in teams, often international, when playing computer games. Never have the young shared so much, so often in so many different ways. 
Then along comes someone who wants to teach them a 21st C skill, usually in a classroom, where all of this is banned. I’m hugely amused at this conceit, that we adults, especially in education, think we always have the skills we want to teach. There is no area of human endeavour that is less collaborative than education. Teaching and lecturing are largely lone-wolf activities in classrooms. Schools, colleges and Universities share little. Educational professionals are deeply suspicious of anything produced outside of their classroom or their institution. The culture of NIH (Not Invented Here) is endemic. Many educators far from being consistently collaborative, have a sneering attitude towards online collaboration.
Again, we live in the age of abundant communication. There’s been a renaissance in communication and writing among young people, who have become masters at smart, concise dialogue. The mobile has taken communication to new levels of use and sophistication. They know what channel to use, whether it’s archived (txts & Facebook) or not (snapchat), synchronous (realtime voice) or asynchronous (access when you want). They can also handle multiple, open channels at the same time.
What do we educators have to offer on this front? Whiteboards? Some groupwork round a table with felt-tip pens? Not one single teacher in the schools my sons attended has an email address available for parents. I’ve attended innumerable educational conferences where only a handful of the participants used Twitter.
Problem solving
Problem solving is a complex skill and there are serious techniques that you can learn to problem solve, such as breakdown, root-cause analysis, supplemented by good documentation, issues' lists, request registers and so on. If you've been through serious project management training or lived for a while in a heavyweight IT environment, where serious coding takes place, you'll meet people who are skilled at this. 
I’m not at all convinced that many subject-focused teachers and lecturers know much about these generic techniques. Problem solving for a maths teacher may be factoring equations of finding a proof but they’re the last people I’d call on to solve anything else in life. Do teachers actually know what generic problem solving is or is it seen as some skill that is acquired through osmosis when a group of kids get together in a project to make, for example, a movie?
Beware of big, abstract nouns. This one has become a cipher for almost everything and, I fear, nothing. I have no problem with art, drama and other departments talking about creativity but why does creativity have to be injected into all subjects and education. When it comes to creativity, my own view is that the music, drama and other creative skills my own offspring have gained, have mostly been acquired outside of school. You can listen to as many Sir Ken Robinson talks as you wish, it's still a vague concept backed up with little more than his easy-going, jokey rhetoric.
Critical thinking
I have some sympathy with this one, as critical thinking is often well taught in good schools and universities, but it needs high quality teaching and the whole curriculum and system of assessment needs to adjust to this need. However, as Arun has shown, there is evidence that in our Universities, this is not happening. Arun (2011), in a study that tracked a nationally representative sample of more than 2,000 students, who entered 24 four-year colleges, showed that Universities were failing badly on the three skills they studied; critical thinking, complex reasoning and communications. This research, along with similar evidence, is laid out in their book Academically Adrift.
Digital literacy
Across the world young people have collaborated on Blogs, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to bring down entire regimes and force political change. Not one of them has been on a digital literacy course. And, in any case, who are these older teachers who know enough about digital literacy to teach these young people? And how do they teach it – through collaborative, communication on media using social media – NO. By and large, in educational institutions, this stuff is shunned, restricted, even banned. We learn digital literacy by doing, largely outside of academe.
Beneath all this talk of 21st C skills, is not a view of autonomy and independent skills and thinking. Isn’t it just a rather old, top-down, command and control idea – that we know what’s best for them? Isn’t it just the old master-pupil model dressed up in new clothes? In this case, I suspect the pupils may know a tad more than the masters.
There’s also a brazen conceit here, that educators know, with certainty, that these are the chosen skills for the next 100 years. Are we simply fetishising the skills of the current management class? Was there a sudden break between these skills in the last century compared to this century? No. What’s changed is the need to understand the wider range of possible communication channels. This comes through mass adoption and practice, not formal education.

It is an illusion that these skills were ever, or even can be, taught at school. Teachers have enough on their plate without being given this burden. I’ve seen no evidence that teachers have the disposition, or training, to teach these skills. In fact, in universities, I’d argue that smart, highly analytic, research-driven academics tend, in my experience, often to have low skills in these areas. Formal educational environments are not the answer. Pushing rounded, sophisticated, informal skills into a square, subject-defined environment is not the answer. It’s our schools and universities, not young people, who need to be dragged into the 21st century.


Unknown said...

Love the Boswell comment.

So, letls get to it. Re general problem solving skills. Fantastic idea. Critical, skeptical, questioning. Perfect. Useful. Practical.

But we probably shouldn't forget domain specific problem solving. It's difficult to solve an engineering problem without being an engineer. All that knolwedge locked up in instotutions. Very handy for learning to be an engineer.

I like my cardiac surgeoins to have heads full of useful knolwedge, that's domain specific. Sure. I;d like them to be able to collaborate, use social media, blog, and be skeptical. But that;s icing on the cake., What I really want is for them to have hunders of ours of practice in rigorously contro;ed environemnts after they ahve spent 10 yeasr learning how to do the job in an institution. I'm ok if they can't tweet about it.

I love the Johmnson quote. But Johnson, like Khan, confuses content with learning. We can all find a technical paper detailing Hawking radiation given ten minutes and a good connection. But a vanishingly small number of us will understand it.

Access isn't the key to understanding complex things. Knolwedge is. You can;lt decode content well, meaningfully and deeply without it. And having general problem solving skill is a small part of that journey.

Being able to tweet, be questioning, skecpical, and collaborate is a part of the journey. But it's not the totality.

To be able to meanigfully and effectively engage with a discipline, you need the specificic knolwedge to uderstand it. If I'm reading a statictics heavy and key paper in epidemiology, what I need is a good knolwedge based understanding of statistics, medicine, public health, and a while gamut of other disciplines. Having good general problem solving skills won't really help me. Being able to look it up might help me, or it might not, depending on how complex the topic is and how ignorant I am of it.

What really helps. Institutions., That have knolwedge. And are really good at imparting it.

Most institutions I know don;t lock knolwedge up. They bring all these young people in, and they let them cart off as much of the stuff as they can pack in to their eager little heads. They don;t have to leave their knowledeg at the door. They don't have a ration, stipend or limit.

We should also probably take into account the research - and there's a gfair amount - thatls telling us that kids up to and including college age are not actually translating their technical and technological literacies into good, or even reasonable learning techniques.

We have a fair amount of data telling us that kids are making better use of technology under good institutional guidance than they are out in the digital native wild.

Donald Clark said...

Thanks Keith. Don't disagree with any of this and neither would Johnson or Hume. There are, of course, different types of problem solving, mathematical, engineering and so on. But when the people who talk about 21st C skills talk about problem solving, they mean it as a general skill, hence my comments. I'm also not against institutions. What I do think is that these institutions are good at imparting knowledge but unsuited to the skils that are referred to as 21st C skills, eceven the 18th C enlightenment skills I mention. In my view 'lecturing' is the problem but that's another debate. In that sense it's educators that 'talk' about these skills that in most cases are ill suited to deliver them. I genuinely think that collaboration, communication and real critical thinking is poorly taught in many (not all) of our institutions.

Unknown said...

Standard master-pupil learning is a great tool for some types of skills, but it is poor at imparting knowledge. In this example I refer to skills as domain specific information that is perishable. Whereas knowledge on the other hand would be thought of as general principles which cross multiple disciplines. The latter is inductive and the usually the work of graduate studies. In the USA our school system continually focuses on skills, almost never does it train our pupils to question their underlying assumptions. These assumptions ironically come directly from the Abrahamic religions and philosophies which you quote in your article. These ideas come from the Master-Slave relationship pushed by their scriptures. In Advaita Vedanta knowledge proceeds from self-referencing logic. This is likely why East Indians have a natural propensity for computers. Regardless, we do not think of information as proceeding in one direction from ignorance to understanding, but rather in complexity from the simple to the complex. Now because I was born and raised American and speak only English (And the romance languages!) I get a great view of both sides of the oceans, I see them both as outsiders. To bring these two together we need to re-evaluate underlying assumptions and then re-engage in investigation. Our modern students are especially equipped for this as they see reality like the virtuality of video games and computers. Using a linear methods of gaining technical skills as Mr. Brennan says, and principles as I imagine Mr. Clark is saying, together, we have a winning proposition. This means that education can be a mixture of virtual classrooms shared across multiple schools, in person labs and collaboration, as well as actual practical creation. This is the direction we are moving. Think about specialty the guilds of Renaissance Europe powered by technology and industrial age economies of scale. In fact, my actual goal is exactly this as I am returning to Graduate Computer Science after twenty years in the field building the actual Internet and recently securing its top websites and enterprises in Silicon Valley.

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