Monday, March 24, 2014

21st Century Skills?

Stephen Krashen

Yogi Berra: "It's hard to predict, especially about the future."
"I contend that, instead of insisting on more and more standardization, we should be increasing variety, flexibility, and choice in what we offer in our schools (Noddings, 2009, p.243).
" ... useful knowledge changes as societies change" (Zhao, 2009, p. 135).
It is often stated that new standards are necessary so that children will develop "21st Century Skills." Education Secretary Duncan behaves, at times, as if he knows what these skills are (but see below). Most of us have no idea.
The history of science and technology has taught us that new developments are nearly always a surprise. Secretary Duncan expressed this idea himself, in an interview with USA Today:
"As we get more and more of these technological breakthroughs, there are going to be jobs in fields available that don't even exist today. If these guys [sic] can come out and be those innovators and be those creators and inventors, they're going to create new opportunities that we can't even envision or begin to comprehend today" (USA Today, August 9, 2009).
In other words, Secretary Duncan seems to agree with Yogi Berra: "It's hard to predict, especially about the future."
Preparing for change: pursue your strengths
The only way to prepare students for the future is to make sure they are prepared for a wide variety of options and opportunities. We need to continue to "produce students who graduate with generic skills that allow them to adapt rapidly to economic changes" (Martin, 2009).
Zhao (2009) arrives at the same conclusion and adds an important point: School should help students "pursue their strengths":
" ... it is ... difficult to predict what new businesses will emerge and what will become obsolete. Thus, what becomes highly valuable are unique talents, knowledge, and skills, the ability to adapt to changes, and creativity, all of which calls for a school culture that respects and cultivates expertise in a diversity of talents and skills and a curriculum that enables individuals to pursue their strengths" (Zhao, 2009, p. 156).
Don't worry about going to your left
We do not allow students to pursue their strengths very much, forcing all students to reach fairly demanding levels in what some people consider to be "basics" before they can specialize. The usual advice to work on one's weaker areas is dangerous. Rosenblatt (2001) advises young basketball players not to worry so much about learning to go to their left, their weak direction: If you are always working on weak areas, you can never really get good at anything.
It is undeniable that all citizens need a certain minimum in some crucial areas, such as reading and math, but not nearly as much as is often required. Nor is it necessary to hurry development of weaker areas while delaying involvement in areas of real interest. There is much too much delayed gratification in education today, resulting often in students leaving the system before they have a chance to "pursue their strengths," and the current standards movement promises to make this problem worse.
Broadening options, not making them narrower
Our responsibility is to provide the means for students to develop their talents and explore their interests so they can reach their full potential. This means broadening curriculum options, rather than making them narrower (Ohanian, 1999, p. 4; Zhao, 1999, p. 181-183). Kurt Vonnegut may be right: " …we shouldn't be seeking harrowing challenges, but rather tasks we find natural and interesting, tasks we were apparently born to perform."  (Vonnegut, 1997, p. 148). Our job is to help students find those tasks they love to do, that they can learn to do very very well, and that contribute to society.
The United States, so far, is doing quite well in terms of flexibility and ability to adapt to new circumstances:  The U.S. economy is ranked as the fifth most innovative in the world out of 142, according to the 2013 Global Innovation Index, which is based in part on the availability of education, new patents and the publication of scientific and technical journal articles (Cornell University, INSEAD, and WIPO, 2013). The Common Core, however, promises only to diminish our capacity to innovate, and change and grow with the times.
"American education needs to be more American, instead of more like education in other countries. The traditional strengths of American education – respect for individual talents and differences, a broad curriculum oriented to educating the whole child, and a decentralized system that embraces diversity – should be further expanded, not abandoned" (Zhao, 2009, p. 182)
Cornell University, INSEAD, and WIPO. 2013. The Global Innovation Index 2013: The Local Dynamics of Innovation. < 2013#pdfopener> (accessed October 12, 2013).
Martin, M. 2009. Eggs or eggheads: Which does the U.S. economy really need? Arizona School Boards Journal, Winter. Available at:
Noddings, N. 2009. School for democracy. In Bracey, G. Education Hell: Rhetoric Vs. Reality, Alexandra, VA: Educational Research Service. Originally appeared in the Phi Delta Kappan, September, 2008.
Ohanian, S. 1999. One Size Fits Few. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Publishing Co.
Vonnegut, K. 1997. Timequake. New York: Putnam Publishing Group
Zhao, Y. 2009. Catching Up or Leading the Way? American Education in the Age of Globalization. ASCD: Alexandria, VA.

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