21st century skills look very much like 20th century skills

by Grace

Employers want 20th century skills from their employees.

In recent decades, leaders in government, business, and beyond have come to agree that long-term investments in education are necessary to address the growing mismatch between education and skills. The Task Force agrees with this assessment. The question, then, is the specific areas that make sense for additional investment. In surveys and interviews, most employers say the skills that are in high demand today are the same skills that students were supposed to be learning in school fifty or one hundred years ago: the ability to write and speak clearly and persuasively, the ability to solve problems and think critically, and the ability to work both independently and on teams. The difference today is that more skilled workers are needed than in the past.

– From a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)–sponsored Independent Task Force report on U.S. Education Reform and National Security

I see too much emphasis on so-call 21st Century Skills at the expense of fundamental 20th century skills.  Teaching students how to post on Facebook instead of how to write a coherent paragraph or spending class time on non-academic group activities instead of on word analysis and vocabulary skills are just some examples.  I wish schools would get back to the basics, and it looks as if many employers agree with me.

The report notes that while the United States invests more in K-12 public education than many other developed countries, its students are ill prepared to compete with their global peers. According to the results of the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international assessment that measures the performance of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics, and science every three years, U.S. students rank fourteenth in reading, twenty-fifth in math, and seventeenth in science compared to students in other industrialized countries.

Katherine Beals wrote that the misplaced focus on technology crowds out learning fundamental skills.

In practice, more lap tops, more ipads, more Internet access, and more Smart Boards also water down the technical aspects of the curriculum, distracting students and teachers away from teaching and learning math skills to mastery, and from rigorous, focused mathematical and computational problem solving. Technology in the classroom may help create a generation of 21st century consumers, but not of gainfully employed 21st century producers.



16 Comments to “21st century skills look very much like 20th century skills”

  1. One of the more infuriating aspects of the tech investments is that this stuff ages so rapidly. There’s a consumption treadmill–If you buy iPads for everybody, there will be a newer shinier version available in 2 or 3 years and you’ll feel compelled to buy the new one when it comes out. I also have a lot of qualms about combining kids and expensive electronics. How often do the electronic devices wind up getting dropped or otherwise wrecked by careless children? My 10-year-old is pretty good with her Kindle, but it’s HERS and she has no motivation to orchestrate a dog-ate-my-homework situation by breaking it.

    I’m not that tech savvy, but I wonder if there isn’t too much attention being paid to hardware (the gizmos) at the expense of software (what you can actually do with the gizmos).


  2. We had a Kindle malfunction a few weeks ago that created a little school-related stress. It made me wish we had the paper book instead, but that was only for a few minutes. We’ve lost lots of paper books, and a Kindle book can be read on various devices.


  3. “A few years ago, podcasts were hot and administration was pressuring us faculty to do lots of podcasts.”

    I’ve never taken a computer science class, but wouldn’t a computer science podcast be pretty terrible with no visuals at all? Plus, if you’re all there in the classroom, why do you need to video conference?

    (My husband just spent the whole day on the phone doing a sort of mini-conference with some people in the NE. It probably would have been better in some sort of video format, as it was very difficult to follow discussion with all these invisible people with hard to differentiate voices.)

    One thing that I think is worth bearing in mind is that electronics are consumables. An “investment” in electronics is only going to be good for at most 2-3 years, at which point you have to either buy again, or resign yourself to being left behind.


  4. Hi Grace – I’ve recently met two teachers from Manhattan. One of them, who teaches at an elite public high school, told me that the more ‘technological’ the school, the worse it is. Schools with words relating to technology in their names (“School for the Digital Mind” etc) are especially bad.


  5. (“cijohn” – is me, Catherine)


  6. “That is because schools with terms like “digital” or “technology” rarely are teaching actual STEM topics.”

    That sounds right.


  7. I think of technology purchases as basically deflationary. I never buy electronics (or software) until the item is absolutely needed, since I can always get more for the money by waiting. I sometimes make purchases early if I don’t want to get stuck with the new version of something (like an OS) that is coming out and I know I’ll be needing to replace an item in the near term. And there are some technologies that I’ve felt were so much better than the alternatives that they were worth early adoption. I tend to be a medium to late adopter in a lot of cases, and that is just fine with me.

    My daughter observed yesterday that one of the differences in classroom technology between her schools here (Silicon Valley) and back in CT is that there were Smartboards in every class back in CT and there are none in her classes here. She’s fairly dismissive of that particular product.

    Amy P, I’ve done a lot of long-distance work meetings, usually using a combo of phone and a screen-sharing program. That’s led to productive meetings for us, since the work being discussed is generally represented in one way or another on the computer. The combo of phone and screen has been enough so that I forget I’m not in a room with everyone else, but these have usually been meetings with people that I know fairly well.


  8. I would probably like a school named “Luddite Academy for the Digitally Illiterate”! Sure to be a winner. 🙂


  9. kcab – Very interesting that your daughter’s Silicon Valley school does not have SmartBoards. The public school (New York) my son graduated from two years ago has SmartBoards in almost every classroom, but last time I checked with him he had not encountered any at his college – Univ. of Chicago. I think they’re doing just fine without them. (Do most colleges have SmartBoards these days?)


  10. No idea about most colleges, Grace. The university that DH was at previously did not have SmartBoards as far as I know, but it’s possible that they’re putting some in with new construction.


  11. As a person who spent most of her career in technology, I do favor adopting new technology when it adds value to my life. The problem I see with technology in schools is that too many schools introduce “technology for technology’s sake” — not as a tool that truly facilitates learning. For example, I have no problem with students learning how to construct and use a spreadsheet if it truly helps them to better track and report on the results of a lab experiment. Conversely, I find it senseless for teachers wasting time teaching the kids some made-for-the-classroom software application that assembles a bunch of data the students cut and paste from the internet into a pretty poster. The kids aren’t learning to use a tool that’s used “in the real world,” they’re not taking a deep dive into the material they’re cutting and pasting, and they’re not even learning a little about how art concepts can used to enhance communication. Similarly, I get really angry when I hear that my sister, a school teacher, has to spend half an hour every night refreshing her teacher webpage because her principal says “everyone has a web presence.” My sister is pretty sure her students’ parents rarely visit the webpage, based on questions they ask her that are answered on her webpage. But the principal checks, so she does her best to do a good job with it, even if it is wasted effort.

    Although “technology” (as taught today) is a deterrent to American students developing the so called 21st (or 20th!) century skills employers are looking for, I think there’s a bigger problem: the way we are socializing our children. The Millennials are so over managed by the adults in their lives that they never have the time or the need to figure out anything themselves. Did you ever play kick the can or kick ball on summer days with the neighborhood kids? Weren’t you learning planning skills? Negotiation skills? Problem solving skills? Conflict resolution skills? Now Millenials are busy with sports practices, specialized camps, and prestigious summer academies and enrichment programs — receiving yet more direction from adults. You don’t show up for work on Day 1 and suddenly have these skills.


  12. “My sister is pretty sure her students’ parents rarely visit the webpage, based on questions they ask her that are answered on her webpage.”

    Interesting, I wonder if that’s common. I’d love for my kids’ teachers to have informative web pages. Actually, I’d like our SCHOOL to have one.


  13. I think it’s a lot to ask a teacher to refresh her webpage on a daily basis. Weekly? Maybe not so bad. Or a school webpage — we do have those in our district, but every teacher doesn’t update it every day. I have my own website. It takes a lot of time to do a good job keeping it fresh. I’d rather have my teachers spending their time enhancing their lesson plans, and then give me the occasional webpage update.


  14. Andrea, if you’re around, it’s possible that some of your sister’s students and their parents appreciate her webpage. I am *very* thankful that the teachers at my kids’ new schools keep their homework webpages updated. That is, the teacher’s page clearly indicates what homework is expected for their various classes. Some of the teachers do more, and that can be nice, but the homework information is a real stress reducer around my house.


  15. I completely agree with kcab, that daily homework updates are heartily appreciated. I do not think it is a lot to ask. Other more elaborate updates are not as important, but I would like to see as much uploaded as possible onto a teacher’s page.

    BTW, our school does have a website, but I find it very difficult to use. It’s hard to find information and there’s often quite a lag in updating. I think the school should shift some tech resources to the task of keeping parents and students updated.


  16. Bonnie, thank you for reminding me to express my appreciation to those teachers who put useful info on their web pages. I really appreciate it, and so does my kid.

    Oh, now I’m curious to see how some of our teachers use Moodle. IIRC, the HS math department seems to have done the most with it.

    Slightly off-topic, I just learned that Turn-It-In has capabilities beyond checking for plagiarism. Apparently it is also used for editing and archiving work online. One of our local teachers told parents about this, and I’m hoping to find out more.


%d bloggers like this: