Living in Glass Schoolhouses: 21st Century Teaching and Learning Is Much More Than Standards

By Robert Plants
Editor, Schools for the 21st Century

Last week, in the online publication Education Next, noted education columnist Chester Finn was critical of the organization Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

I think, in many respects, his criticism was right on the money and needed. The gist of his comments pointed out that the organization advocates the teaching of thinking skills devoid of content. The idea is not new, and there is sufficient research discrediting that approach. He pointed to Diane Ravitch, Daniel Willingham, E.D. Hirsch, and Jay Matthews as some of the more recent writers and researchers critical of the organization for the same reasons. He noted that the Common Core initiative was doing a much more effective job by infusing 21st century thinking and learning into its current content standards.

However, I think his criticism misses the point. There are much more troublesome issues related to 21st century teaching and learning. For example, the Common Core initiative. As an education community, we have lost our way when working with standards. They were always meant to be nothing more than the bare minimum, created to provide guidance and ensure that critical content was taught in our schools. Now, years later, they are treated as the maximum criteria that we must meet in K-12.

We have lost our way. In addition to standards, we introduced testing as means to ensure that teachers are doing their jobs well and that our kids are learning what they are supposed to. In many schools, this has evolved into a curriculum that is nothing more than teaching to the test and curriculum content that is based on minimum standards.

In my mind, true 21st century teaching and learning is hard to find, and when we do find it, there is little need for standards and the traditional assessments. True 21st century teaching and learning involves differentiated methods of formative assessment that make student thinking visible both as a means to measure prior knowledge while ensuring that misconceptions are identified and corrected. True 21st century teaching and learning is both learner centered and knowledge centered in that students are using technological tools to discover knowledge and to create knowledge that represents their understanding. Through learning then creating knowledge in interdisciplinary ways, students are able to see the relevance of what they do and directly apply that knowledge outside of school. I could go on, but you see it’s clearly beyond standards, skills, and just using technology because it’s there. It is so much more.

I have to admire the goals of the Partnership though their approach might be misguided. What I see, which I feel is much more dangerous, are the corporate entities who are promoting their products as tools for 21st century approaches. You have 21st century whiteboards, 21st century power schools, 21st century textbooks, 21st century curricula, 21st century testing. I have colleagues who  warn me about the “21st century” terminology. However, it was not until I went to last year’s ISTE conference in Washington, D.C., and witnessed the trade show going on during the conference that I was, to say the least, quite taken aback and generally appalled. Right then and there, I changed my thinking.

I think it’s laudable that the 21st century partnership is trying to promote something above and beyond what we have now. But what I find laughable is that, to a large degree, it’s administrators who keep the status quo in schools. Administrators make the decisions about what resources are used in schools. Administrators make the decision that certain subjects are neither taught nor emphasized because they are not tested. It is the administrators who are largely uninformed when it comes to advances in technology, teaching, and learning. Finn’s article points out that teachers are well informed about research based teaching strategies, yet in the classroom, most adopt less effective methods of direct instruction to the detriment of many learners’ best interest.

Finally, a word of caution to those who throw stones: Perhaps your point of view is correct, but that criticism is more effective when leveled at more critical areas. Twenty-first century teaching and learning would be an improvement. We need to focus on effective professional development. We need to critically examine graduate programs that are producing future administrators.* We need to critically examine the knowledge base of current administrators and ask where they are in terms of understanding research based methods of teaching and learning, effective learning technologies, and effective professional development for teachers.

* Rose, Raymond M. & Plants, B. (2010). Are today’s administrators prepared? Distance Learning. 7(2), 57-60.

13 Responses

  1. Robert Plants’s comments are completely on point. The accident of a century change has emboldened marketers to claim that everything is 21st century.

    I have a serious problem with this term. Oh, I’ll use it marketing literature because I must. Just as with “standards based.”

    What’s so special now? How about 4th century (BC) thinking, specifically the Socratic method? I’m sure that Mr. Plants does not ignore the fact that “21st century” in this context has no meaning without a definition. However, too many do ignore this simple fact. Without a common definition, we’re all talking about different things but using the same name. No wonder that chaos results.

    Regarding the tension between thinking skills and content, I have a metaphor I like to use: a grain mill. The grain is the content, the stuff to process into flour. Thinking powers the mill. No power, no flour. But, note that no grain also means no flour.

    There’s really no benefit to developing thinking skills outside of reality because you’re just grinding air.

    Very importantly, however, having heaps of grain in your non-moving mill also won’t allow you to bake any bread. Our schools harvest plenty of grain and test to make sure that it’s well harvested. They infrequently pay attention to the power for the mill.

    I would argue that thinking, real thinking, critical thinking, skeptical thinking has always been around, at least in recorded history. The real 21st century problem we’re encountering is that too few people learn it these days.

    Does that mean that more must learn it now than in an earlier age or that fewer learn it now? I guess it doesn’t matter as long as we fix the problem.

  2. Harry, good questions. I’ve always felt stifled in most schools and classrooms. I learned early on that teachers and professors seldom if ever really want to hear what students have to say. They’re more interested in “saging” or guiding, in entertaining or enlightening. They’re more interested in seeing if students are hearing them rather than listening to what students want to say. These aren’t “bad” ends by any means, but they are, nonetheless, stifling.

    Fortunately, I’ve had more than a few profs who actually listened. They really shared the classroom with students, often stepping aside to let them take the discussion where they wanted to go. In many cases, the profs simply served as the recorder, accurately re-presenting the students’ ideas on the chalkboard. (Remember those?)

    They sensed that this was the way to get students to own or internalize the learning — to think. They weren’t interested in a right answer that they had secreted away in their test folder. They actually took delight in watching social constructivism in action. The key is that they didn’t feel the need to be “in control” at all times. They felt secure enough to turn the process of learning over to the students themselves. And the students could sense that these profs were truly excited by the empowerment they were generating.

    In papers and essay exams, they encouraged and rewarded this kind of independent thinking and they seldom if ever imposed their own ideas as “more correct.” They were more concerned about the thinking and learning process than a teacher-defined “correct” answer.

    The fact that most of these profs were in English and education might have something to do with my selection of majors — English in undergrad and English/education in grad. Students gravitated to these classes because they found havens where what they thought mattered.

    Discussions in the classroom spilled over into our social gatherings (beer joints close to campus) and into the papers we wrote. We were drunk with the power of thinking for ourselves, and actually being rewarded for doing so.

    In the end, for learning, the medium is the message. Longterm, we don’t really remember content or what was taught, but we do remember the medium or how it was taught. (I realize I’m using “medium” in a slightly different way, but I hope you’ll allow me this freedom.)

    We remember the joy that we experienced in classes where our thinking was respected, encouraged, and prized. But we don’t recall exactly what was said. By the same token, when our model is the sage on the stage, we recall the professor who made learning fun via entertaining and enlightening lectures. We don’t recall exactly what we learned, but we recall the how.

    Will these early classroom experiences influence how we teach? I think so. -js

  3. My post-secondary schooling was radically different than what you describe. Yet, I can relate to what you say and even envy you that experience. Perhaps, the following will give you insights into why I think as I do and am occasionally (or more) annoying to my colleagues.

    Because I left college nearly a half-century ago, I truly don’t remember much of the content. Yet, just a few years after graduation, I was able to conjure up Gaussian integration, partial differential equations, and much more quite readily. Even for a science major, this is rather arcane stuff.

    The other thing I learned was to always probe, always question, always seek other explanations, never take what someone else says for granted. We weren’t told how to integrate. We had to derive it. On tests, we didn’t just spit back formulas and memorized proofs, we had to make proofs we’d never seen on the spot under time pressure. Every exam had questions that required novel (for the student) thinking. It was brutal, but it worked.

    In class, we never got any respect. I took a graduate mathematics course (The Constructive Theory of Functions) where I was the only science major and the only undergraduate. The professor felt that we did so badly on the mid-term that he threw it out and told us that our entire grade would be the final. I was concerned that my GPA would fall below 3.0 and exclude me from graduate school. I really studied for that final and got the second highest score in the class — and a grade of B. No respect. I felt like Rodney Dangerfield for my entire undergraduate schooling.

    My best moment, and the only respect I remember getting, was in The Structure of Matter course, another graduate course but in my major. I could take an oral final or write a paper. Naturally, I chose the latter. I still had to show up at the prof’s office to discuss the paper, which had to be something original on the structure of matter. I worked long hours researching it and typing it on a mechanical typewriter. I was quite nervous when I walked into the professor’s office. What would this person who had forgotten more science than I could ever know do to my puny effort at a science paper?

    I was flabbergasted when Linus Pauling gave me an A. Finally, on my way out of Calttech, some respect. I also got his autograph on my copy of his “The Nature of the Chemical Bond,” our text. I still have that book.

  4. Wow, what a great thread. There have been a lot of attempts at defining 21st Century skills and this after nearly 10% of said 21st century is already behind us. I think most of those I know think of these as the skills required to self teach and globally collaborate. I even think it is a bit funny that we think we need to be the ones to “teach” them to students. What we probably need to really do is simply get out of their dumb way so we can stop preventing them from using them. This probably speaks to the comments Robert makes about administrators.

    I was presenting to a bunch of administrators the other day and asked them a few trivia questions. They looked at me with a blank stare and I had to ask why nobody had looked up the answers on their phone. Didn’t any of them have a data plan? No doubt their students would have been shouting the answers by now. I asked how many of them had friends in other countries. One. I reminded them that most of their students probably had facebook and myspace friends in at least one other country. So who is it we really need to be teaching these so called 21st century skills to, the students or the educators? Maybe the real 21st century educators, the students themselves, already have them?

  5. Does this define a 21st century skill? The answers were always available but took time to find. You might travel to a library, spend time finding the correct reference books, looking up the information, and hand-copying it down. Now, you enter your search into Google or Wikipedia and the press Print.

    However, and it’s a big one, you cannot be sure of what you read on the Internet. You must have enough of your own knowledge and thinking skills to sift the wheat from the chaff.

    Do 21st century skills amount to speed? Should they also include a “baloney detection kit” as Carl Sagan admonished us all to obtain?

    If you forget about the time element, what’s really different? You still must, as has been true for centuries, ask the right questions. You still must seek out answers in various places. You still must be able to distinguish reasonable from bogus responses. You still must verify your answers in some manner. Only the medium has changed and, with it, the time required for the initial search.

    I don’t find any true 21st century skills, just a new medium in which to exercise the skills of millennia and, perhaps, a sharpening of these old skills because of the speed of information now.

    People of 2,000 years ago were just as smart as people today. Why should people of today be expected to be expected to be smarter than those of 100 years ago?

  6. I believe it qualifies mostly because 20th century experts often question both its existence and its validity. Much like the old saying… “Get a horse”. Yes. Where is the Baloney Detection? The problem with printed knowledge was it was it was often outdated and only a few could or would dare challenge it with Baloney Detection. The problem with on-line knowledge is the Boloney is anywhere and everywhere with more being created along side real knowledge every second. Can the multiple of fast searches that can consistently point to apparent truth, offset the few slower library references that purportedly point to accepted truth? What if the library references also offer opposing positions? What if the library references are the same as many of the multiple Google returns? The web is certainly a bigger library with additional input to be vetted, but most of us use it heavily and are fairly adept I would think at calling BS (Baloney Search) when needed. We may get it wrong now and then, but we get it right even more often. I certainly do not believe all that I read on the internet, but then I do wonder why someone else necessarily does, at least enough to have written it, and make my own judgment. It is a paradox that the more one knows the more one knows what he does not know. The proportion of known to unknown will by that theory always remain a near constant. Could it be that wisdom is not the absolute truth but only the journey towards it? Maybe all we can really offer the next generation is the reality that you should not believe everything you read on the web, and whatever skill you grow, grow it in a balanced configuration.

    People of 2000 years ago were certainly smarter than people of today, but in different ways. How many people today can make fire just from sticks or rocks? Everyone of my great grandfather’s time knew a Cannon from a Coronet, or a Croup from a Crest. They had to because the horse was their major form of transportation and locomotion. Today everyone knows a steering wheel from a brake. Skills are made obsolete from each millennium to the next as new skills are actually made possible by the same evolution. This is the nature of procedural knowledge and I would suspect it will never change its evolutionary progression. Yet procedural knowledge is most often based on the needs to apply and further our General Knowledge. I think with world general knowledge doubling almost every year now, people of 2000 years ago could have only held an oil lamp to the laser focus of understandings that exist today. But the challenge is to focus on the 202nd decade skills which could be defined your comment, as the skills of the millennia for application within the mediums of this generation.

    My point was can we really “teach” these skills to kids whose expertise is often exponentially greater than our own, or should we be teaching ourselves how to keep out of the way of progress while averting disaster?

  7. I’d call the distinctions for the horse age knowledge rather than skills. I know that’s a fine point of definition. I prefer to consider skills as thinking ability. Of course we have manual skills too, e.g. saddling a horse or shoeing one. These definitely become obsolete.

    My point simply was that THINKING skills don’t change much over centuries. I should have made my thought clearer. You may apply your thinking skills to different stuff and in a different medium. When you read over the ten baloney detection kit ideas from Carl Sagan, you’ll see that they apply to any social discourse at any time and anywhere.

  8. I think I am starting to see your point. I will agree that we have not learned how to “think” harder than only our most very distant relatives. I was not thinking of thinking as a skill. I suppose reasoning certainly qualifies and common sense is only relative. Generic Baloney detection should by all means be a required skill for our next generation, especially given it’s exponential growth and accessibility. I am off to ponder more on the specific skills of determining fact from fiction in web speed, a life long journey for sure. Do you think we can learn and then teach this or just know it when we see it? Do you have suggested references beyond Sagan?

  9. Traditional Logic classes are not typically taught to lower grade levels. Yet, Critical Thinking is identified by P21 as a needed skill for younger students. Does anyone know of a version of the Sagan logic toolkit that would be applicable specifically to our tangled “web” of factual knowledge, useful for younger (and often older) minds. At what point does Sense become common?

  10. Quite a few writers have suggested that thinking is THE 21st century skill. I wouldn’t go that far but would agree that thinking skills have languished of late, and our schools must be reinvigorated with them.

    I concern myself with science education and get into the general education topics because of overlap along with the necessity of understanding science education in a broader context. I really must remain closely focused on science because it’s how I make my living: producing an online science lab system.

    Carl Sagan was making his own point with the “baloney detection kit.” He points out that every scientist has one (I’d say almost every…). He then extrapolates to the idea that every citizen should also have one for a number of reasons. Among these reasons are the increasing complexity and technology of our society. He was echoing some of John Dewey’s thoughts of over a half century earlier.

    A good education for all strengthens our democracy. In science, a good education does not mean knowing the phases of mitosis or Newton’s Laws. It means being able to apply this sort of knowledge, especially in real-life situations. Carl Sagan’s main point was that our science classes should teach this sort of thinking skill.

    I’ll note that history classes could teach similar thinking skills and, in a few instances, have done so. ELA and mathematics classes don’t have the same contextual framework and so have more difficulty in training people in this sort of thinking.

    If you sat through high school history classes, as I did, that simply had you memorize names and dates, you experienced the bad of history teaching. Science has an exact parallel, but it’s just a tiny bit more difficult to recognize because formulas take the place of dates and arcane vocabulary takes the place of names. Many are fooled into thinking that they’re actually learning science when they really are learning the science equivalent of “name and date” history.

    I view this problem as very serious and self-perpetuating. After all, how likely is a science teacher who was taught the wrong way to teach science any other way? So, when we admonish them to teach real science, real scientific thinking skills, and understanding of the true nature of science, they don’t understand. You cannot blame THEM, but something in the system has failed. These teachers actually don’t know how to think scientifically. They don’t understand the nature of science.

    Too many science teachers were not taught science properly. Even if they were, they would still require a deeper understanding of science to teach it well. They should understand it better than their students, a lot better. For that to happen, science teachers should spend some time doing science. From what I’ve read, those who do have a real epiphany. It’s as though they were blind and now can see.

    Then, they go out and preach to their brethren, who are deaf to their words

    How can we break this cycle? My answer is to have students, beginning in the first grade, do science, real science. It can be done and is being done here and there. If we can just implement such a program from grades 1-12, then we’ll have many more scientists and engineers here in America and won’t have to import so many. (The same is true for any country, but I’m here in the good ol’ US of A.) Indeed, that’s exactly what India is working on these days.

    I’m working on producing tools for doing science that are inexpensive, efficient, and simple because I see such a critical problem in this area. I’m not demoting other education problems, just focusing my energies on an area of need that I have the skills to fix.

    The secondary effect of having young people DO science at least some of the time in every grade from 1 to 12 is having a more savvy citizenry. Many more will have their own baloney detection kits and will be able to navigate our complex and highly technological society more successfully.

    No child must be left behind in this endeavor, which is why I look to technology for the solution. Whether you’re in rural Western Pennsylvania or in downtown Detroit, you should have a great education. Mostly what’s stopping that from happening today is a political philosophy of selfishness and greed. I’d like to succeed in my efforts regardless of those who would hoard the best education for their own already-well-off children.

    I’ve had some criticize me for having a sub-C corporation (for profit). They say that you can’t have innovation if you have a profit motive. I say that I focus on quality. The market will decide whether to reward me and will do so if I provide a low-cost, high-quality experience. Were Edison and Bell running non-profit enterprises?

    If you make a great product, one you truly believe in and that resonates in the marketplace, then you’ll do just fine. Otherwise, there’s someone else out there who will.

    What does all of the above have to do with 21st century skills and standards? First off, I believe that thinking skills must come first and that we have to embed them in whatever medium works. Today, it’s a medium that requires those 21st century skills that young people just seem to absorb without being taught. In the second place, good standards, the right kind that emphasizes goals over methodology, help us all. Just try running an education business with 51+ standard sets you must meet. You are forced to raise the price. Disparate standards cost us, the taxpayers, money. They stifle innovation. A single set of goals, standardized on across America, will promote innovation.

    I’ve had much more success building AP science labs than those for general science classes simply because the standards are sitting right there. I don’t like those particular standards because they leave out thinking much too often, but I can build a product to address this market well because it’s standardized. Furthermore, most people agree that AP science courses are of very high quality. Standards work, not bad ones but good ones.

    The College Board has slipped into the same error as the UCOP. They insist on a certain amount of hands-on science. It’s a foolish requirement, but they are driven by colleges and universities who can’t think clearly enough to see the evil of such a standard.

  11. Harry: “My point simply was that THINKING skills don’t change much over centuries.”

    Harry, I agree with you, up to a point. Socrates, Sun Tzu, and others would be wise in any age, regardless.

    But “thinking,” in my mind, is paradigmatic in the sense that we’re constantly processing information to reconstruct our perception of reality.

    The problem is in how we deal with anomalies. Are we open enough to consider adopting new paradigms when the anomalies simply can’t be accommodated in the old?

    Or are we so bogged down in the current paradigm that we ignore the anomaly or pretend that it’s really not an anomaly and can easily be accommodated in the existing paradigm?

    My guess is that the qualities that made the ancient sages wise will allow them to make the necessary paradigmatic shifts. They were out-of-the-box visionaries in their day, and that openness would serve them well in any age. -js

  12. Bob and I have been debating about the 21st Century label for some timie. Being mentored by Chris Dede, I have been listening to, sometimes advocating for and then finally getting tired of the title. I love the title of this piece and the responses that have come forward.

    Education nation is going to be a look from the press at what is going on in education, let’s home they will go deep and wide and understand some of the conversation that has been in this thread.

    Thanks all.

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

  13. I have really spent some time thinking the last few days about thinking as a skill. I know I can learn the moves but I always question, can I learn the dance? Certainly not without practice. Are the right moves simply the art of the argument? Kids certainly learn to argue at an early age but rarely do they argue intelligently. Is thinking only Induction and Deduction? Induction works if you know enough to induce from. Deduction is a great skill, but only works when you have a lot of pieces that you know fit, such that you can also know which do not fit. There are other parts of the thinking toolkit which are so tacit as to be nearly unreachable, let alone teachable. The tough part for most people in arguing seems to be getting the whole picture in their head so they can see what others are missing and leverage that for better or worse. Most that do it well have strong visualization skills. I suppose I could offer the potentially falsifiable arguement that thinking is the skill of arguing successfully with yourself. (Yet unfortunately I have yet to either win or lose that argument.) So back to practice, which is the secret to any great skill. Having read the article by Robert Plants on Igoring the Test, I could not agree more. So how do we help students to practice thinking where they are passionate so that they can then induce those skills into areas where they are simply needed for survival? I remember reading once that students today have often forgotten how to “Ponder”. I wonder how many would know the word from the inside?

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