Downes & Connell @ Eskow – A Case of Miscommunication

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro
Editor

Stephen Downes, in a Stephen’s Web post (9.26.10), took umbrage at Steve Eskow‘s ETCJ article, “Annoyance at the Ubiquitous and Protean Notion of ’21st Century Skills‘” (9.24.10), which was a response to Dave Cormier’s “Twenty-six Centuries of Skills” (9.23.10).

Here is Downes’s post:

Steve Eskow takes a run at Dave Cormier, attracts my ire, and ignites a raft of comments. And it is worth stating again that the blog is not a formal essay, you are not expected to put the entire background of your (and others’) thought into a literature review preceding your few paragraphs, and attacking a post for what’s missing, rather than what’s there, is cheap criticism. “It is easy to extract one paragraph and present it without that context as overly sweeping generalization. It is a freshman mistake to do so.”

I read a great deal of Montaigne in my younger years and for a while I too was enamored of quoting Montaigne in order to show that someone’s great ideas had already been thought of by someone else. Then I grew up.


In response, John Connell posted “‘Then I Grew Up’” (9.28.10) in his blog, amplifying Downes’s criticism. And here’s Connell’s post:

Stephen Downes taking a swipe at a high-handed and empty-headed criticism, by Steve Escow, of a post by Dave Cormier on the importance of 21st century skills (whatever we might think of the term itself).

Who can read this kind of pointless point-scoring by Escow without wondering what kind of insecurity breeds such need to show one’s own cleverness ahead of making a cogent argument?

Downes is right: it is childish.

Downes is right in the sense that writers can’t include all the necessary contextual information or a complete or even partial review of the literature in their blog posts. For example, Eskow’s brief article, “Annoyance,” doesn’t include the background information that it was first published as a post in an ETCJ internal listserv discussion on “21st century skills.” Since the subject was mentioned in several ETCJ articles, I emailed Eskow privately and asked for his permission to publish it in our journal. He agreed, and our mutual hope was that it would generate further discussion on the subject and deepen educators’ understanding of key terms that appear problematic because they have been used in other contexts for many, many years.

Those who know Eskow will tell you that he is, first and foremost, a gentleman. He is incapable of cheap shots or childish behavior. In fact, he attempts to cushion his comments with self-deprecating humor in his opening sentence: “A cranky, minority opinion . . . and perhaps a cranky expression of annoyance.”

Eskow’s “Annoyance” is aimed at the language that’s being used in posts in ETCJ as well as in other journals and blogs. There is absolutely no indication of personal attacks on Cormier or anyone else. Again, that’s simply not Eskow’s style. What do these terms mean? If they’re being used to describe and define a new concept, “21st century skills,” then how do they depart from previous understandings?

In short, Eskow is sincerely interested in learning about 21st century skills. What, exactly, is it? Is it simply a rephrasing of older ideas or a significantly new idea?

Re Montaigne, we should keep in mind that Cormier is the one who cited him repeatedly in his article. I followed up with my comment on Montaigne’s relevance to the discussion. Eskow’s contribution followed mine, in the form of passages from Montaigne, which were presented in an effort to further enlighten the discussion. I’m sure most who have paid attention to this aspect of the discussion would not find fault with the spirit of Eskow’s contribution.

Finally, a review of Eskow’s replies to comments from Downes and Cormier will reveal more about the man than anything I could write. (For these comments, please see the discussion for “Annoyance.”) Eskow doesn’t retaliate and clearly tries to accentuate the positives. He underscores the purpose for his article, which is to learn from the writers who are using terms that seem to be associated with previous theories and concepts.

Perhaps the best way to view Eskow is as a student in your class who is precocious beyond his years and passionately interested in learning via open discussions. He’ll ask tough questions, but he’ll never stoop to meanness. He’ll always bring wit, humor, and good will to any forum, and his presence and words will enrich any discussion.

I’m writing this not to defend Eskow. He doesn’t need anyone to defend him, nor does he need defending. And I’m not writing this to gain an apology or favorable response from Downes and Connell. Their perceptions are, under the circumstances, understandable. I am, however, writing this because I believe there’s an honest miscommunication brewing, and I had a part in creating it by posting “Annoyance” without adequate explanation.

In closing, I’d like to add the off-topic comment that this dialogue among virtual SN publications is a splendid example of the kind of interaction that’s possible in the massively open web that Downes champions. We’re able to cast our nets into an ever widening sea of ideas, and the catches are far more rewarding for this.

9 Responses

  1. Like Steve Eskow, I am annoyed at the increasing use of the generally meaningless phrase “21st century skills.” As I see it, it is quite protean.

    It is purely an accident of the Western calendar, that this very approximate point in time corresponds to a new century (and millennium). Why not say “third millennial skills?”

    I feel that the phrase has been triggered by a very rapidly increasing “communication age.” Others might argue for the basis being an “information age.”

    Yet, I’ve seen no agreement on exactly what skills are 21st century. Any number of people appear to desire the mantel of defining this overused term. It’s the cool term these days and so is prepended and appended to many education topics.

    I laud Steve Eskow for shouting that the emperor has no clothes, and he does not require Cormier or anyone else as a foil to do so. As far as I see it, the use of this term obscures educational debate and hinders progress. Why not just use already clear and well-defined terms instead?

  2. My guess, Harry, is that the paradigm has shifted. It’s a time shift that’s geared to the transformation of the web from a one-way publishing medium for the few to an every-way publishing medium for all. This is the web 2.0 age, and “21st century” is just a way to label it with a convenient time marker.

    An analogy would be a world where every individual has a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) at his/her fingertips rather than just a few powerful people in a handful of countries. OK, this isn’t quite it. But you get the idea.

    This everyperson’s publishing platform gives new meaning to the cliche “the pen is mightier than the sword.” The Fourth Estate has always been key in the endless battle for justice, freedom, and the humane treatment of all. And extending the borders of the journalistic domain to include all of humanity is, to say the least, radical.

    Thus, even when the labels being used are familiar, they take on a whole different meaning in the new paradigm where students and teachers are able to interact with anyone on the planet to extend the field of learning from closed classrooms to the world.

    No longer limited to the information that’s trapped within a single classroom, library, or campus, students and teachers have the resources of the world at their fingertips.

    With this kind of power available to all educational activities, you’d think educators would be jumping for joy. You’d think.

    But most aren’t. Instead, they’re frightened. They feel total control slipping from their grip. Shooting the messengers is a temporary fix, but the messengers keep coming, in greater and greater numbers.

    When educators finally loosen and even release their grip, where will they find themselves? I believe they’ll be amazed to find that the sky hasn’t fallen. In fact, they’ll discover a new sense of weightlessness that comes from the realization that ICT is not only marvelously efficient but very effective.

    But even more, they’ll finally understand that the massively open web is not a threat but a promise for a better way to communicate that makes it possible for everyone in education to become both learners and teachers, and that education is no longer a classroom, school, or college experience but a global process. -Jim S

  3. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills attempts tp maintain a very narrow definition of what the 21st century skills are that students should have the opportunity to develop in public school. Most are life readiness skills of critical thinking/problem solving, communication, collaboration and creativity being added to 3R’s. Not that generic really.

    I will be at the P21 Summit in Washington D.C. next week so I hope to learn more about the focus of this group beyond advocacy. I do think their Route 21 Snapshots is a great resource for teachers looking to teach things in a new way.

    The phrase 21st century skills may only be a generic container, but has been good at getting public schools to at least start to think about what they have or don’t have that would fit in a container with that label.

    Through the awareness that P21 has created, they do seem to be loosening their grip on the traditional and braving a bit of weightlessness. I don;t think this can be bad for public education. WZ

  4. While i disagree that Mr. Eskow was trying to be productive in his discussions with me on the subject, my main point was that he, in his frustration, misunderstood my post entirely. (comments pasted below)

    The point of calling a post “26 centuries of skills” is to draw attention to the fact that the skills we are discussing in the “21st century skills” discussion are not, for the most part, very new at all.

    His desire to be frustrated with the conversation lead to his complete misinterpretation of my point.

    This is the only section of his post that is actual commentary… does this read ‘gentlemanly’ to you?

    “Our roots”? Not mine! What is “post-war individualism”? Are we really turning to each other with words of of trust and collaboration? Have reliability, competence, insight and creativity changed their meanings post-internet? Are we now really looking to “the whole identity of a person”?
    Are we really less interested in degrees?
    And so on . . .
    Is this kind of gentle and empty generalizing now acceptable in Freshman English?
    Are these 21st Century thoughts?

  5. Further I should add that I traced down Mr. Eskow’s contributions to the field, and I agree with you, he has a distinguished resume. This does not mean that he is incapable of generalizing (as he did in my case) and then refusing to engage with my own comments regarding his comments.

  6. My point… illustrated.

    Do you still defend the gentlemanly conduct of your colleague? Or does he sound more like a bullying ideologue? In my previous comments i quite agreed with his assessment of my usage of this term, and claimed that i should explain it further. As he refused to engage in productive debate with me, I refused to engage with him.

    thanks for this discussion. I will not trouble your site further.

    • Dave, here is the first paragraph of the essay in question:

      “In the past several years I’ve been very fond of saying that moving into the 21 century has very much been a return to our roots. We are finding words like ‘tribe’ and ‘community’ ringing through the din of post-war individualism and we are turning to each other with words of trust and collaboration. Some of us are starting to see the established (and, pre-internet, necessary) forms of identifying reliability, competence, insight and creativity as outdated and difficult to work with. We are looking to the whole identity of a person, to the ways in which they have built the work and network they have as method of vetting the people we wish to work and innovate with. We are less interested in degrees, in ‘certificates’, as, for many of us in technology or education, these degrees do not actually mean very much. These are not new things… they are very old things… very old words, coming back to us.””

      What exactly are “the very old things” that are
      “coming back to us”?

      “We are finding words like ‘tribe’ and ‘community’ ringing through the din of post-war individualism and we are turning to each other with words of trust and collaboration.”

      What is the evidence you can provide for these massive generalizations? For example: are you turning to me with “words of trust and collaboration”?

      You cite Socrates, a great teacher who resisted the new technology of writing as an exemplar. What point are you making via Socrates–that great teachers resist new technologies?

      It appears that you take disagreement or challenge as bullying.

      If my questions make you uncomfortable, disregard them. If you have questions of me, please ask them again, and I will try to deal with them.

  7. Hi, Dave. First, thank you for your comments. Re my position: I still don’t see anything ungentlemanly in Eskow’s article and subsequent responses to commenters. There are no personal attacks, no cheap shots, no attempts to retaliate. He continues to do one thing, and that’s to ask questions to open and continue a dialogue that clarifies terms. The end is enlightenment, and the process is an old one, a dialogue among gentle persons.

    I think you’ll get to know the Eskow that we all know if you’ll assume his good intentions and respond to his questions, which are sincere. There’s a lot we can all learn if we can just talk.

    I look forward to your continued participation in this discussion. You obviously have a lot to teach us, all of us, and we hope you’ll return soon.

    Best,
    Jim S

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