Monday, October 15, 2012

3 R's...or 21st Century Skills?

Since my last post on 21st Century Skills, I've really been thinking about the current state of American school culture. Pardon the history lesson that's coming, but I recently had an epiphany I want to share, and I hope that thinking through the history will help me make my point.

Back in the 1800's, school was pretty much dominated by the 3 R's: readin', 'ritin', and 'rithmetic. If you could read, write, and compute, you were considered educated.

By the early 1900's, John Dewey at the University of Chicago was advocating for a more holistic view of education. Dewey (among others) argued for experiential education--that students should experience a great many things first hand, and this would provide a more well-rounded and comprehensive education. (Side note: Dewey is also usually cited as one of the forebears of Progressivism...maybe another history and philosophy lesson there sometime.) This was the beginnings of more student-centered educational practices as well as arts education, experiential science education, inclusion of social sciences, etc. Probably not very similar to our view of these subjects today, but it helps to illustrate.

Enter Sputnik in 1957. The beginning of the Space Race also sparked a shift back toward an emphasis on basic skills--math and science, especially--lest the American Dream fall prey to the communists.

Along came the hippy-dippy 1970's. Here we see another swing towards the experiential, culminating in the far-out idea of Open Schooling. Imagine a school without interior walls and you get the basic idea: a whole passel of kids with a group of teachers, all in one large room. "Who wants to learn some math? Come this way? Want to work on writing stories today? Right over there..." (I'm picturing some of my former students with a diagnosis of ADHD in this setting...whoa...)

In 1983, an extremely influential report was issued by the National Commission on Educational Excellence. The report was entitled, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform. It outlined  the likely failure of the American educational system--unless dramatic reforms were enacted. This prompted a turn back towards the basics. By the early 1990's, the Standards-based Education movement was underway, with national education standards being set forth by different educational groups: the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics produced Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, the American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences generated Benchmarks for Science Literacy, the National Council of Teachers of English created the Standards for the English Language Arts, etc.

In 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was signed into law (this was actually a reauthorization of the earlier Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but with new requirements for schools.) This solidified the Standards-Based Education movement and tied it to high-stakes testing as the primary means for assessment of students' mastery of the standards.

And now, my epiphany: with the Common Core State Standards (not a national standards document, by the way) adopted in principal at least by 45 states as I write this, it seems we have come back to whence we began. The Common Core State Standards really only emphasize two subject areas: language arts and mathematics. So...our focus once again is on...the 3 R's.

Sort of like it was in the 1800's.


The pendulum-swing of American education between these two poles (3-R's-back-to-basics and wide-open-experiential-education) has continued its back and forth for at least the past 100 years. I'm not advocating that we need to swing the pendulum all the way back to the experiential side of things, but I do think we're pretty far to the 3 R's side currently. Certainly we need students to know how to read, write, and compute. The trouble is that there seems to be a growing over-emphasis on these elements of education in contemporary school culture. I predict that we'll swing even further toward the "just the basics" side before a cultural shift back towards a more balanced, central position might take hold.

Not that there aren't already advocates for such a shift in our school culture. The 21st Century Skills movement represents one of these. I'm not a member of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, but the more I read their stuff, the more I think I agree with it. (My biggest hang-up is the corporate sponsorship of this group--not a huge fan of having the major textbook publishers behind this... You can see the list of "strategic council members" here.)

The more I think about what have been dubbed "21st Century Skills"--things like teamwork, critical thinking, creativity, global perspective, initiative, integrity, risk-taking, and personal accountability--the more I think this is what I want my own kids to learn and practice. Of course I want them to be able to read and write and compute...but I don't want their education to be reduced to these things. And I fear, in our assessment-crazy culture, that this might be just what will happen. Because if this is what is deemed important, this is what will be tested; and if this is what is going to be tested, this is what will be taught.

What do you think? Is this an either-or proposition? Or is there some room in the middle for both "the basics" as well as the higher-order thinking present in 21st Century Skills?

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