A lecture format is about as far as you can get from the dynamically collaborative, robustly interactive, self-directed project-based learning strategies touted by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. But a lecture is indeed what they delivered yesterday to a crowd of 75 or more at the National Education Association. The NEA hosted a panel to tout the virtues of learning, P21-style. The panel was a who’s who of P21 leadership: John Wilson, executive director of the NEA and former chairman of the board of P21, Intel’s Paige Kuni who currently chairs P21’s board, P21 president Ken Kay, and Barbara Pryor, a longtime legislative assistant to West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller. West Virginia was one of the first states to become a member of P21 and the Senator’s apparently a fan.
Suffice it to say that the event was not an example of critical thinking in action. There was no press there. The audience was comprised largely of NEA staff and representatives of DC’s alphabet soup of education associations. The question at hand was not whether the 21st century skills agenda was the right one for America’s schoolchildren, but rather how quickly more students can get signed on.
For those who are concerned, as we are, that P21’s approach to learning will fail students because it does not integrate the teaching of skills with the acquisition of content knowledge, there was much said at the NEA to worry you. Paige Kuni explained that in the “search, cut, and paste environment” students live in today, they only need to know “enough of the most crucial information.” She didn’t say who decides when enough is enough or what P21 considers crucial. Is it enough earth science to know that the earth is round? Enough literature to have heard of Shakespeare? Enough history to know that we once fought a civil war because the North and South disagreed about something?
John Wilson said that with P21 “students create the learning environment with their peers and their projects” and the “teacher becomes the facilitator.” Ken Kay is more selective in his choice of words but the upshot of his comments fall in line with the others: Skills are what is most important while content is optional. In their remarks, none of the panelists mentioned science, geography, foreign languages, history, literature, art, civics—the list goes on and on.