Common Core’s critique of the 21st century skills movement has highlighted the opinions of a host of scholars including Dan Willingham, Diane Ravitch, and E.D. Hirsch, each of whom exposed deep flaws in the program put forth by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Today, we’re bringing you the observations of another expert. And, this time, it is someone tasked with delivering 21st century skills-based education every day.
Emma Bryant is a pseudonym for a teacher at a New Tech High School. There are 62 New Tech High Schools in 14 states across the country. Substantial funding from corporations and foundations ensures that these schools are outfitted with all of the best and latest learning technology. And, even though the New Tech Network’s website says that the schools’ mission is to help students gain both ”the knowledge and skills they need,” skills take top priority–at least according to Emma.
Over the course of the next few months Common Core will be publishing a series of guest blogs by Emma, who will be describing her first-hand experience with 21st century-skills education.
I teach in a school that typifies skills-based education. We practice project based learning, utilize the latest technology, and hold to a mission of helping our students acquire “21st century skills.” We work diligently to replace traditional classroom norms with those of corporate culture so that our students will someday thrive in an increasingly competitive global marketplace — a new world demanding innovation, collaboration, and critical thinking.
Unfortunately, bowing to the norms of 21st century business interests leaves little room anything else. Literature, poetry, music, theater, or even a solid understanding of history are either omitted or given short shrift in favor of developing skills. Utility takes precedence over “fluff” and most content, after all, can be Googled anyway.
So, how does my school help build the much-hyped 21st century skills? Roughly once a month we present students with a new project which must result in a “product.” According to our model the more “real world” the product, the better. Real world, meaning the product mirrors what could reasonably be demanded in a corporate setting — from a redesigned company logo and slogan to a promotional video or a press release. Students work in small teams to complete projects, with each team member receiving the same grade at the end. After all, it’s not about what individual students learn but the final product. Students are assessed on a handful of learning outcomes — collaboration, communication, innovation, work ethic, technological literacy, information literacy and content. Content usually makes up between 15 and 30 percent of a student’s grade.
So, what is the role of content in a 21st century classroom? Content is a shopping list of rubric indicators to be applied to the product. For example, students might work a quote from a short story into a reworded company slogan. Or perhaps they might work with Photoshop to create a company logo depicting an event from European history. They might write a press release in the style of a founding American document or create a user’s manual for a product using a particular rhetorical device mentioned in our state’s English Language Arts standards.
Apart from being grafted onto “real world” products, content is rarely discussed in the classroom. Instead, students deal with content in teams or individually, with little to no scaffolding from the teacher. Dialogue, questions, critical thinking, and debate surrounding content are low on the list of things you will see in a 21st century classroom. And so students end up with convoluted ideas about history, a cursory understanding of and appreciation for literature, and a shaky foundation in math and science.