This blog is written by Emma Bryant, a New Tech High School teacher who is describing her first-hand experience with 21st century-skills education. Emma Bryant is a pseudonym.
At my school, we expect our students to become proficient in skills that, presumably, will aid them in the 21st century. We assess our students’ mastery of several skills-based learning outcomes: critical thinking and innovation, communication, work ethic, collaboration, information technology, and technological literacy. We also assess students’ content knowledge (which usually accounts for 15-20% of a student’s overall grade).
But, looking over my students’ grades, I notice odd disparities between students’ content performance and their performance on the six skills. For example: several students had overall grades (the average of all seven learning outcomes) in the 80s, but their content grades were down in the 60s. And, while the class averaged 82% in “critical thinking and innovation,” the average content grade fell a good seven points lower.
Having first hand experience of the assessment process, I would argue that the grading schema at my 21st Century School masks a failure to deliver content knowledge effectively. And that the schema overlooks the fact that acquiring deep content knowledge means thinking critically about content. Knowing the content well, as something other than a laundry list to be remembered, involves interpreting it and engaging it at a deep, critical, and meaningful level.
Proponents of my school’s approach to learning would argue that students are thinking critically and communicating even if it is about things besides content. They will say that students are thinking critically about the latest recording software, or that they are raising their communication grades through learning to make better eye contact with an audience.
As a teacher I wonder constantly about the value of substituting these skills for content. Would I rather see my students have a deep understanding and appreciation for a particular scientific principle, or a working knowledge of this year’s edition of a specific brand of photo editing software? One is lasting, while the other can be rendered irrelevant by a single upgrade. To me the choice is simple.