Our disagreement with the skills-centric movement in education, particularly our criticism of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21), is no secret. We’ve criticized P21 again and again for their evidence-free rhetoric, shallow curricular models, and “cut-and-paste” approach to subject matter knowledge (Why learn things when you can just find them on the Internet?). So we’re chagrined to find ourselves the victim of a P21 “cut-and-paste.”
P21 has included an unrepresentative excerpt of one of our curriculum Maps in its new Common Core Toolkit (see page 18). They’ve done this in a manner which reveals, once again, their deep misunderstanding of the key role that subject matter knowledge plays in learning.
P21 cut and pasted the overview of our Grade 8, Unit 4 unit on “Authors and Artists” into their document:
In this unit, students step back and consider the motivations of authors and artists alike: What inspires artists? Are their inspirations similar or different? How is the process of creating a painting or sculpture similar to and different from the process of writing a story or poem? Students read books written about artists and study artwork found in museums across America. Students work with classmates to discern the unspoken meaning in literature and art. Students also discuss illustrations and other forms of commercial art, looking for differences and similarities in fine and commercial art, in terms of both its motivation and its presentation. They write an informative/explanatory essay about an artist of interest. The unit ends with an informative/explanatory essay in response to the essential question: How are artists and authors similar?
P21 put forward this, along with two (of our eight) CCSS “focus” standards from our unit, as one of eight “Sample ELA Lesson Starters” in its toolkit. It offered no other specifics from our unit, which lists 10 specific student learning objective, recommends more then two dozen readings on figures from Mark Twain to Mary Cassatt, Maya Angelou to Marc Chagall, along with eight paintings, and seventeen student activities illustrating how to meet the new standards while deepening student knowledge of important authors and artists. Here’s just one example of the kind of activity we recommend:
Examine and discuss the variety of perspectives used by the artists in the artworks (e.g., worm’s-eye view, sitting at the table, far away, or up close). Identify the perspective in each work. How does the perspective affect the viewer’s relationship to the work? For instance, in the works by Caravaggio and Cézanne, does it seem as if there is a spot left for the viewer at the table? How does this differ from the perspective in [Hieronymous] Bosch’s work? What about [Chuck] Close’s? How do these artists use perspective to draw viewers in? Write responses to these questions in your journal and share with a partner prior to class discussion. Discuss how this compares to authors’ use of point of view in the characters they create.
Our Maps are informed by the cognitive science that has demonstrated that in order to think critically about a topic, students must study content directly related to it. As Andy Rotherham and Dan Willingham write, “All content is not equally important to mathematics, or to science, or to literature. To think critically, students need the knowledge that is central to the domain.”
As much as we want to share our work, we do not appreciate P21 cannibalizing our curriculum Maps and do not believe that their appropriation can be helpful to anyone. The teachers who wrote our Maps worked tirelessly to connect the skills identified in the standards with rich texts and works of art, with essential knowledge. And now their work is being further enhanced by the teachers nationwide who are using our Maps to create their own informed and imaginative lessons. We’d prefer P21 not cheapen their work and ours with a sloppy “cut and paste.”