Are education reformers—and even educators themselves—capable of forecasting the education “essentials” of tomorrow? In an article for Education Week, Christopher Doyle challenges the notion of a set of 21st century skills. Historically, he writes, we have been unsuccessful at predicting skills essential to the future. He points to forward-thinking talents like Einstein, Freud, Gandhi, and Picasso, “those truly oriented to the future,” who felt “alienated in their own time.” Such artists and thinkers deviated from the educational norms of their day to blaze their own paths to success.
In contrast to those who would teach the skills of the future, he offers his agenda as a teacher:
“It is to teach my subject matter, history, to the best of my ability. This includes trying to understand and reach a generation of high school students whose intellectual world is increasingly fragmented into sound bites, PowerPoint bullets, text messages, Facebook posts, and “tweets,” and who appear rapidly to be losing the capacity for lengthy reading, synthesis of thought, and critical analysis. My agenda also encompasses linking the past to current events such as climate change, economic and debt crises, and wars on terrorism. I aspire additionally to teach empathy and ethics, qualities that I believe the discipline of history is uniquely capable of developing. And I seek to improve my students’ skill at writing while sharpening their capacity for critical thought.
“I do not know if any of this qualifies as ‘21st century.’ It often seems difficult enough; yet it appears far more realistic and hopeful to stick to my subject than to chart a suspect course toward a badly drawn image of the future.”
Still, reformers, such as the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, continue to re-package skills that have been taught for centuries in shiny new jargon. Leaving us to wonder if the artists and philosophers of tomorrow are being any better served in the classrooms of the 21st century than they were in those of the 19th.