Catch-21 by James O'Hagan

"Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it."
George Orwell

Probably the most bandied about term in education since "Whole Language" is "21st Century Skills" (soon to be the term "Common Core Standards"). And since I am a product of California's great "Whole Language" experiment (I shudder at the name "Noam Chomsky"), I worry about what "21st Century Skills" have come to mean. To be honest, I do not even like the term itself. I feel that it codifies a system of learning and teaching that makes me wonder what we will do in the year 2050? Do we then start teaching 22nd Century Skills? And if you believe what Ray Kurzweil says of how rapid change is going to happen over the next 30 years with the coming Singularity, then locking into a mindset of 21st Century Skills will only further inhibit pedagogical growth. And what does 21st Century Skills do to the mindset of our already under-performing school districts where they are struggling to make adequate yearly progress on their state standardized tests?

I provided the Wikipedia link to 21st Century Skills because as I did a cursory search on the topic, I found just how the term has been bastardized. It has been hijacked by several companies and politicians, and has become a catch-all for educators who feel that because they plug something into a wall during their lessons, or add in some Web 2.0 tool (Glogster, Edmodo, Google Apps, Moodle, to name a few) then that constitutes a 21st Century Skills-based lesson. If you subscribe to the mindset of 21st Century Skills, realize these skills are supposed to mean so much more than just technology, but that is what with which 21st Century Skills have been associated. Not only are 21st Century Skills supposed to cover the core areas (Reading, Writing, Math), but also career, learning and technology skills. What's fascinating is that these skills have been folded into theNETS-S standards and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) initiatives. These are the exact same skills that the Eisenhower administration promoted and funded as key to America's future success in the Space Race against the Soviets starting in 1957.

We used to have, in the United States at least, compulsory vocational training, home economics, music education, and physical education. These subjects train the brain in a way that online simulations never will. Three dimensional manipulation of an object, tuning your ear and working in concert with other musicians, moving your body in a rigorous manner on a daily basis - these are things that have been lost in our 21st Century Skill schools. Budget cutbacks and, ironically, a push for "just the basics" and "teaching to the [standardized] test," in the age where school districts pay lip service to 21st Century Skills, has removed many of these programs. To believe you can have a 21st Century Skills-based education just by dropping a laptop and interactive whiteboard into a class, doing a little professional development, showing some Salman Khan videos, and putting the desks on wheels so they can be easily reconfigured, while ignoring the vocational and musical arts is preposterous.

And was the 19th and 20th Century so bad? Montessori Education, which is based in student directed exploration and knowledge construction, is used all over the world and was developed beginning in the late 1890s. Many of the philosophies in Montessori Education are exactly what proponents for 21st Century Skills are repackaging and selling to our schools (and profiteering!). The names of Bloom, Piaget and Dewey have not been tossed away as of yet. A lot of what is presented as "bad" 20th Century pedagogy are those things that are on the lowest level of the Bloom's Taxonomy Scale. Yet, that still does not mean that there were teachers and schools in the 20th Century that were not aspiring to the highest levels of synthesis and evaluation. A teacher today who espouses they have successfully mastered 21st Century Skills in their class can still be working at the lowest levels of Bloom's Taxonomy. I have witnessed, first hand, schools with a 1-to-1 laptop program using the devices as nothing more than $1000 spiral notebooks, but believed they were truly a 21st Century Skill school.

And what we consider the forefront of learning spaces today may trace its roots to the past. Crow Island School, constructed in 1940 in Winnetka, Illinois, is the home of the first jungle gym and is still studied for its unique usage of learning space. Hillsdale High School in San Mateo, California was built in 1955, but I would argue is an early "green" school where natural light, echoless modular solid walls and open spaces were maintained despite the size of the building (all the while coming in so underbudget and on time they were actually able to build an additional small auditorium). It was the model for several other San Francisco Bay Area high schools including Aragon High School and Mills High School. And yes, I realize that these schools are the exception to school design, not the norm, but they should not be discarded because they are not the products of the 21st Century.

Our general goal, as educators, should not be to worry about the label of the skills we teach and promote. We should be malleable to keep why and what we teach relevant. In reality, good teachers and schools have done that for years no matter what century it is.