The reason we need common core standards, we are told, is because our kids will need to learn 21st century skills to compete in the global economy.

goes11It has been a long hard search, but I have finally found what a 21st century skill is. Up until now all I could get was the “But it goes to 11.” Spinal Tap answer.

Me: What is a 21st century skill?

Pro CC person: Those are the skills we’ll need to compete globally.

Me: Yes, but can you tell me What we’ll need to compete in the global economy?

ProCC: We’ll need lots of 21st century skills.

Me: Sigh. Let’s try another tack. Can you tell me what the global economy is?

ProCC: Well, its businesses selling products and services all around the globe.

Me: Haven’t we been doing that for centuries? Wasn’t the original American Tea Party a rebellion against the British East India Tea Company who had managed to get the government to force people to buy its products in the British empire which spanned much of the globe in the 1700’s? How is this any different?

ProCC: Ummm, well that was 18th century and these are 21st century skills.

The report done by Gallup for Microsoft Partners and SRI International is called 21st Century Skills and the Workplace 2013 Microsoft Partners in Learning and Pearson Foundation. The report was put out in fall of last year, well after the American Diploma Project now ne common core state standards were developed to teach our kids 21st century skills. But I guess better late than never.

Gallup polled people in several age groups, with varying levels of education,  looking for input on seven critical 21st century skills:

  1. Collaboration
  2. Knowledge construction
  3. Skilled communication
  4. Global awareness
  5. Self-regulation
  6. Real world problem solving and
  7. Use of technology for learning
I hope Microsoft didn’t pay Gallup too much for this report, because the findings were far from earth shattering.

60% of the population said they developed the skills they use in their current job outside of school. Most people don’t recognize their ability to read a report,  write a cogent sentence or perform basic math as a skill they learned in school. Most were probably thinking of specific skills for their particular industry. Since businesses are quite diverse with different cultures, technology and processes, it is not that surprising that people self report learning more for their jobs outside of school.

Then there is the problem of Moore’s Law which says, in simplified terms, that processor speeds, or overall processing power for computers will double every two years. This has meant an explosion in high technology which makes it almost impossible now to guess what tools we will be using 5 years from now, let alone 13 when kids graduate high school or 17 when they graduate college. Other than encouraging kids to keep an open mind about technology, how else could schools train students with tech skills they will use in the job market?

The best time to teach those skills is the last year of school [read college]. (See above, duh)

Student aspiration and engagement is positively correlated to work quality later in life If you are personally driven to be a high achiever you will be a higher quality worker (again duh).

A good teacher/student relationship is a primary driver of student aspiration. This finding should be a little troubling for Microsoft and Pearson who envision a future educational system driven primarily by digital technology, the virtual or flipped classroom, where a few top quality teachers are teaching thousands of students digitally through common cartridges and video classes. Those learning environments provide little opportunity for student/teacher relationships. Check out this blog by a teacher who spent 15 months in virtual charter hell.

Each class met for 30 minutes in an interactive-blackboard setting one day each week. Fewer than 10 percent of students actually attended these “classes.” Other than that time and any one-on-one sessions a teacher and student might set up (which, in my experience, almost never happened), there is no room for direct instruction.

Only 14% say they used tech for collaboration indicating that students are not developing the type of advanced technology skills that would be used later in the workplace.”  To be specific, the use of tech for collaboration they are talking about is videoconferencing, on-line discussion boards or on-line tools like Skype.  This seems more a statement about students ability or willingness to use certain products, not their innate ability to communicate or collaborate. Reading the details, they are envisioning a primarily virtual workplace in the future. There will be few who go to an office, hence the need to use this tech. But again, Moore’s Law about tech advancement, means that whatever you teach early on will likely be outdated by the time the kids graduate. In addition, all this tech is built to be user friendly and intuitive, hence the only skill necessary is the ability to continuously seek out new technology  and the willingness to try it.

Younger Students (18-22) are better at using technology.  I see my kids use tech every day, but that does not stop the basic drivel coming out of their and their friend’s mouths. Being able to swing a hammer does not make one a good carpenter.

Less than 30% say they do not use what they learned about in school to develop solutions to real world problems in their community of the world.  It is important here to note the questions used to test this response. “Thinking about your last year in school, about how often, if ever, did you work on a long-term project that took several classes to complete?” and “Thinking about your last year in school, about how often, if ever, did you  use what you were learning about to develop solutions to real problems in your community or in the world?” What adolescent, in the throws of teenage hormones and limited prefrontal cortex development, spends time looking outside their own interests to solve someone else’s problem? I am impressed the number is as high as 30%. The only ones I know who do are those whose parents push them in programs like Boy Scouts or church youth groups. It would have been far more telling to ask them if they ever used what they were learning in school to solve their OWN real world problem.

This survey was based on the work done by ITL Research on Innovative Teaching and Learning.

“It is increasingly an accepted truth that education systems must evolve to meet the needs of the students and societies they serve, changing their mission from knowledge transmission to preparation for future learning.”

This study looked at teaching practices related to 21st century skills in seven countries: Finland, Indonesia, Russia, Senegal, England, Mexico, Australia.

“While in some countries blackboards and chalk have been replaced by laptops and data projectors, the majority of students are still in their traditional roles of information consumers rather than problem-solvers, innovators, and producers.”

After reading it I begin to understand why the proponents all think The Guide On The Side is a good thing. The report indirectly denigrates direct instruction.

  • Within a single class, 86% of the variance across student work scores is explained by the associated learning activity: in other words, evidence of 21st century skills in the work that a student does is driven more by differences in learning activities than by differences in students.
  • Across the sample, 75% of student work scored at or below the corresponding score for the learning activity on analogous dimensions. This implies a ceiling effect: while students are likely to reach up to the level demanded by the learning activity, they are unlikely to go beyond it (emphasis added)

I wonder if the businesses that are waiting for career ready graduates understand what the 21st century skills that common core is supposed to teach are? Would they agree that these are a priority for their business?

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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