What’s in a name?

I recently received an e-mail from someone outside our division which ended with this quote:

Let’s not forget what’s important–educating every child in the twenty-first century.

My reaction was the voice in my head asking “Is there another option? Can I go back and try educating some children in the 18th century?” Which is a little humor to illustrate a point: should the label for our current century be a label we use for anything?

We have a well-known program here in Goochland we call G21™. The “21″ is for 12 (ooh, an anagram!) skills we promote in conjunction with a product-based instructional approach. We call them twenty-first century skills. Are there alternative labels? Do we need a different label?

Fujimoto framed it well when he wrote about the label “21st century skills” back in 2010:

there’s an argument that “21st-century skills” is somehow a bad label because, throughout history, we’ve always needed good communication, good team work and good collaboration. Further, to even be employed, many companies themselves don’t utilize or even practice these skills very well.

While Fujimoto believes there’s something “different” today than before, Professor Diane Ravitch is critical about the term, as she describes in this blog post for EdWeek:

I maintained that the movement for “21st Century skills” sounds similar—if not identical—to earlier movements over the past century. Its calls to teach critical thinking skills, creativity, problem-solving, and cooperative group skills are not at all “21st Century.” Certainly for the past generation, these goals have been virtual mantras in our schools of education. If there is anything that teachers have been taught over the years, it is the importance of pursuing these goals, which are certainly laudable in themselves.

In the same article, a comment struck a chord with me, from someone named Margo/Mom:

So–are we quibbling about the name? Although I would argue that mid-century technology and the communication skills that were required were vastly different from those today.

Dr. Ravitch chose to reply:

Margo/Mom, the only skills that are different today from 60 years ago are technology skills, and I don’t know of any school in which children are not learning how to use a computer. We don’t need a movement made up of business executives and software companies to tell us that children should learn media literacy and technology skills.

Learning Hacks poster

For me, there is something different about this set of skills, and I framed it well in the poster I made (above) for a professional development effort we offered called Learning Hacks. “12 Great Reasons to Bring Laptops into the Classroom.” I agree with Ravitch that the ideas are not new, as much as Fujimoto suggests — we’ve always needed good communication, good team work and good collaboration. And while we wouldn’t be wasting any time in offering students the opportunities to learn how to do that as we may have by teachers first inspired by John Dewey in the 20th century, the ubiquity of technology today does offer a new element to the recipe. Because for me, the concept of twenty-first century skills has always included technology as part of the definition.

How does technology affect/add/change/amplify/diminish our ability to make real world change, collaborate, research, problem solve, or teach others?

I think Dr. Ravich simplifies the contribution of technology when she reduces it to “children not learning how to use a computer.” The goal of a school should be so far beyond how to use the tool, just as it would be in a shop class on using a saw, or a music class on making an oboe reed. Why are we using these tools? What are we going to accomplish?

I’ve heard people dislike the term “21st century skills” because they suggest we’re well into the 21st century. That is true, and I do not believe we will see any less of technology in the remaining 85 years.

But is it silly to use a span of time as a label for a set of educational objectives? It might be, but the term has so often been used now in educational research and literature that it is well-understood. When someone says “We’re buying new technology to help address the deficit of instruction with twenty-first century skills” educators today have a fairly good idea about what they’re saying. If I am looking up a research article, “21st century skills” is a pretty good keyword for finding articles about school-based problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity.

When I put together the framework for G21™, I thought about the concept of forcing creativity and the creation of a product as central to the design. I knew that if kids were going to have to create something — a 3D model, a musical performance, or a website — that by in large a lot of those skills were coming along for the ride.

So for those who are not fond of the term, I am taking suggestions for replacements. Here are a few I’ve come up with on my own:

  • technology-enhanced project skills,
  • thinking skills,
  • real-world skills,
  • problem (or project)-based learning skills,
  • core academic skills.

None of them really have a ring. Maybe we don’t need a label at all, because we acknowledge that education has to address them without compromise or substitute. When developing communication skills with students, we need to spend as much time in how to talk face to face with adults as on how to set up a Skype-based conference call. When we practice collaborating in a small group in running the school store, we’ll also practice writing together in a Google Doc. I was reminded in reading the Ravich article that SCANS Skills pre-dated our twenty-first century replacements, with many good ideas. Born in the 21st century? Nope, 1989.

Are we ready to make technology an integrated part of our curriculum? Or do we still need a special name?