Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Diane Ravitch could use some critical thinking skills.

[Addendum: Realizing this is a ridiculously long blog post, I've decided to add a summary; so here it is: Major education thinker slams "21st century skills" by focusing only on the definition of those skills by an organization whose purposes and value have already been widely questioned within serious ed tech circles (though an organization who happens to be pandering those definitions to unwitting state departments of education), thus attacking a concept by representing it solely through the lens of the published goals of a single organization. Rather than explain this to state departments of education and the public, said major education thinker uses major publication (Boston Globe still counts as that, doesn't it?) as venue to vent against "critical thinking" and other obviously useless skills. Major education thinker goes on to ravage a concept which most sane people would agree is not a uniquely "21st century skill" all the while missing the point of what real 21st century skills are and why they are more than a Digital Age "fad". Small time teacher/blogger tries to clear all of this up in reasonable (though admittedly wordy) fashion.]

Diane Ravitch could use some critical thinking skills.

In a Boston Globe column recasting her tireless campaign against the audacity of critical thinking, the professor states:
The latest fad to sweep K-12 education is called "21st-Century Skills". States - including Massachusetts - are adding them to their learning standards, with the expectation that students will master skills such as cooperative learning and critical thinking and therefore be better able to compete for jobs in the global economy. Inevitably, putting a priority on skills pushes other subjects, including history, literature, and the arts, to the margins. But skill-centered, knowledge-free education has never worked.

Ignoring the fact that in calling [21C Skills] a 'fad', she is continuing to harp talking points I thought had gone out of style several months ago after some pretty straightforward arguments pointing out fundamental problems with that line of thinking (and culminating in the journalist who used the term to begin with even considering that there might be something to this 21st century stuff.)

Prof. Ravitch's first mistake is to equate "21st century skills" with those "skills" presented in the manifesto of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills as "21st century skills". As I've written before, the manifesto of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills is one of the most poorly written and meaningless documents in the history of the Western textual tradition.

Rebuffing P21 is like shooting fish in a barrel.

Ravitch continues:
For the past century, our schools of education have obsessed over critical-thinking skills, projects, cooperative learning, experiential learning, and so on. But they have paid precious little attention to the disciplinary knowledge that young people need to make sense of the world....

But we have ignored what matters most. We have neglected to teach them that one cannot think critically without quite a lot of knowledge to think about. Thinking critically involves comparing and contrasting and synthesizing what one has learned. And a great deal of knowledge is necessary before one can begin to reflect on its meaning and look for alternative explanations.

So, the argument becomes: teach skills or teach content.

Well as a practicing teacher, I've coined a term to call folks who can't figure out how to do both at the same time: bad teachers.

It might seem ludicrous to the likes of Prof. Ravitch, but a good teacher can actually teach a subject like, say, the Renaissance, by modeling best practices in the use of integrated social technologies. A good teacher can help students to learn how to use the features of the Digital Age in which we live to learn the content of whatever course they are taking.

After all, most of what comprises the Internet is content.

I teach Latin, and I like to say that I'm using 21st century skills to teach Ancient skills and vice-versa. And so, as they learn to conjugate verbs and parse Cicero, my students are also learning how to navigate web-based databases and synthesize real-time search technologies with social bookmarking and peer networking. And it's not as though we stop and have "tech day"; rather, it's all integrated and natural and authentic to the world our kids actually live in.

As for that phrase "21st century skills". In my mind, this has nothing to do with teaching or not teaching "critical thinking". After all, any decent teacher has been teaching critical thinking all along -- starting with Socrates.

"21st century skills", rather, needs to be taken as what it is and not be allowed to fester as the discarded red herring it's become.

And what are real 21st century skills? Well, by-and-large they are skills unique to the immediately globally connected network that comprises the Internet and its myriad social technologies. You want real 21st century skills? Well, here are my thoughts (I've published this previously, but in lieu of the discussion at hand, I think it's worth reposting rather than re-inventing the wheel):

Serve the children who will live out their lives in the 21st century by building collaborative partnerships between families, communities, and educators independent of any proprietary business interests. Teach the deep reflective understanding of global historical, philosophical, creative, and intellectual content via the best methods 21st century technology and networking have to offer and may in the future offer and teach how to use and how to think about what the best innovations 21st century technology and networking have to offer and may in the future offer by teaching the deep reflective understanding of global historical, philosophical, creative, and intellectual content.

Every child in America deserves to be treated as a citizen of the 21st century. Every child in America deserves an education that treats them first as human beings who will live out their life in the immediate globally connected world of the 21st century.

There is a profound gap between 20th century manufactured education and its accompanying textbook-based bubble test knowledge and the reality of a shift in the authority of knowledge as made clear by the democratic and participatory technologies of the 21st century. Our students deserve better than to be sold a textbook or its online equivalent. Our students deserve an education that bears an awareness of and an engagement with the multifaceted and ever evolving connected network we call humanity.

Students of the 21st century will know that ‘rigor’ means ‘stiffness’ and we the teachers will abandon such arbitrary ed speak in favor of addressing the real needs of the families and communities that we serve. Students should be made aware that most of what we predict about future career and workforce markets is complete nonsense. Students should learn that socio-economics effects the results of institutionalized education. Students should learn that standardized testing completely fails in predicting individual lifetime achievement. And students will learn that education is not about the ability to get a job, but rather is about the ability to transcend whatever position or situation one finds oneself in throughout a lifetime.

My version of specific 21st Century Skills includes:

• Critical Media Network Skills: the ability in a networked environment to recognize when you are being taken advantage of via special interests and the ability to argue within the dominant paradigm of a global network with acuity and accuracy based upon the application of historical, philosophical, creative, and intellectual skills grounded in the history of human thought and applied to the spontaneity and immediate global impact of 21st century networked communications.

• Participatory and Networked Information and Communication Skills: the ability to take part in one’s global society on equal footing with any other human via the immediacy and power of digital networks. Long-term, this may mean sharing any variety of networked consciousnesses.

• Collaborative Social Meta-Thinking: the ability to learn from and give back to both local community-based and global-based digital social networks. This may extend in future environments to nanotechnology merging with on-demand personalized virtual reality.

• Creative Network Confidence and Digital Community Stewardship: the ability to use the global network for both the purposes of creative problem solving and for the benefit of peaceful co-existence between peoples, animals, ecologies, and environments.

• Digital Cunning: students will learn that merely ‘using technology’ does not mean that you are either educated in or are a contributing member to the global network. Drawing on a strong Liberal Arts background merged with Digital Age critical thinking skills, students will be able to distinguish between participatory media and authoritarian media even when the latter cloaks itself as the former.

• Awareness of Digital History and Digital Divide: the ability to understand historical analog modalities and to recognize the value of pre-digital and non-digital media as well as the temporary nature of specific technologies within historical evolution; the ability to understand and through social action compensate for and help to eliminate digital distinctions based on economics, politics, geography, and race.

There you have it.

Real skills for the unique demands of a new Age.

Does this in any way preclude the learning of content? Heck no. In fact, I'm one of those folks who thinks that ed schools should be re-designed so that there are no undergraduate majors in education; rather, all undergrads would complete a full degree program in the Liberal Arts and then be required to earn a grad degree through educational practicums and substantial hands-on in-school mentored lab programs before they ever stepped foot alone into a classroom.

I, like Prof. Ravitch, am a strong supporter of teaching content and giving students the benefit of prior knowledge (though what knowledge is up for debate). But I am also practiced enough in the art of teaching that I realize that there doesn't have to be an either/or situation when it comes to teaching skills and content.

And I also know -- and I think Prof. Ravitch knows -- that our kids are entering a different world than we did when we finished high school. This isn't feel-good talk; this is purely practical. Just think about buying a television twenty years ago and then walk into a Best Buy and tell me that the world hasn't changed.

And consider computing itself. It used to be about the hardware. And the storage capacity. And how much it all cost.

Now, students are literally bringing more technological power into school in their pockets each morning than most schools have been able to acquire in 30 years. Now it's all about the connection, and the potential, and the unknown outcomes.

So professor, when you say that
Proponents of 21st-Century Skills might wish it was otherwise, but we do not restart the world anew with each generation. We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. What matters most in the use of our brains is our capacity to make generalizations, to see beyond our own immediate experience.

I find it hard to believe that you fail to recognize the irony.

It's time to take a hard look beyond our immediate experience and see that despite all the previous claims of educational revolutions and the power of technology, that these were but signaling tremors as to what was on the horizon. Because with the advent of social technologies that literally can put everyday folks into the position of being important and influential creators of content (note I qualify that as "can"), we are seeing the ultimate shift created by the quake of the Internet's coming-of-age.

If our kids are going to make heads-or-tails of this, they are going to need both content knowledge and critical 21st century skills. They are going to need to understand how to live an immediately connected networked life.

There's no getting around that.

And so, what do we do about this?

Well, we start by admitting that the ultimate goal here should be in preparing the next generation for whatever it may face in the future. And, in my mind that means creating new understanding through the employment of Socrates and Twitter alike.

Sacrilegious as it may sound, the great knowledge of the past is not sitting there for us to look at. It's there ready for us to use. So, I say it's high-time to appreciate the new challenges and shifting technologies that have made the 21st century (already) something different from the 20th.

And it's time to quit passing off easy targets as the real thing.


  1. You've done such a thorough job of eviscerating Prof. Ravitch's arguments, that I can't help but try to give her the benefit of the doubt on a few things. Her central argument is ridiculous, as you have pointed out, but I do think she brings up some issues that bear further thought.

    1. "For over a century we have numbed the brains of teachers with endless blather about process and abstract thinking skills. We have taught them about graphic organizers and Venn diagrams and accountable talk, data-based decision-making, rubrics, and leveled libraries."

    I wonder if this reaction to the idea of 21st Century skills is actually really a reaction to the content of this paragraph. If you look at any current reading program, you will see explicit skill instruction. Skills are taught to teachers and students as if they are pieces of knowledge to be learned, as if one can read about the process of critical thinking and arrive at critical thinking. Now there is obviously research that backs this up in some manner, but taking time away to explicitly "teach" skills (along w/ the canned reading and critical thinking questions that go along w/ this) is time taken away from discussion/activities that would teach by doing through legitimate engagement w/ content knowledge. Clearly there is value is self-reflection, but one wonders if the current focus on explicit skill instruction misses the point, and I think Prof. Ravitch is right to question this.

    2."Inevitably, putting a priority on skills pushes other subjects, including history, literature, and the arts, to the margins."

    The arts and humanities do feel like they're being pushed to the margins. But I'm not sure why she's chosen "a priority on skills" as the bogeyman, except that she seems to equate skills with a push to make students competitive "for jobs in the global economy." Unfortunately, that is probably all this means for some people. But in a time when information is becoming more available than ever before, wouldn't it be criminal NOT to give students the skills needed to navigate this sea of information--not to replace knowledge w/ skills, whatever that even means--but so they are equipped to acquire the knowledge that matters most to them and view w/ a critical eye information that may be misleading or damaging? Not only so they can compete in the global economy, but for their own enrichment in whatever they may pursue?

    That said, I do think it's legitimate to worry about the fate of the arts and humanities. What we are still figuring out in the nascent digital age is how to restrict or even turn off the firehose of information. Doesn't it at times feel that we are so busy w/ NOW that our grasp on history (and by the same token literature and the arts) seems just a bit tenuous? Is the fear that 21 Century skills are a way to deal w/ now w/o engaging w/ the past? It may be misguided to think that's what 21st Century skills are necessarily, but I can understand the fear that that's what they could be. The example of your classroom is a great counterargument to that fear, but it's not wrong to fear that 21st Century skills could end up being taught as poorly in the majority of classrooms as the current skills in the curriculum are. But to me, that is not an indictment of skills themselves, but of the standards, pedagogy, and practice that suck the life out of both knowledge AND skill acquisition. Because as you allude to, the teaching of knowledge and the teaching of skills should reinforce each other, not detract from each other.

  2. A basic understanding of logic is necessary to be able to read critically and write with coherence. Good critical thinking follows rules of logic to observe, interpret, apply, and revise ideas or problems. Check out these rules of logic and a great list with examples of fallacious reasoning:


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