Tuesday, April 07, 2009

On the C21 Incentive Fund Bill: Part One -- The Difference between Content and Skill

To begin with, the original bill came up in 2007.

Now, that might not seem so long ago, but in terms of technology, a lot has happened since then. I dare say that given the rise of Web 2.0 over the last two years, there are technologies that are standard-fare today that weren't even thought of two summers ago.

And that's an inherent problem with the bill.

But let's start by looking at the initial findings on Congress:
(1) Students must be prepared in the core subjects of English, reading, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics, government, economics, art, history, and geography.

(2) In order for our Nation's students to be prepared to succeed in our communities and workplaces, students need 21st century content, beyond the traditional core subjects, that includes global awareness, financial, economic, business and entrepreneurial literacy, civic literacy, and health and wellness awareness.

Let's stop there for a moment. What the language of the bill confuses -- and what is the bane both of the folks on the core curriculum side of the debate as well as people like me who are actually proponents of C21 skills -- is that "global awareness, financial, economic, business and entrepreneurial literacy, civic literacy, and health and wellness awareness" is not content. Just like reading is not content. Reading is a tool for understanding, analysizing, and debating content. Global Awareness is a tool. It is a vitally necessary tool. But it in and of itself is not content. Geography, History, Literature: these are the content areas in which you would use the C21 skill of 'global awareness'.

The second thing that core curriculum proponents freak out about is the idea that such things as finance, economics, and civics are specifically '21st century'. And they have every right to be upset. This is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. What I think the bill garbles is the distinction between skills we want students to have in the 21st century and skills that are specifically new to the 21st century. There is nothing 'new' about economics -- but there is something new about the ways in which we relate to economics and access and share economic information in the Digital World.

In other words, when we are talking about content, we're talking about the 'what'. When we're talking about skills, we're talking about 'how'. This itself is not a new thing -- Aristotle came up with these distinctions. For us, the important thing is that we recognize that BOTH are equally important. 'Content' must deal with historical as well as current events; 'Skills' must deal with the possible ways of dealing with content -- they too must address historically 'how' people have dealt with stuff as well as how current and future technology is allowing and will allow people to deal with content. Teachers are responsible for getting both content and skills into the brains of the their students.

The skill that most deserves the title of a 21st century skill is 'global instant communication awareness'. This is not 'content'. Rather, it's a skill built on our human capacity for effective communication that addresses the new reality of instant public interaction on the Net. It's a skill our students need. And while the bill mentions 'communication' and 'information' skills, it never addresses what that means in a 21st century format.

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