Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Passing on the Future: a paragraph-by-paragraph rebuttle of Peter Berger's 'Predicting the Past'


Here's a little a paragraph-by-paragraph rebuttle of Peter Berger’s ‘Predicting the Past' which was published today on Ed Week. This is not meant to be a hit-job, but rather a sincere if heated rebuttal of what I see as the problem with the 21st Century Skills debate. I'm just a classroom teacher and blogger -- I was never taught the finer skills of debate, so I apologize in advance for anything that might come across here as purposefully antagonistic or rhetorically ill-advised. But I'm sure Mr. Berger can handle whatever I can throw at him and I encourage debate on this issue.

n.b. -- My comments are in bold.

General Motors stock is selling for less than a cup of Starbucks coffee. Armed with that urgency, experts and policymakers are turning back the education clock to the 1970s, those golden years when self-esteem, the whole child, and our current state of academic bankruptcy were born.

rebuttal: The ‘current state of academic bankruptcy’ was, like the ‘current state of economic bankruptcy’ born not in the haze of the post-Nixon 1970’s that curmudgeons like to blame for everything related to education, but rather in the 1980’s of Ronald Reagan and both the antagonism of and cuts to public education.

We were almost headed in the right direction for about five minutes. The federal No Child Left Behind Act, with all its faults—and its faults are legion—properly refocused schools on academic content and fundamental skills like reading. Unfortunately, NCLB promptly plunged off the testing deep end, taking its credibility with it. Now, right on schedule, here comes the education pendulum, hurtling toward the other policy extreme.

rebuttle: Actually, we were only headed in the right direction if one considers the ability to do what one is told the ‘right direction’. For almost eight years, No Child Left Behind has dumbed down the conversation of public education to the point where we now consider second-graders reading at a second-grade level to be a ‘success’ rather than a starting point. I actually agree that there is a pendulum swing in motion, but would defer that unlike most trends in the history of education, this swing is being dictated by the cultural revolution occurring in society rather than by insular education theories. The revolution is the Digital Age itself and education has found itself in a game of ‘catch-up’.

Like former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his invocation of 9/11, education reformers exploit the refrain "21st century," as in "21st-century skills," "21st-century global competition," or "21st-century bridge to sell you." Not that there’s anything wrong with preparing kids for the 21st century. I stopped using parchment and quill pens in my classroom months ago. But garbing recycled bad ideas in the new century can’t help us, especially when our real problem is that most students haven’t mastered the skills that mattered in the last century, and that will continue to matter, like reading and writing.

rebuttle: Please don’t compare educational technology advocates to Rudy Giuliani; this makes your argument feel cheap and petty. If you had studied Cicero’s oratory in my paperless Latin II classroom you might have realized this. Regarding what you are attempting to say: yes, there are plenty of folks using the term ‘21st Century Skills’ who are trying to sell you their product. Absolutely. But that in no way takes away from the meaning of ‘21st Century Skills’. To think otherwise is the equivalent of hating movies because you don’t like Hollywood; or hating music because you don’t like Beyonce. You do have choices here, you realize. The whole point of ‘21st Century Skills’ is that there are networking skills with educational, ethical, political, and legal implications which our students need to understand as fundamental skills for living in the Digital Age. These forms of instant global public communication didn’t exists in years past. It’s something new. To send our kids out onto that Digital Highway without ‘21st Century Skills’ is the equivalent of sending them out onto the highway without Drivers’ Ed -- and that’s dangerous both for them and for the rest of us drivers out there. Now, with regard to ‘21st Century Skills’ in anyway ‘replacing’ the fundamental and necessary skills of learning -- particularly reading, writing, music, art, kinesthetics, and math -- that is entirely deluded. We don’t want to ‘replace’ anything. We understand how learning works. Many of us took Brain-theory and Neuroscience classes as part of our teacher training. Get real. What we are doing is killing two birds with one stone by teaching kids the basics and fundamentals via the processes of educational technology. They pick up therefore the necessary ‘21st Century Skills’ along the way as they are learning to read and whathaveyou.

Back when the dawning millennium first had experts atwitter, the Business Roundtable of my home state, Vermont, circulated a glossy brochure depicting what heightened "worldwide competition" would demand of 21st-century graduates. The group foresaw a new age when carpenters would "interpret detailed blueprints and diagrams," work with building materials, and estimate costs, as opposed to, presumably, just randomly nailing objects together, which is what the experts seemed to think 20th-century carpenters did. Future nurses would, apparently for the first time, have tasks requiring "communication with patients, families, and doctors," while also developing "flexibility," observations that could only have been made by someone who had never met a nurse. Farmers' innovative skills would include, according to the roundtable, "herd management” and "animal husbandry." They would also study something novel called agronomy.

My Boy Scout troop awarded animal-husbandry merit badges back in 1962. Vermont’s state agricultural college has been offering agronomy courses since its founding in 1865.

Fast-forwarding to the present, boosters cite a national survey in which 88 percent of Americans agreed that schools should teach "21st-century skills." How else would you expect most people to respond? No, I support not preparing children for the future?

rebuttle: Are you actually using the results of a Vermont ‘Business Roundtable’ to try to disparage the use of educational technology in schools? Maybe what we need is a few less business people deciding things like this and a few more liberal arts educated teachers and education professionals. That brings me to another point: every savvy liberal arts scholar knows that the Internet has drastically improved access to and distribution of information. In fact, among major online initiatives, many of the biggest have had a liberal arts slant: Project Gutenberg, Perseus Project, OpenLibrary, Sacred-Texts, just to name a few in the fields of Literature, the Classics, and History of Religion. Do you really think our kids DON’T deserve to know about this stuff? How about we rule that a qualification for becoming a teacher is that you have a liberal arts degree AND an education degree. Both. Mandatory. Or if you are in math and science, you need a math or science degree AND an education degree. Both. Mandatory. Now I think THAT would be a good idea. But, that’s just me.

The question isn't whether students need an appropriate education, but what reformers mean by an appropriate education. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has compiled a typical reform vision for the future. The trouble is it looks an awful lot like the equally visionary past that’s plagued schools for 30 years. For starters, they’re reviving "interdisciplinary themes," which 1980s restructurers gushed would teach students how their knowledge was connected, even as they also preached that schools were too concerned with "content." Inconveniently, you can’t connect what you know if you don't know much.

rebuttle: I’m gonna guess you haven’t been in a Latin classroom recently. In the Classics we use the term ‘horizontal’ to define our discipline. Basically it goes like this: you can learn all the grammar you want, but you are just going to wind up with well-constructed sentences that don’t mean anything. You need to study the history, politics, art, literature, poetry, science, medicine, economics, military, social activities, and architecture of the society that used that language to really understand what their words and documents actually mean. And, all my witty stylistics aside, the Internet and my students’ capability for working in a 1:1 computing setting makes the teaching of all of these necessary ‘interdisciplinary’ aspects much more compelling, meaningful, and useful. And by the time they come out of four years in my Latin program, they know a hell of a lot more than how to conjugate a verb.

Garbing recycled bad ideas in the new century can’t help us, especially when our real problem is that most students haven’t mastered the skills that mattered in the last century, and that will continue to matter, like reading and writing.

rebuttle: But denying that traditional and 21st century skills aren’t equally of value is derogatory at best. Why not get rid of the nutrition and health programs while you are at it. I sure as heck want my kids to be able to read. But I equally want them to know how to live and eat in a healthy way. And if they don’t get that information in school, then they just may well not get it at all. There are a lot of really book-smart burn-outs out there.

This is a lesson still lost on inter-disciplinarians, who continue to rave that the principal task of public education is making "real-world essential connections" between "bodies of knowledge" kids have never been taught. They propose accomplishing this objective by focusing on "themes" like “global awareness," where students employ "21st-century skills" to "address global issues" as they learn about and from "individuals representing diverse cultures, religions, and lifestyles in a spirit of mutual respect and open dialogue."

rebuttle: The principle task of LIFE is to make essential connections. That’s what people do. This is not ‘opposite’ to content learning. It’s just that some of us feel that it’s more important to ‘Know Thyself’ than to know who said to ‘Know Thyself’. You might wanna go back and re-read your Plato.

All this sounds very enlightened, and I'm all for being able to work with different kinds of people. I expect it of my students every day. But global awareness has too often meant talking about how we feel about other countries without actually knowing anything about them, including where to find them on a map. You can’t teach global awareness if you skip geography.

rebuttal: “global awareness has too often meant talking about how we feel about other countries without actually knowing anything about them, including where to find them on a map”. Maybe at your school, buddy.

Boosters tell us the 21st century demands a new "learning environment," in which students receive "human support" and learn in "relevant, real-world 21st-century contexts." As a human who’s worked in a school for a while, I recognize the recycled jargon of the "whole child," unstructured, content-light, 1970s reform regime where teachers "facilitate" and children choose their own academic adventures. I've seen the nonsense lurking behind buzzwords like "social" and "interpersonal" skills. I've witnessed the catastrophe when "academic and intellectual skills" are displaced by "attitudinal, experiential, and social-emotional" goals. It’s all code for how we got where we are today.

rebuttle: See, there you go thinking about your own past again. The 21st Century Learning Environment has got to do with practical stuff like Wi-Fi access, smartboards, digital hardware, and on-staff tech support for teachers and students. We need ‘human support’ in our classrooms just like businesses need IT support. We also need tech/curriculum mentors and Web 2.0 gurus. To be honest, I’m getting the feeling that you are a bit out of your element, Donny. No one’s ‘coding’ anything.

Reformers also tout "multiple measures of assessment," including projects and student portfolios. These are the same subjective, discredited connivances that for years have artfully masked the reality that too many students know too little. I doubt that fraction raps and feudalism cakes are how they assess students in Beijing.

rebuttle: Student portfolios -- particularly in the form of ongoing student blogs -- are extremely powerful tools for learning. I’m not even going to bother going into the details in a brief statement here, but you are welcome to speak with my students and their parents about how digital portfolio learning has addressed all sorts of intellectual strengths the students (and their teachers) never even knew they had. And I’m not talking about useless feel-good projects. To be perfectly honest, dioramas are the bane of my existence. But seeing a year’s worth of a student’s development through a blog is a thing to behold. And when it comes to project-based learning, I just saw a student-run production of the play Ghetto produced as a Senior Capstone Project that completely floored the audience with its professionalism, integrity, and command of history, drama, and perception. Not an unshaken soul in the house -- which included Holocaust survivors and liberators. So, please be a bit more precise when you try to go and dog ‘projects’.

Twenty-first century fans are often the same people who complain that schools today are "too dominated by academic achievement." They claim their version of education "emphasizes deep understanding," rather than "shallow knowledge" like those old 20th-century schools.

rebuttle: There are so many terrifically smart kids who get squashed by the standards of traditional verbal-based assignments and grades. If you don’t know any of them, that’s just a shame. I actually feel bad for you for bringing this into the argument.

I believe in understanding. But you can't get there without slogging through the ancient knowledge that reformers have disparaged for years as "mere facts." I agree there’s a profound gap between what most kids learn in school and what they need to know. But that gap doesn’t exist because we’re teaching the wrong things, except where our schools have clung to the folly that 21st-century reformers are resuscitating once more as the cutting edge.

rebuttle: Hey, you are the one describing the education of kids as ‘slogging’.

Yes, some things have changed. Pluto's no longer a planet, and kids need to know more about using computers than I do. But most of our students aren’t falling short because they lack a deep, new understanding. They're failing because they’re too often uninterested in or unprepared for any understanding.

rebuttle: It’s not that kids need to ‘know more about using computers than I do’. It’s that you need to know more about using computers. Get with it. You are supposed to be a professional. Get yourself up to speed. Are you teaching that the earth revolves around the sun yet? What about evolution? Pro Patria Est? The point is that things do change. And the Digital Age is as much a change as the Industrial Revolution was. Things are gonna get really weird. But that’s life. After all, the whole point in teaching is to prepare the minds and souls of the students to be able to take on whatever they may face in life. That’s what we teachers do. We do it by teaching facts. We do it by helping them make connections and see things holistically. But that’s what we do. And teaching them as if they are entering into the world of the 20th century is an insult both to them and to our profession.

There’s nothing new about teaching kids to "talk and write clearly." There’s nothing uniquely 21st century about "creativity," "analysis," "interpretation," or "problem-solving." But you can’t solve "meaningful problems," which is how rose-colored reformers prescribe that 12-year-olds spend their class time, if you skip the fundamentals because they’re too tedious or too last century.

rebuttle: You are absolutely right. And that’s why you shouldn’t base your critique of 21st Century Skills on the rhetoric of one camp. There’s a whole lot of room for interpretation in the field of education and in the field of educational technology.

One typically ardent reformer urges that we "give our students the education they need for their future, not the education we had in the past." If most students today were mastering a rigorous 20th-century education, the 21st century wouldn’t look as bleak as it does.

rebuttle: With all due respect, for the most part it’s not the kids who were educated in the 70s and 80s who have gotten us into the mess we’re in. Maybe the Bushes, Cheneys, and Madoffs of the world could have used a little less ‘drill, baby, drill’ back in their classrooms and a little more ‘deep understanding’.


  1. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  2. Yikes! Let me guess the guy really ticked you off! Interesting rebuttals. Lots to think about. Hope you had a drink after writing that! :)


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