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Bruno: Responding To P21 About 21st Century Skills

Future-predictions-from-the-past-3The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) has responded to my post from last week critiquing the "21st century skills" movement.

Their defense depends heavily on the recent NRC document on "Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century", which they believe has provided P21 with "significant research support".

Having read some - though not all - of the lengthy report, I'm not sure why they find it so encouraging. If anything, I think the report cuts against their arguments in at least two very important ways.

First, one of the fundamental assumptions of P21 is that their proposed "21st century skills" are skills that can be taught and, once learned, applied relatively easily across different contexts. The NRC report explicitly questions this assumption, saying:

Research to date provides little guidance about how to help learners aggregate transferable competencies across disciplines. This may be a shortcoming in the research or a reflection of the domain-specific nature of transfer.

Emphasis mine. They go on to recommend that researchers continue to investigate "whether, and to what extent" it is possible to teach interdisciplinary transfer of skills. In other words, the NRC expresses skepticism that the stated goal of P21 is even possible in many cases.

Second, P21 assumes that their proposed framework accurately describes the skills that "students must master to succeed in work and life". As intuitively plausible as this assumption sounds, it's important to note that here, too, the NRC throws some cold water on the enterprise by pointing out that "the available research evidence is limited and primarily correlational in nature". They go on to say that research on the subject would benefit from clearer definitions, better measurements, and better-controlled experiments.

I don't want to overstate my opposition to what P21 or like-minded groups are doing. I too want students to be able to think creatively, be globally aware, etc. What the NRC report makes clear, however, is that we are in the very early stages of understanding "21st century skills". We don't have a clear idea of what skills we're looking for, how those skills work, how (or if!) they can be taught, or what benefits they would bring to students and society.

Given all of that uncertainty, I think it's pretty hard to justify many of the dramatic shifts in standards and curriculum P21 seems to be advocating. (And it's not just P21; the NRC points out considerable overlap with the CCSS.)

This matters because these education standards debates are often zero-sum. If we assume that instructional time for kids is constant, then adding new 21st-century skills standards will, in most cases, mean removing or neglecting something else. (Though what, exactly, should be cut is usually left unstated.) We should be reasonably sure, then, that what we're substituting in to our educational standards is worthwhile.  21st century skills don't seem to meet that bar. At least not yet. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)

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It’s really a good question. Can things like critical thinking even be taught?

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