Class Struggle by Jay Mathews, Education Columnist  Jay Matthews is at it again, this month, in his Washington Post column, calumniating against any teaching for 21st century skills.  He did so in November, and I responded to it then, and here goes again, arguing that teaching 21st century skills is nothing but a fad: “a pipe dream that should be tossed in the trash.” 

As before, he himself acknowledges he is being “cranky” on this topic.   The main new thrust here, and there is little that is new, is an attack on the Partnership for 21st century skills (P21) for advocating that our education system  must be “aligned” in order to best prepare students for the fast changing world.    Now I would agree that the word “must” is a bit excessive (I’d have offered “should seek to be”) but to go from this statement to the conclusion that P21 is demanding an “all-at-once” transformation of our system is much more excessive, and a really unfair attack on the partnership’s program.  (Read P21’s response to Matthews).   

Matthews’ second, and only other, criticism is not even cranky, it is absurd.  For some reason, he expects to demolish the value and importance of this movement by telling us a personal anecdote about a college course assignment, which vaguely parallels the 21st c. skills program, and for which he did very little work. Guess what– he still got a good grade– hence the movement is bogus!   The syllogism here is nil. 

Now I like Jay Matthews when he advocates for the IB, and I like that he acknowledges here in his attack that he does think students should learn to think critically and creatively.   He even agrees that ” good teachers say their students are learning more this way. ” So if he agrees that students learn more, and that there is good value in learning these thinking skills– what is the problem again?

What is amounts to is a concern that students won’t learn the core skills of reading, writing and arithmetic if we teach creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving.   This is a reasonable concern, in and of itself.   What I wonder is why can’t he embrace the 21st c. skills movement and then, as its friend and advocate, argue that we need to ensure that the core skills are demanded just as much, (or really, more!) in a 21st century curriculum?

Any 21st century educational program has to demand of students truly excellent, finished product and mastery of the skills required for high level performance.    To use his own example, plotting a course on a Boston cruise ship (which is far less sophisticated than what we are seeking), the product, to get a good grade, must be prepared in a final fashion that is genuinely well written, which provides charts and supporting materials effectively generated, which does indeed demonstrate a knowledge of the critical science information.