The new issue of Ed. Leadership celebrates 21st century learning, and I am excited to dive deeply into it, and plan to share in the days and weeks ahead my reaction to many of the issue’s pieces.   But, right now I am confronting the issue’s appropriately sobering piece on the challenges ahead.  “We seek to call attention to the magnitude of the challenge and to sound a note of caution amidst the sirens calling our political leaders once again to the rocky shoals of past education reform failures.”   Co-authors Rotherham and Willingham call our bluffs, as it were– they stand up and say this might be just a fad, or it might be doomed to be just a fad, if we don’t recognize the very real difficulties underlying its somewhat romanticized idealism– an idealism I will confess to sharing.

Myself, as I sit with this article, I find myself with conflicting reactions: grateful, a bit, for the realism they bring to the discussion and for their articulation of just how very hard it will be to bring about these much needed changes.   Grateful yes, but also combative: these authors are too skeptical, too unwilling to recognize the success stories already happening.  I think they unfairly build up 21st century straw men to knock down, and I fear that perhaps they are just too cynical to see there is a great opportunity here for all of us to leverage this new fledgling but inspiration movement into a flywheel that might really spin us toward true educational excellence.

The authors take aim at several issues: the challenges of student-centered learning, the importance of sustaining rich content delivery along with teaching 21st c.  skills, and the challenge of testing and assessing the learning of these 21st century skills.

Student-centered learning, and variants clustered around it, is what many in the 21st century movement are calling for, and is what bears the largest brunt of the article’s anxieties.

Even advocates of student-centered methods acknowledge that these methods pose classroom management problems for teachers. When students collaborate, one expects a certain amount of hubbub in the room, which could devolve into chaos in less-than-expert hands. These methods also demand that teachers be knowledgeable about a broad range of topics and are prepared to make in-the-moment decisions as the lesson plan progresses. Anyone who has watched a highly effective teacher lead a class by simultaneously engaging with content, classroom management, and the ongoing monitoring of student progress knows how intense and demanding this work is. It’s a constant juggling act that involves keeping many balls in the air.

Of course they are right– of course it is challenging to teach this way, and of course it requires a mental shift away from the inertial path of teaching the way we were taught.   And I don’t want to sound like I am underestimating this kind of teaching, or making it seem like it is easy.  But, I don’t think that it is as hard as they make it out to be, when dedicated teachers, working in a collaborative and supportive environment, commit themselves.  I see it happening in many of our classrooms here at St. Gregory, and I personally saw it happening last year brilliantly at New Technology High School in Sacramento, the Center for Advanced Research and Technology (CART) in Fresno, and High Tech High in San Diego.    But, yes, the authors here are correct when they say ”

What teachers need is much more robust training and support than they receive today, including specific lesson plans that deal with the high cognitive demands and potential classroom management problems of using student-centered methods….staff development planners would do well to engage the best teachers available in an iterative process of planning, execution, feedback, and continued planning. This process, along with additional teacher training, will require significant time.”

A second central concern has to do with the tension of content and skills, and their concern that the 21st century learning movement overly hypes skills at the expense of content.   Again, and throughout my discussion, I want to reiterate that this piece evokes a love-hate reaction.   Yes, they are so right, of course

“Skills and knowledge are not separate, however, but intertwined….Thus, it’s inaccurate to conceive of logical thinking as a separate skill that can be applied across a variety of situations. Sometimes we fail to recognize that we have a particular thinking skill (such as applying modus tollens) unless it comes in the form of known content….Thus, without content knowledge we often cannot use thinking skills properly and effectively.

Yes, stipulated!   But, I have to say here, I think they have created a bit of a straw man to argue against.  Proponents of 21st century learning and skills do call loudly for teaching the new, necessary, and powerful skills we think success in the 21st century requires, and we do so because we believe content instruction became far too dominant in recent decades.   But nobody is saying to stop teaching biology or US History and replace those courses with Critical thinking and problem solving.  Nobody is saying that.    Content absolutely continues as we build in the skillbuilding learning our kids need.

A third section focuses on testing and assessments of 21st century learning: “But efforts to assess these skills are still in their infancy; education faces enormous challenges in developing the ability to deliver these assessments at scale.”   Again, they are correct, there are not yet enough good-enough assessments of 21st century learning.  I wish they had pointed out the value of CWRA, of which I am so passionately a supporter, as an exemplar.   And I think there are opportunities: we are also looking at the OECD PISA test as a tool we can perhaps adapt for our own internal assessments of our 15year olds, to test them on “how well they have learned the ability to use their knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges, rather than merely on the extent to which they have mastered a specific school curriculum.”

BUT, it has to be said to Willingham and Rotherham,  it defies logic and justice to say that we adults should not teach kids what we genuinely believe they most need to learn just because we the adults haven’t yet devised the right tests to measure whether we have done so.  I think to argue that we wait, we wait to teach what they need to learn until we better can measure it, is putting the cart before the horse, to use a nineteenth century metaphor for a 21st century cause!