This week the National Journal Education Expert Blog addresses the progress and success of the P-21 movement, (of the Partnership for 21st century skills. ) The Partnership is headquartered right here in Tucson, and I had this afternoon the great pleasure of being treated to lunch by its President, Ken Kay.   Joining us for lunch, (and also treating me!) was Bob Pearlman, a key figure in the development of the excellent New Technology High School movement.   Bob’s site, btw, has a wealth of resources on contemporary best practices in project based learning and technology in our schools.

Back to the NJ piece.    As can be expected, the criticism comes from several corners: that these are not new skills at all, that they should not replace core or basic skills, that they are hard to standardize and test, and that, in a repeat of what we read in Ed. Leadership this month, that they are too hard to teach and measure.    All of these are important contributors to the dialogue,  some more important than others I would say.  I have already responded to Rotherham on the question of whether P-21 is just too hard to do.

But I want to respond to others.  Diane Ravitch, whom I admire greatly, is, I think, mistaken to say that the P-21 movement will result in less knowledge learning.  It is creating a straw man to say that P-21 supporters want to away with content, but that indeed, we think that classrooms can better accomplish learning content by doing so in a mode that engages students, activates their minds, and demands that they work with that content, toward mastery, with a set of skills that will greatly advantage them in their future.   Learning this content just by listening and memorizing is the worst way to master the content knowlewdge, brain research and practical wisdom (going to Aristotle) has taught us.   The P-21 movement is, I think, especially important when we recognize that it is not just promoting a better way to learn skills, it is ensuring we have a better way for students to learn (really learn, learn to remember, learn to apply, not just learn to reguritate and forget) knowledge.

Phil Quon speaks to this very point brilliantly:

We should be asking if 21st century skills are the key to learning content more efficiently and freeing students from the grips of past pedagogies which require all students to learn the same content at the same pace.  Efficient businesses would abhor such organizational structures.  21st century skills are skills we want our young people to acquire to be successful in their workplaces of the future….  Our teachers need to embrace pedagogical practices which tap into the learning dynamics of their students – – – the “digital natives.”  Wouldn’t it be great if we could deliver the academic content in half the time with greater comprehension and retention?    The breakthrough will come when 21st century skills serve as the basis for teachers changing academic content and instructional methodologies and for students to have the skills (along with the technologies) to access the curricula. “Pedagogical fad?”  I think not.  It is the synergy behind the drive to improve student access to meaningful learning and ultimately success in academic performance and achievement.

Tom Vander Ark speak effectively to the assessment question.   “We’ve bent public education to bubble sheet assessment and squeezed out nearly everything authentic about learning.  Good schools like High Tech High demand frequent presentations of learning where students show what they know.  The focus is on great work product not great test scores (which, of course, take care of themselves).”   I agree– we need to ask students to show that they know, and we need schools which celebrate the display of learning.   We need to evaluate our success by examining our students’ work products, because, indeed, thereafter the test scores will take care of themselves.

And let’s conclude by closing the circle, hearing Ken Kay himself respond to the question of the success of what is his movement, after all.

We have worked with practitioners to create a critical set of 21st century objectives for K-12 education and raised the importance of critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills for every child. … Still, we would be the first to admit that we have a long way to go. Nevertheless, providing the impetus for these important conversations and working with practitioners to accept these notions as part of the education reform conversation is a major step forward.    The Partnership has addressed a lot of the previous claims to date, i.e., never did the Partnership for 21st Century Skills believe creativity, problem solving and other skills were created in this century, nor do they exist without or supersede content.

There is still incredibly important work left to do, starting with clearly articulating the relationship of 21st century skills to standards, assessments, curriculum and instruction and profession development. Educators, researchers and other stakeholders agree that we have to intentionally combine knowledge and skills into all aspects of the education system in order to give our students the education they need to thrive in today’s world.

Ken makes several important points.  First, these “21st century skills” are not called this because they are newly invented or newly recognized; they are called 21st c. because they are more important than ever before.   Second, this is still early in the work of a long-time process of overhauling a field, education, which can be terribly slow to evolve.   And third, the project is about combining knowledge and skills– not just teaching skills.