When we talk about 21st century learning, sometimes we are talking about what students need to learn, and sometimes about how they need to learn.   Richard Hersh’s piece in the new Ed. Leadership is really excellent in, succinctly (!) speaking with great effectiveness to both these topics.

Hersh is a guru, for those who are paying attention, in the field of assessing what matters most, of assessing beyond the bubble, of  asessing thinking and communication skills in a significant, serious way. His little bio at the end of the Ed. Leadership article doesn’t do him justice; this is the architect of the CLA and CWRA we are talking about, and regular readers of this blog know that CLA/CWRA is cutting edge in the field.

About content, I have found myself lately in fairly frequent dialogue (both virtually and actually) debating the question of skills vs. content in 21st century education.   While it is true that 21st century learning advocates fiercely focus on teaching skills, it is not true that we are throwing babies out with bathwater– we are instead responding to the problem that too much of school, and too much of assessment, has been in recent years narrowly limited to teaching for content.

But let’s hear Hersh’s argument: educating for a flat world “is not a question of content vs. skills– it’s about creating challenging, profoundly engaging, and authentic educational experiences that produce life-long learners…. The issue of either skills or content is a false dichotomy, one that we need to transcend if we are going to make signficant progress.”

Content is necessary.  Nobody is saying it isn’t, and certainly at St. Gregory we are carrying this forward vigorously.

Content remains essential; an “educated” person needs to know what he or she is talking about both to make sense of an increasingly knowledge-driven world and to gain more knowledge. Indeed, students should learn U.S. and world history, biology, chemistry, literature, economics, and mathematics if they are to understand and contribute to important political, economic, and moral discussions as citizens. And in a world that cries out for far more humane connections with others, how can we neglect the arts and languages? In a world in which there are serious competing claims of “truth”—science and religion competing in the evolution debate; economic, biotechnological, and equity issues becoming inherent in alternative health care programs; and consequential debates taking place about energy and emerging global warming policy—ignorance is not bliss.

But content is not enough.

Simply accumulating information without learning to apply it results in what Alfred North Whitehead (1929) referred to as inert ideas that remain stale or dead unless put to good use. We must also teach students to apply knowledge, to think horizontally crossing disciplines and connecting the dots to make sense of the seemingly infinite information available through information technology and media. The kind of learning we need stimulates the imagination and teaches how to construct meaning and make disparate information coherent. It involves the ability to think critically and solve problems and to judge what is relevant, what is accurate, and what is right.

Teaching techniques matter.  To unite content and skills instruction, to ensure our students are learning to use knowledge to achieve goals, we need to utilize new and alternative approaches.  This blog regularly endorses and enthuses about problem-based learning, and it is great to see Hersh endorse this approach.

Teaching for such outcomes involves far more than asking students to passively receive information. Consider for example, problem-based or case-study teaching in which students are asked to apply historical, scientific, and cultural knowledge to address real problems. …Asking students individually and in groups to tackle such issues, evaluate the nature of the problems, consider the possible alternatives, and defend recommendations and conclusions based on data helps them develop skills in critical thinking, imagination, moral consideration, identification of appropriate knowledge, and cooperation with others in finding and justifying solutions.

Learning content and skills requires engaged students actively learning.   Hersh’s piece here excites me in his unifying goals and methods in his discussion, and his embrace of one of the single most important words in effective instruction, ENGAGEMENT.

A well-rounded education for a flat world is not the result of a simple accumulation of courses and credit hours but rather the cumulative effect of clear, rigorous, and collective teacher and administrator commitment. It is the result of a pervasive school culture that refuses to define education as the passive reception of knowledge and instead celebrates demanding, profoundly engaging, and authentic educational experiences. By engagement, I do not mean simply keeping students busy and interested, but rather expecting them to construct and validate meaning—to make sense of things. Education needs to involve students in a process of purposeful reflection—researching, writing, speaking, and being simultaneously intellectually and emotionally connected with what they are doing.

Beyond engagement, we need students to take responsibility for sharing their learning and making it public.  Hersh is very effective on this point too:

Writing and speaking are valuable because they require making thought and feeling public; unless we are required to articulate to others what we think, feel, and believe—and receive timely and appropriate feedback from teachers and peers—most of us convince ourselves that we understand something even when we do not.

Finally, it is not surpising at all to read this expert in best-practice assessment call for improved assessment of learning.  At St. Gregory, we are placing this as of the highest priority.

Final and midterm tests are not enough; nor are standardized tests helpful as learning tools. Assessment must be timely and appropriate to inform students and teachers during, not after, learning—in time and in ways that allow for correction and celebration. We need to understand assessment as a powerful form of teaching and learning that signals to students what knowledge and skills they need to master and what standards they need to achieve. Ultimately, we want students not to please us or to simply get good grades, but rather to please themselves by achieving worthwhile goals and reaching standards of excellence, thus becoming long-term learners.




I have written widely on this blog about the classrooms that best accomplish 21st century learning, and my framework of  the 5P’s (purpose, problems, process, professionalism, product) really aligns very closely, remarkably closely, with what Hersh writes in this very fine article.   He ends with a sense of urgency: we need to reform learning in this way NOW.

We cannot purchase a well-rounded education for a flat world with new technology, a new standardized test, or an SAT prep course. We cannot achieve it by abandoning the rigorous teaching of reading, writing, science, math, history, and literature. Indeed, we need to teach these subjects far more effectively, along with the 21st century skills mentioned above, in ways that respect what we know about learning.  And we need to move in this direction at flat-out speed.