Lately I am finding myself regularly writing here to defend 21st century learning from its various foes; today, it is Diane Ravitch, who yesterday published an op-ed in the Boston Globe continuing her campaign against our movement: “skill-centered, knowledge-free education has never worked.”   (One of my hopes, as should be evident, is to not shy away from the critics, but post them right up here for all to see, and then, use their attacks to sharpen my own understanding and articulation of 21st century learning).

I really admire Diane Ravitch, I really do.   Her blog is on my blogroll; I follow her on Twitter; I have read, and I admire, her signature book, Left Back.  When I read that book, I did nod regularly: far too often, we have educated poorly when we have sought to teach students skills as much as, or more than, knowledge, and poorly when we have sought to “adapt education to the real life and real needs of students.”    But, in fairness, I think we have also, far too often, educated poorly when we have sought to teach students exclusively content and “knowledge,” without teaching them the critical skills they need, and without teaching in a way to provide our students relavance and meaning.

Ravitch cherrypicks a few anecdotes to support her contention that skills and real-world applications in education are foolish and silly; one such is a school “where children couldn’t read, but spent an entire day baking nut bread.”   But for every example, we can find one to balance it:  one that leaps to mind is the traditional classroom teacher Ben Stein portrayed inFerris Bueller’s Day Off, who stands at the front of the classroom delivering content to a room of students entirely disengaged and witless about his subject.

I am sorry, Ms. Ravitch, but it is my belief that far too many learning opportunities have been lost to traditional content lessons than to progressive classrooms where students are busy applying their learning and developing their skills.    More evidence comes from dropout rates at urban high schools; at the Center for Advanced Research and Technology  (CART) public high school in Fresno, for instance, I am told that they have a drop-out rate of less than 3%, compared to more than forty percent at the city’s more traditional high schools.

But, nevertheless, Ravitch is right that we need to be serious about teaching our students content and teach them for knowledge; she is right that sometimes when we teach for skills and  for relevance, our classrooms sometimes dissolve into silliness or disarray.

She waxes eloquent here in her conclusion:

We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. What matters most in the use of our brains is our capacity to make generalizations, to see beyond our own immediate experience. The intelligent person, the one who truly is a practitioner of critical thinking, has the capacity to understand the lessons of history, to grasp the inner logic of science and mathematics, and to realize the meaning of philosophical debates by studying them. Through literature, for example, we have the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of another person, to walk in his shoes, to experience life as it was lived in another century and another culture, to live vicariously beyond the bounds of our own time and family and place.

To take her seriously, I have the following responses:

First, we in the 21st century movement do have an absolutely firm continued committment to content and knowledge.  My school is continuing with the rigorous teaching of literature, science, mathematics, and history.  Our students will read many books a semester, real literature, and write many papers.   As we adopt 21st century learning principles, we will be teaching content deeply and richly.

Second, it is my contention, and that of others, that being serious about teaching skills entails teaching students to apply content, and it is in the application of content that we bring students to knowledge.   Dick Hersh  says it this way:   “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.”   This skills, relevance, and application approach will do far more to lead students to master content and gain and retain deep wisdom than will traditional, lecture style, Ferris Bueller Ben Stein classrooms ever will.

Third, yes, our teachers do need to be supported in effective classroom instruction.  We need to be serious about creating a professional and growth-oriented faculty culture which genuinely reflects upon its practice,  richly collaborates and consults, and which provides feedback and constructive criticsm for ever-improving practice.    Teachers need to be serious about student product: does it demonstrate knowledge and skills, masterfully?    20th century schools where teachers, traditionally, closed their doors and did their own thing, traditional or alternative/progressive, were places where often, students did not learn enough.  21st century schools, where teachers open doors, view each other’s teaching and each other’s student product, and genuinely collaborate in professional learning communities and critical friends groups, will be places where sloppy teaching cannot continue.

Fourth, and finally, we need to be serious about accountability for results.   The progressive classrooms which Ravitch denigrates did not, simply put, generate strong learning results.   But we can be serious about results, and by doing so, we will be serious that our 21st century classrooms are effective.  We can use high standard rubrics, seriously applied, which insist on high quality student work.   We can use testing, old-form or next generation (CWRA, PISA, iSKILLs) to seriously evaluate whether our students are really learning.   We can carefully and thoroughly survey our graduates to see if they are successful in college and careers, and be serious about using the results to improve our practice.   21st century educators are serious about learning results, and learning from our results.

We don’t think traditional teaching generates the results we seek for our students’ succesful future, and we are serious about using so-called backward design to ensure what we teach, and how we teach, has the results we seek: thoughtful, skillful, knowledgeable, effective leaders, problem-solvers, and innovators.