Are 21st century skills a solution to a problem that may not exist?

Sylvia Martinez said:

Of course not all “olden days” teachers were drilling students. . . . When people think about the past, of course we all have had different experiences. Talking about how school used to be is meaningless; it’s too dependent on your personal experience. Unfortunately, we hear this kind of language all the time, whether it’s to point at the “bad old days” or the “good old days” Neither of them exist in reality.

21st century skills . . . is a solution to a problem that may not exist. It may just be a reflection of our vast, yet fundamentally faulty collective memory of things that never were.

To which I say:  [see also the reports cited at The hits just keep on coming]

The chief source of the “problem of discipline” in schools is that … a premium is put on physical quietude; on silence, on rigid uniformity of posture and movement; upon a machine-like simulation of the attitudes of intelligent interest. The teachers’ business is to hold the pupils up to these requirements and to punish the inevitable deviations which occur.
– John Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916)


What students do in the classroom is what they learn (as Dewey would say) . . . Now, what is it that students do in the classroom? Well, mostly, they sit and listen to the teacher. . . . Mostly, they are required to remember. . . . It is practically unheard of for students to play any role in determining what problems are worth studying or what procedures of inquiry ought to be used. . . . Here is the point: Once you have learned how to ask questions – relevant and appropriate and substantial questions – you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know . . . [However,] what students are restricted to (solely and even vengefully) is the process of memorizing . . . somebody else’s answers to somebody else’s questions. It is staggering to consider the implications of this fact. The most important intellectual ability man has yet developed – the art and science of asking questions – is not taught in school! Moreover, it is not “taught” in the most devastating way possible: by arranging the environment so that significant question asking is not valued. It is doubtful if you can think of many schools that include question-asking, or methods of inquiry, as part of their curriculum.
– Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969)


The data from our observations in more than 1,000 classrooms support the popular image of a teacher standing or sitting in front of a class imparting knowledge to a group of students. Explaining and lecturing constituted the most frequent teaching activities … And the frequency of these activities increased steadily from the primary to the senior high school years. Teachers also spent a substantial amount of time observing students at work or monitoring their seat-work … Our data show not only an increase in these activities but also a decline in teachers interacting with groups of students within their classes from the primary to the secondary years. . . . Three categories of student activity marked by passivity – written work, listening, and preparing for assignments – dominate … The chances are better than 50–50 that if you were to walk into any of the classrooms of our sample, you would see one of these three activities under way … All three activities are almost exclusively set and monitored by teachers. We saw a contrastingly low incidence of activities invoking active modes of learning.
– John Goodlad, A Place Called School (1984)


Classrooms in which there was evidence of higher-order thinking: 3 percent. Classrooms in which high-yield [instructional] strategies were being used: 0.2 percent. Classrooms in which fewer than one-half of students were paying attention: 85 percent.
– Mike Schmoker, Results Now (2006) [citing a study of 1,500+ classroom observations]


The average fifth grader received five times as much instruction in basic skills as instruction focused on problem solving or reasoning; this ratio was 10:1 in first and third grades.
– Robert C. Pianta, et al., Opportunities to Learn in America’s Elementary Classrooms (2007) [study of 2500+ classrooms in more than 1,000 elementary schools and 400 school districts]


When you code classroom practice for level of cognitive demand . . . 80% of the work is at the factual and procedural level. . . . [Teachers] will do low-level work and call it high-level work.
– Richard Elmore, excerpt from Education Leadership as the Practice of Improvement (2006)


It’s so boring, daddy.
– 7-year-old Tess Richardson, excerpt from Boring Schools, Boring Content (2005)

What do YOU think?

19 Responses to “Are 21st century skills a solution to a problem that may not exist?”

  1. I’m seeing the big stick coming out here. You keep telling us what we are doing is wrong. What i don’t see a lot of is what we can do to be “right.” Are twitter, Wiki’s, blogs, etc. the answer? If they are, how are they best used in a typical public school classroom with 25+ students from varying socioeconomic backgrounds and varying access to technology at home?

    How do these “21st Century skills” fit into today’s public educational system? What does the perfect “21st century” classroom look like?

  2. Are we back to this conversation or is it just one of those things that will always be part of the process as we embrace change?

    In my mind the issue should really be a discussion of knowledge, information and literacy. These three things have changed dramatically and as educators they define our responsibility, role and craft.

    The changes have not occurred overnight and teaching has changed some over time but there comes a point at which adding-on or remodeling is not the best approach. Then it is time to re-concieve the function and purpose. I think schools do need to change but mostly I think as educators we have a responsibility to think deeply about our function and purpose.

    The way I see it, ‘which tools and how’, follows from our understanding of knowledge, information and literacy

  3. Hi Matthew,

    You’re right. It was a bit of a big stick this morning (and, for the record, I think I can safely say that Sylvia is more empathetic with my views than her quote above may imply). But the first steps in any change initiative are confronting the brutal truth and creating dissatisfaction with the status quo. So, since I work a lot with administrators and teachers who are aren’t doing much to transition schools to the 21st century, I spend a great deal of time working on cognitive dissonance.

    Of course your point about “what can we do to be ‘right?’” is a good one. To be honest, I don’t think we know what all the answers are yet. I’ve blogged and written about some ideas in the past, as have many others. But we’re in the shake-out period, the early transition phase into something’s that radically different than before. It’s hard to discern at this point and time what it eventually will look like (did anyone know what impacts the printing press eventually would have on society a decade or two after it was invented?). But I think it’s probably going to involve:

    1. a computing device in every kid’s (and educator’s) hand, 24–7;
    2. ubiquitous high-speed wireless access to the Internet regardless of where you are on the globe; and
    3. a much greater emphasis on individualized, personalized, creative learning and higher-order thinking rather than low-level fact regurgitation.

    What will the specific tools be? What will the eventual pedagogical models look like? What forms will school organizations and classrooms take? Who knows? Right now I and others are working hard just to get educators to start thinking and talking about this stuff rather than ignoring it…

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I’m especially appreciative of contributors like you that push my thinking.

  4. The image in my mind now is a “driving school” that teaches you how to drive a horse-drawn carriage instead of a car. This government-funded school has long been obsolete but for an isolated few, including (importantly) those who plan to become buggy-driving teachers in the future. At every suggestion that perhaps they should teach people to drive cars instead, the response is, “Yeah, they’ve been saying that for years, so it can’t be true!”

    Scott is right that widespread dissatisfaction is a prerequisite condition to systemic change. Unfortunately, we’re more likely to hear complaints about saddlesores and poor rider posture than the fact that our students are wasting years of their life getting the wrong kind of education.

    It’s time to stop changing the saddle and the horseshoes while thinking we’re keeping up with the times.

    Fundamental, systemic reform is the only solution to schools continuing to be a mostly useless, very expensive waste of resources. What did you learn in school that made you a successful person today, and was conventional school the best environment to learn it?

  5. agree with Scott’s statement above about how we are really in a shakeout period. This a time of transition and of questions, and discussions like this one are iimportant to have and then have them again. In some ways it seems like the whole process we are experiencing with educational change seems to mimic elements of the learning process we probably want for our classrooms. Things like open-dialogue, varied opinions, reflective thought, and application in conjunction with evaluative measures.

    Sometimes as another edublogger often notes, learning is messy. That is a lesson that (along with learning to ask great questions) our students need exposure to.

    I think sometimes we are prone to look to someone to “give us the answer” and are quick to jump for that one right answer when the reality is not so neat and tidy that it can be wrapped up in one or two class periods.

  6. My comment above should have said “I agree with Scott’s statement” – somehow the I didn’t get in there 🙂

  7. Scott,
    I think a point that needs to be addressed here is one of literacy as well as technology. There is a common belief that to be a 21st century classroom or a 21st century teacher that one must posses a high level of tech savvy or have in their classrooms a laptop for every child.

    While a laptop and mobile devise for every child that would be nice, it does not make one 21st century. There are classrooms now with great technology still performing skill and drill, no thinking allowed exercises on computers.

    21st century education involves, both online and offline ways reading, writing, investigating,creating, and sharing. To engage with one another and the world at this level, our students must be able to think critically, communicate their understandings in opinions in articulate ways, and be able to show something worthwhile for their time in school.

    If Twitter, blogs, and wikis can enhance and improve our ability to this, than Bravo! But lets not lose sight that it is not the tool that makes us 21st century. It is still our ability to think and operate that tool in literate and progressive ways.

  8. Many of us view technology as tool to enhance teaching and learning. This view seems to make sense if we are were operating in the 20th century, but technology has fundamentally change society just as the printing press and movable type, just as the telegraph, then the telephone, radio, and T.V.

    When the Tacoma narrows bride was built, the primary focus was load bearing strength. But, the dynamics of the location (strong winds blowing through the canyon) caused the bridge to twist and collapse. The primary focus was no longer the key. A lower focus, in this case, aerodynamics, BECAME THE PRIMARY FOCUS.
    This is happening in education.

    The student of today can be his or her own publisher (blogs, wikis, Twitter, etc.), producer (iTunes, Flickr, YouTube, etc.), entrepreneur (eBay), group organizer, (social sites), precisely because of the technology. Technology has fundamentally changed our society.

    Teaching must adjust to the change in society. You can’t tell students to walk from a world of ubiquitous communication, connection, empowerment, to room where they sit quietly at their desks.

    And remember, it’s only technology if it came when you were older. It’s not technology if you grew up with it. Does anyone think T.V., radio, and telephones are technology?

  9. Just a question here based on Angela’s tools vs. learning and Rob’s list of what we no longer consider “technologies” as they are commonplace…Do we have to “teach” non-technologies?

    Bear with me a moment as I know we all want to move into the world of teaching 21st Century skills. Did anyone teach you how to use the TV, radio, or telephone? Why or why not? Did a teacher sit down and show you how to change a channel with the remote (the newest technology in TV viewing)?

    Are these not tools that we have learned because as consumers we want to know how to use them for a number of reasons? Will those individuals that have been born with the PDA in hand not be comfortable learning on his/her own and from others? Do we need to have inept (sorry, many of us are in this arena) adults TEACHING this skill that the youth already have a better grasp of due to their personal desires? Picture yourself being taught to use a cell phone that all of your friends have had for weeks or months) by your grandmother that grew up cranking the handle on the phone to get the one operator in town (Little House on the Prairie images here…). How effective is that really going to be?

    I don’t argue against the techology or the fact that things have changed dramatically. I only question whether we should be “teaching” the technology in schools or “accessing and utilizing” what our pupils already understand. Why not allow them to stretch and take us along for the ride?

    OK, so one question extended into several, but you get my point…I hope.

  10. I know I sometimes frustrate the visionaries because I often look for connections with the past for ways of making the future and change a bit more palatable to the “olden days” folks. I found myself often frustrated by the term 21st century skills. I felt like I had many of those skills even during the 20th century. So, I’ve dubbed them leadership skills: The big difference between the past and now is that everyone needs to be seen as a potential leader no matter what they may do when they leave school.

  11. I hope my comment above about the horse riding school wasn’t understood to mean that I was talking about what technologies we teach. I meant that we are “preparing kids” for a world that doesn’t exist.

    The shift from “riding school” to “driving school” is more than just whether we use a pencil or a keyboard to do the same old activities; it is a fundamental renegotiation of the terms of the teacher/learner arrangement: we (teachers) are front-seat passengers rather than holding the reins, we’re going way “off the trail” and into traffic, we’re teaching them how to make turns and go in reverse and brake and accelerate at speeds that were impossible on horses. And, importantly, we’re not so much trying to teach them the technology as how to use it get where they want.

    21st century skills in my mind are very well defined by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills framework ( We’re not going to get the student outcomes we want without changing the support systems for their learning.

  12. WWF(riere)D?: If we are ready to acknowledge proficiency w/ web 2.0 tools as essential to success in the (business/political/family/scholarly/community/etc…) world, then it is IMPERATIVE that we incorporate them into our work with learners. to my public school colleagues: you’d better believe prep schools, along with more traditional learning approaches, make sure their kids have mastery of these tools.

  13. Scott – I’m twelve deep on this one. Looks like you ruffled some feathers. Matthew is absolutely right though. We need solutions. Yesterday.

    Instead of my usual fashion of just adding fuel to the fire I thought I’d add this:


    “It’s high time we looked backward to regain an educational philosophy that works. One that I like particularly well has been a favorite of the ruling classes of Europe for thousands of years. I use as much of it as I can manage in my own teaching, as much that is as I can get away with … I think it works just as well for poor children as it does for rich ones.

    At the core of this elite system of education is the belief that self-knowledge is the only basis of true knowledge. Everywhere in this system, at every age, you will find arrangements that work to place the child alone in unguided setting with a problem to solve. Sometimes the problem is fraught with great risks, such as the problem of a galloping horse or making it jump, but that, of course, is a problem successfully solved by thousands of elite children before the age of ten. Can you imagine anyone who had mastered such a challenge ever lacking confidence in his ability to do anything? Sometimes the problem is the problem of mastering solitude, as Thoreau did a Walden Pond, or Einstein did in the Swiss customs house.

    Right now we are taking from our children all the time they need to develop self-knowledge. That has to stop. We have to invent school experience that give a lot of time back. We need to trust children from an early age with independent study, perhaps arranged in school, but which takes place away from the institutional setting. We need to develop curricula where each kid has a chance to develop private uniqueness and self-reliance.”
    -John Taylor Gatto Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling

    And because I just can’t help myself:

  14. I like the idea (forget where I saw it) about sending the lecture home (via podcast/dvd/cd/whatever). The lecture then becomes the homework and the classroom becomes the learning lab — complete with a teacher to model/share/guide/instruct towards independence.

  15. Karen said, “The big difference between the past and now is that everyone needs to be seen as a potential leader no matter what they may do when they leave school.”

    I agree. Also the big difference between the past and now it that everyone needs to seen as a potential TEACHER no matter what they may do when they leave school.

    And all those potential teachers can reach all those potential students through technology.

  16. I acknowledge that research shows that “most” classrooms over the last century tend to be instructionist. And that this is not changing.

    But when we talk about “change”, it’s never from what “most” classrooms do. It’s from a very narrow range of personal experience. It’s like saying you can remodel a skyscraper or a log cabin based on the same blueprints.

    Using contemporary tools and relevant materials in a classroom is just good teaching. It’s not something discovered in the past few years. Maybe the tools are better now, or maybe we’ve never taken advantage of the tools of any era.

    I understand how you want to shake people up and create cognitive dissonance so that they will open their eyes to the inadequate system called school. No question there. But once their eyes are open, is it new tools that will create change, or being open to teaching strategies that support the learner?

    I worry that all the Web 2.0 flurry is akin to convincing someone whose house is falling down that all they need is a new coat of paint.

    I question that cognitive dissonance is enough. If you stir up the dust, it will just settle back down unless something else fundamentally changes. Tools and checklists aren’t enough of a base to build new models of learning, it seems to me that fundamental pedagogies have to change as well.

    The good news is that technology offers support for more constructivist teaching and learning. The bad news is that it’s not a magic wand all by itself.

  17. KISS. I have to wonder if all the other countries that outpace The U.S. in educating their students use technology in their classrooms. How do other countries achieve so much more, with so much less?

    Should we be investing in dormatory style schools for urban areas? Laws that penalize parents for raising lazy, rude children? Laws that hold “media” companies accountable for “tainting” our children?

    We need to remove the negative aspects of technolgy from our children and return to the KISS educational strategies other countries are using. Technology is doing so much more damage than good right now it isn’t even funny.

  18. I knot this thread is old and I’m going to ignore that and say the comments and the argument do a decent job of admiring the problem. My worry in the work is not that people don’t recognize there needs to be a change, but that they aren’t quite sure (for numerous reasons) how and if they are empowered to make that change. Diana does a pretty lovely job in this post of setting up some questions and first steps to moving beyond this problem admiration toward ideas of what can be done –


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