Iowa – 21st century curricula

[This is Post 1 for my guest blogging stint at The Des Moines Register.]

Archimedes said “Give me a lever long enough and I can move the world.” This week I will be blogging about 5 key levers that I think are necessary to move Iowa schools forward and help our graduates survive and thrive in this new digital, global age in which we now live. Today I am going to emphasize the work that is being done by the Iowa Department of Education and others regarding 21st century curricula.

Those of you who regularly follow Linda Fandel’s two blogs here at The Des Moines Register know that last year Iowa became the seventh state to join the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, an initiative designed to “position 21st century skills at the center of US K-12 education by building collaborative partnerships among education, business, community and government leaders.” These so-called 21st century skills are those needed by Iowa graduates to be competitive in a global information economy:


Why are these skills so important? Because the rise of digital information and communication technologies such as e-mail, instant messaging, videoconferencing, and the Internet have virtually eliminated the workplace barriers of geography and time. It is now about as easy to work with people halfway across the globe as it is with folks halfway across town. As a result, information, money, and ideas criss-cross the globe at dizzying speeds and work moves to the location of lowest cost or greatest expertise. This puts an extraordinary amount of pressure on the Western wage premium: why pay an American worker such a high salary when someone in another country will do the same work for less?

So we have company after company, task force after task force, and commission after commission telling us that the skills listed above are important because they’re the ones that enable American workers and companies to differentiate themselves from others across the globe. They’re the skills that justify higher American wages and benefits. They’re the skills that drive American creativity and innovation. Economists have shown quite clearly that the only growth in the American workforce is occurring in “creative class” professions that involve critical thinking, complex communication, collaborative problem-solving, and other more-abstract skills:



If you turn that second line chart into a stacked bar chart, it looks like this:


If we look at just the two ends of this last chart, we see the fundamental dilemma. Our K-12 schools, which were created for an era when 3/4 of American workers were involved in agricultural or manual labor jobs, are now expected to function in an environment in which about 3/4 of our workers are now in more cognitively complex service or creative professions:


But we hear from American corporations that they’re having great difficulty finding workers who possess the skills needed to do these jobs, which is why they’re either hiring people from other countries or taking jobs overseas.

If Americans wish to retain their economic preeminence, our schools have to change. The rest of the world is catching up to us and creative, innovative, problem-solving (which requires deep conceptual, rather than shallow procedural, understanding) is American students’ weakest area on international assessments. If Iowa workers are to be globally competitive, they will need schools to help them acquire a different set of skills than they have needed in the past.

Is the Iowa education system up to the challenge? Only time will tell. But a critical step to making this transition is the creation of curricula that emphasize student acquisition of 21st century skills rather than regurgitation of discrete facts and low-level procedural knowledge. This will be an extremely difficult change for Iowa schools to make. We all have mental models, primarily informed by our own school experiences, of what school should look and be like. We cannot hang on to those models and expect our graduates to be successful in a vastly different economic climate. We cannot simply sprinkle 21st century skills like fairy dust on top of what we’re already doing. Instead, we must fundamentally realign the curricula and instruction that occurs within our schools in order to produce the workers and citizens that we need.

The Iowa Core Curriculum, particularly the aspects related to 21st century skills, is intended to get us where we need to go. Iowa citizens need to educate themselves about the Core and start asking tough questions about vision, development, implementation, funding, training, and support of their legislators, local school board members, and the Department of Education. Inaction is not an option, nor is tweaking the status quo, as both are losing strategies in a rapidly-changing digital, global economy.

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Scott McLeod, J.D., Ph.D., is an Associate Professor and coordinator of the Educational Administration program at Iowa State University. He also is Director of the UCEA Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education (CASTLE). He blogs regularly at

11 Responses to “Iowa – 21st century curricula”

  1. Scott:

    Nobody, but nobody is suggesting 21st Century skills are not a desired outcome for schools in Iowa or anywhere. But I’m deeply skeptical that P21 has the answer of how to do it. I’ve written extensively about this over the the Core Knowledge blog, but the indispensible thinker and writer on this is Dan Willingham. He put up a piece today over at Brittanica blog that outlines a number of insupportable assumptions that P21 is making that have enormous ramifications for teaching and learning. His post is here:

    I absolutely agree that we need to equip kids with not just academic content but help them to become agile thinkers. But P21 has shown us no evidence that they know how to do this.

    A diagnosis is not a cure.

  2. Kia ora Scott

    I agree with Robert in that ‘diagnosis is not a cure’. But observation can lead to diagnosis and can also provide pathways to find a cure.

    You have presented a wealth of observation here and I thank you for this summary of how you see it.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

  3. New Jersey has chosen the blue pill, and despite (or God help us because of) P21 came up with the following nonsense:

    “For years, many high schools educated students differently, depending on their plans for the future.

    Now, because of all the changes in the world, all graduates will need to have the same knowledge and skills.”

    I agree with you that “regurgitation of discrete facts and low-level procedural knowledge” is a poor excuse for education. I also agree that a child who develops critical thinking skills makes for a better employee for creative/analytical industries.

    I disagree, however, that we need to convert our public schools into training grounds to fill Cisco’s 2029 workforce. Given the current economic slide, even a PhD may not get you a well-paying job. My kids may be better served learning subsistence living skills.

    I can help students develop critical thinking skills as they learn to knead, weave, sow, and ponder.

  4. Part of the problem is many of the state standards include the skills you reference as part of their content standards. So “public speaking” is part of reading standards or “problem solving” is part of math. Even the legislation authorizing No Child Left Behind: talks about states incorporating skills in their standards and assess higher order thinking skills.

  5. It looks to me as though Willingham’s account is just as flawed as P21’s. He misses the central point of “focus on 21st century skills”. Yes, Spielberg must learn cinema content knowledge to become brilliant at cinema. The point is, schools do not have the resources to teach Spielberg advanced cinema, Torre the logistics of baseball, Baryshnikov advanced ballet, and Eric Schmidt advanced principles of cloud computing. With the myriad of content out there, schools must choose, and they will always leave someone out.

    The key is to teach students how to learn that advanced content on their own–to become life-long learners. No one is arguing that teachers aren’t cognitively limited; they are. But that is (or should be) irrelevant. To continue the transmission model of education, where teachers have all the knowledge and students have to get it in the approved way, will continue to stunt the growth of students.

    Willingham’s 3rd point is much better. Students must be taught how to collaborate, to think critically, etc. This has to be made tangible. And this is valid criticism of what 21st century skill “folk” (myself included) have not done very well.

  6. I have an unproven economic theory that goes, “There’s never been an invention that was solely used in the manner for which it was invented.” So the car found hundreds of uses no intended by the creators. The technology that Scott asks that teachers use will find applications greater than the ones intended. You can’t ignore this technology.

  7. Okay, since no one else has mentioned the elephant in the room, I will. How many of these skills are associated with intelligence? We do not live in Lake Wobegon. What businesses are saying is that they can do more with smarter, more flexible and creative workers. I know I’m shocked by that revelation. Next thing they’ll tell me may be that the NBA to recruits people who are not only athletic, but tall as well!

  8. Including those skills in education is a fine idea, but ignoring the realities of differing abilities is foolhardy.

    Effective communication is so strongly associated with intelligence that people who can read teleprompters well are seen as far more intelligent than they actually are and people who can not express themselves effectively are not given due weight.

    Identifying key points,breaking down problems, making connections, being able to compare and contrast several different ideas or concepts are not equally distributed skills. They can be improved for almost all people, but educators are not able to just order up a round of smarter people.

    It is quite obvious in everyday life that many people are lacking in critical thinking, communication, adaptability, and problem solving skills. I find it difficult to believe that the method of their education is the major, or even significantly contributing factor to that situation.

    I started my undergraduate education in 1990, by graduation many of my science and mathematics classmates were working in an industry that had not existed when we began (the World Wide Web), and were in high demand. Why? Because the level of adaptability and problem solving required for the field at the time was rare and highly valued. They would have been creative and excellent problem solvers in any field, there just happened to be a sudden market demand. More market demand will not magically produce more ability.

    • Bill, isn’t it exactly these kinds of beliefs that have held poor and minority children back for decades? If cognitive, sociological, and educational research have taught us anything, it’s that ‘nurture’ is just as important as ‘nature’ and that notions of intelligence as ‘fixed’ are both outdated and viciously harmful. We have countless examples of instances where kids that society (and, apparently, you?) have given up on because they’re ‘just not smart’ are quite successful because we’ve changed the environments around them. Douglas Reeves’ 90-90-90 schools, the schools profiled by Chenoweth in ‘It’s Being Done,’ the work done by the Education Trust, etc. all belie the notion that some kids just aren’t ‘smart’ enough. The ones who aren’t smart enough are the educators and policymakers who haven’t figured out yet – or are unwilling to – reexamine our practices and structures to do what’s right for kids. I, and the scientific community at large, emphatically deny your assertion.

  9. In fact I said that almost all people’s skills can be improved, which is exactly what the research shows. Research also shows that genetics, nutrition, and environment are far greater contributing factors than education is.

    Changes in educational policy will not bring a significant number of people to the level that the “Creative Class” requires any more than changes in Physical Education and School Nutrition Programs will cut down on obesity. That does not mean that we should do nothing, but expecting a large percentage of them
    to become adaptable, media-savvy, creative problem solvers is as unrealistic as expecting them to become star athletes.

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