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On Pervasive Myopia

Ever the optimist, I always read reports on 21st-century whatever (e.g., skills, competencies, curriculum, etc.) with the hope that there may be some glimmer of recognition of the life-force of teaching and learning, as opposed to policy-wonk interpretations of what ‘education’ means now. So it was that I immersed myself in a seventy-page PDF from the Asia Society and Rand Corporation (aka a Global Cities Education Network report) entitled Measuring 21st-Century Competencies: Guidance for Educators (November 2013). 

The authors mention in the second sentence that “’21st century skills’ or ’21st century competencies’ have recently taken a more central role in policy discussions, because they are seen as critical components of college and career readiness,” an observation that I find somewhat frightening, if only because one must wonder now whether some policy wonks will force through a new, prescriptive–and therefore restrictive–education policy, complemented by the launch of a cottage industry from folks who have ridden the past three or four waves. And I must admit a growing dissatisfaction with the moniker 21st century, when we are almost at the end of the second decade of the 21st century — 1/5 of the way through it. How’s that for perspective?

The report focuses rather myopically on how to measure those competencies. At face value, that may sound good…perhaps laudable. Admittedly, the authors note that the point of the report is to share what measures are available, so that educators might contemplate the choices, and late in the report they do a nice job of underscoring the imperfections in nascent measures. Yet one cannot help but feel that by trying to force these skills/competencies into an easily-quantifiable model, we perpetuate the notion that assessment is too often transactional rather than transformational. So, with my digital highlighter, I made sixty-two annotations, some of which I will share here, in an effort to shine a light on some points to be teased out in conversations amongst educators (being learners ourselves).

Grit – this report relies heavily on grit as a key 21st century skill. In the past few years, the notion of grit has resulted in a number of books and speaking engagements for those involved, yet there has been growing criticism of grit, whether from the research angle (“too early to tell its impact”) or from those who see the cottage industry around grit as representative of another syndrome invented on behalf of privileged students who struggle in some capacity with school. I hesitate to refer to grit as a 21st century skill. I’d prefer to think of it as a hallmark of character. A great example of the problem with grit comes much later in the report, where the authors try to distinguish between motivation and application of grit by stating that a student who can’t stay with a project over time shows a lack of grit. My thought: what if the project is fundamentally awful? Grit would have nothing to do with it. The learning experience would be faulty, by design, and that’s not the student’s fault.

Academic mastery – under the rubric of cognitive competencies, the authors engage the notion of ‘mastery of core content.’ What does that term mean? As presented here, it means content delivered via instruction in subject silos. The term instruction has such a clinical feel to it, and it reinforces the traditional system of ‘the teacher teaches, and the student learns.’ Always instruction, and never learning. Schools are learning ecosystems, especially now, yet this insistence on ‘instruction’ upholds the traditional paradigm, which I suggest is at odds with the entire notion of contemporary skills/competencies. A fundamental question that this voluminous report fails to treat at all is content versus concept, and that is an important debate to frame and nurture.

Critical thinking – while this report does suggest the existence of some variability in defining ‘critical thinking,’ it adheres to the primacy of deductive and inductive reasoning, without offering consideration of abductive reasoning. How does a report that purports to embrace the notion of creativity exclude entirely the realm of abductive reasoning, which is central to creative problem-solving?

Creativity – a disappointing highlight occurs when the authors endeavour to treat creativity, stating that, essentially, no one has come up with a better definition of creativity than that proffered in a 1965 study. The definition? “Unusualness, appropriateness, and transformation in varying combinations characterise a large proportion of those things we are willing to call creative.” The first word alone is cause for alarm.

Global Awareness – if one were to follow the ‘competencies’ that the authors suggest inform the notion of global awareness (such as sensitivity and empathy, one would simply equate contemporary skills/competencies with being ‘globally aware’. There is no mention of cultural growth, i.e., a methodical move away from a monocultural point of view.

Leadership and Innovation – as is typical in so many things I read, the authors make a number of assumptions about leadership, specifically as it relates to innovation and strategy. It is clear that they understand neither ‘innovation’ nor ‘strategy.’ The idea that leaders need to be “innovating new strategies” shows a predilection for the uninformed gibberish about innovation and strategy that one encounters in the popular media. It is void of substance and/or insight.

Start-Ups vs College Readiness — the authors try to play it both ways, talking on the one hand about contemporary skills as being necessary for running start-ups (have they run one?), but also as being intrinsically necessary for college readiness. That sounds like a policy wonk trying to gain broad support for an initiative. Also, shouldn’t we be asking what ‘college readiness’ really means today? What if a graduate wanted to start a company right out of school, rather than attend university? How do we feel about that?

How students respond to classroom instruction — This phrase rubs me the wrong way. How they ‘respond’ to it? Because it is delivered AT them? This phrase shows ignorance toward the notion of having students collaborate as part of learning.

Core academic content – “Research shows that, without motivation of some type, students are unlikely to master core academic content.”  Have we considered that the content mastery paradigm may be part of the systemic problem, as opposed to external motivation? This very position stands in opposition to deep learning.

Achievement – this term rears its head over and over throughout the report, along with test-score gains. Here is a thought: what if, instead of ‘achievement, we began to focus on the impact or transformation that students make in their worlds?

Practical considerations for these kinds of assessments — the authors refer directly/overtly to ease of training, ease of scoring, ease of administration, and ease of technological implementation. Sadly, it sounds as if Frederick Taylor’s early work on industrial standardisation is alive and well — and completely at odds with what competencies are called for in today’s paradigm. Why can we not wean ourselves from Taylor? Even Frederick Kelly, shortly after Taylor’s time, who had advocated for standardisation in testing, later spent much of his career advocating a move away from such testing. Sadly, the die had been cast.

Technology – the authors’ perspective on technology, as evidenced in how they write about it, is indicative of the larger problem with technology that pervades education. Technology is viewed as a delivery mechanism alone, as opposed to a putative problem-solving and creative tool itself. Moreover, there is no production element associated with its utilisation. At best, it is transactional. No wonder Hattie cites that use of technology doesn’t show any marked increase in learning. We can’t get past considering it as a transactional tool.

Teaching 21st century competencies — the problem with this notion is that we somehow have to “teach” these competencies, rather than create a learning ecosystem in which they are gained through experience.

My favourite – “Administrators reported that making teachers more comfortable with imperfection is key to using measures of 21st century competencies effectively in the classroom.”  Here is a thought: what about, instead of making them more comfortable with imperfection, we spent time helping them to experience the competencies themselves, then fostering an environment where it occurs naturally? It should have nothing to do with being ‘more comfortable with imperfection.’ Imperfection based on what? Industrial-age thinking about success in education.

The ending of the ‘study’ is rather lacklustre. The authors state that, despite all the advancements in measurement and technology, some competencies still cannot be measured well. One certainly does not need to ponder 70 pages of digital PDF to come to that obvious conclusion. I’d suggest that, perhaps because we conceive of ‘measurement’ in the same way we’ve always conceived of it, as opposed to its potential of being user-generated and shared, we will be unable to move past where we are now.

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