Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Thinking Critically about 21st-Century Skills

vonzastrowc's picture

In his recent U.S. News & World Report commentary on twenty-first century skills, Andy Rotherham creates a bit of a straw man. He writes:

Schools, the 21st-century skills argument goes, focus too much on teaching content at the expense of essential new skills such as communication and collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving, and concepts like media literacy and awareness.

Is that really how the argument goes? I'm not so sure. Most 21st-century skills advocates, including those in the Partnership for 21st-Century Skills (P21), see content knowledge and 21st-century skills as closely linked, even mutually dependent.

To his credit, Rotherham echoes this sentiment when he criticizes those who would "establish a false choice between teaching facts and teaching how to approach them." He writes--quite rightly--that many "21st-century skills" have in fact been important for millennia. (Surely Aristotle, Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass and Marie Curie were critical thinkers, for example.) Yet he also makes the important point that those skills "can no longer be the province of a few." They're skills for--rather than exclusively of--the 21st century.

Rotherham warns us against "21st-century skills proponents" who "believe that these skills should replace the teaching of content." Okay.... But it's doubtful such people have deeply infiltrated the 21st-century skills movement. Rotherham himself generously distinguishes P21's president as "one of the most thoughtful proponents of the idea," yet P21 is by far the biggest game going in the 21st-century skills arena.

We should certainly never stop pressing the case for content knowledge. Without knowledge, 21st-century skills would atrophy for lack of exercise. Much content knowledge taught in schools is after all the invaluable legacy of forebears (both figurative and literal) who themselves used "21st-century" skills to fuel human progress--intellectual, social and moral. Even in a cynical age, it's nice to think that we can build on that foundation.

But let's not forget that facts devoid of context are as meaningless as they are boring. Many schools do need help embedding them in a program that teaches critical thinking, effective communication, and other skills that have become all the more critical in the new century. Structured, systematic efforts to integrate these skills into the curriculum play an important role in school improvement.

Ultimately, Rotherham's article offers a much-needed reminder that any reform can founder on poor implementation. It's always easy and tempting to oversimplify the means of reform while understating the risks. That's a danger to which reformers of all stripes can fall prey.

I'm not sure Andy is building

I'm not sure Andy is building a straw man as much as he's recognizing the what I would describe as the Murphy's Law of Education: Every good idea becomes a bad idea as soon as it becomes orthodoxy.

Like teaching for understanding, learning to learn, critical thinking, etc., as soon as the idea gets traction that the goal of education is some Big Idea, it turns into nothing matters but the Big Idea. More specifically, it becomes content and curriculum don't matter, only the Big Idea. We quickly forget that without content and curriculum, the Big Idea doesn't work.

Apologies, I don't much care

Apologies, I don't much care for anonymous comments and didn't mean to post the above without attribution.

Robert Pondiscio

Robert, Thanks for your


Thanks for your comment--and apologies for the enforced anonymity.  We're still working on that.

You make a very good point--Many innovations and reforms can become caricatures of themselves when enthusiasts drain them of all nuance and regard them as orthodoxy.  Your points about content and curriculum are reasonable: It's disheartening to see just how few of the reformers we hear about in the media have any interest at all in curriculum (or instruction, for that matter).

Andy does offer a useful caution against reductive or either/or thinking, which, after all, can doom many promising reform ideas.  That said, I do think he indulges in some either/or thinking of his own, perhaps to strengthen his point.  That, in itself, can make constructive discussions about reform more difficult.

Andy's characterizations of 21st-century skills proponents strikes me as unfair. For the most part, they would not subscribe to the beliefs he attributes to them.