Sunday, June 3, 2012

21st century skills: look not to the future, but to the past

If one listens to 21st century employers rather than to 21st century education experts, the biggest skills deficits in this high-tech century of ours aren't in "collaborative skills," "meta-cognitive skills" and "creativity" (especially as defined by education experts), but, more than ever before, in technical skills (especially those relating to engineering, programming, and basic numeracy).

Why are there deficits in technical skills? People tend to assume it's because schools haven't kept up with technology. The solution? More computers in the classrooms, more Internet access, more Smart Boards--in short, more technology. But the real problem is that, thanks to a combination of Reform Math "math" reform, and declining math proficiency among elementary school teachers, fewer and fewer students master the foundational math skills through Algebra II (at the bare minimum) that technical skills require.

When people talk about the need for schools to adjust to the 21st century, they tend to assume that schools need to be more forward thinking than they currently are. I haven't heard a single high-profile "expert" state that schools should instead should be looking backwards. But, for all the ways in which the 21st century is different from all preceding ones, the foundational math and programming skills needed for 21st century technology haven't changed. The frontiers of math are, of course, always advancing, but not its foundations. The same is true of computer programming.

For programming skills, schools should look backwards to the 1980s when electives and after-school clubs included basic programming and computers were better suited to such programming. (For basic programming skills, schools are arguably better off using old TRS 80s than 21st century PCs). For math skills, schools should look backwards even further, to the 1950s, the last time most American math textbooks covered foundational math in sufficient depth and rigor and taught basic skills to mastery--and looked anything like the kind of math text still used by most developed countries around the world whose students are increasingly outperforming ours not just in math, but in all those technical fields that depend on math.

Ironically, so-called "21st century skills" curricula, like that which Pearson Publishing has foisted on the Montgomery County, Maryland, Public Schools, water down technical skills in favor of the kind of "collaborative skills," "meta-cognitive skills" and "creativity" that no employer is asking schools to teach.  Montgomery County's implementation of Pearson's curriculum appears to go even further, supplanting the earlier Math Pathways program that allowed capable students to attend above-grade-level math classes.

In practice, more lap tops, more ipads, more Internet access, and more Smart Boards also water down the technical aspects of the curriculum, distracting students and teachers away from teaching and learning math skills to mastery, and from rigorous, focused mathematical and computational problem solving. Technology in the classroom may help create a generation of 21st century consumers, but not of gainfully employed 21st century producers.


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

While I agree with most of your post here, I respectfully disagree with "For basic programming skills, schools are arguably better off using old TRS 80s than 21st century PCs."

The Scratch and Python programming languages will get more students to a higher level of programming skill faster than the BASIC interpreter of the TRS80. Once they have achieved some fluency in programming, it may be worthwhile for them to explore other programming languages and lower-level embedded systems (perhaps using devices like the Arduino).

It is much easier nowadays for students to learn programming than it was in the 80s. It is truly sad that so few choose to do so, and that so few schools support those who wish to.

Paul Bruno said...

It got published in a somewhat delayed fashion, but as I say here, I think 21st century employers are as confused about this as anybody.