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Education Reporter

Push for '21st-Century Skills'
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A variety of groups is calling on President Obama to make drastic changes in American education across all levels. Just as "Hope" and "Change" were the mantras of the new president's successful campaign, these groups have a mantra of their own: "21st-century skills."

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills describes itself as the "leading advocacy organization focused on infusing 21st century skills into education." The Department of Education worked with corporate giants such as Dell, Apple, Microsoft and AOL Time Warner, along with the National Education Association teachers union, to found the Partnership in 2002. This group has become very active in calling for legislators to promote these skills in schools.

The group Jobs for the Future links education and the economy and calls for the new president and Congress to take unprecedented control of both. The group calls for the government to create "more equitable economic and educational opportunity for less-skilled and low-income young people and adults."

The American Society for Quality (ASQ), a 90,000-member professional association, surveyed 500 teachers in the fall of 2008 on what they wanted from the new presidential administration. 52% of teachers said 21st-century skills should be the new administration's top educational priority. One objective to which the teachers gave the lowest priority was "eliminating budget waste and inefficiency in K-12 schools."

Maurice Ghysels, chair of ASQ's K-12 Education Advisory Committee, belittled the quality-and-standards movement's effort to hold schools accountable for improvement. "While No Child Left Behind has strived to improve test scores, it's clear that more needs to be done to improve problem-solving and critical thinking skills evident in these subjects," he said.

"Critical thinking" is one of the skills most often cited as an example of a 21st-century skill. Temple University professor Stephen Zelnick, for one, challenges the current use of the term "critical thinking" to indicate thinking skills divorced from the acquisition of knowledge.

According to Zelnick, the "critical thinking" movement arose as a movement to teach sound logic, a worthy goal by anyone's judgment. "The movement's novelty was in separating the goal of developing good thinking habits from the study of any particular body of knowledge," Zelnick writes. When college professors and other educators can't agree on what to teach — because the academy has rejected the idea of a canon of essential knowledge, such as Shakespeare, the Bible, and the classics — this "disagreement on content causes us to turn instead to a rubric of skills."

The 21st-century skills movement largely repackages such skills - critical thinking, information processing, problem-solving, and similar skills, often called "soft skills" because they don't normally require students to learn any hard facts. "Outcome Based Education," "criterion-referenced testing," and "mastery learning" were the 20th-century equivalents, translated into federal law through such initiatives as School-to-Work and Goals 2000.

"Critical thinking" and other 21st-century skills are far from ideologically neutral, as taught in most classrooms, says Zelnick. Students could learn critical thinking skills from analyzing opposing arguments, but instead, teachers too often hand them reading materials that summarize only one side of an argument. Because the materials criticize American institutions and history, teachers act as if students can learn "critical thinking" from reading these materials, without ever being exposed to authors who defend America's history, activities in the world, or Constitution.

"In my experience at Temple — a large state-related university — 'critical thinking' is intended to recruit the next generation of students into an oppositional force to carry out the struggle for social justice, a renovation thought to be urgently needed in an ideologically blind-folded America," writes Zelnick. "If colleges really want students to be able to think critically, they could start by insisting that professors not use books in which all the authors are pushing the message that students should be unfailingly hostile to our culture and institutions. Teaching students to regurgitate anti-American sentiments is not the same as teaching them critical thinking skills," he concludes. (Popecenter.org, 11-25-08)

In the K-12 classroom, the pursuit of 21st-century skills usually means that teachers emphasize technology, group work, and project-based learning. "In a project-based-learning unit, teachers are no longer the focal point of the classroom or the expounders of information," explains a recent Education Week article (1-7-09). "For the most part, students rely on their classmates' expertise, on experimentation, and on outside sources of information to solve the problem at hand."

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