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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

VSS2007 - Virtual Schools and 21st Century Skills

This was a panel discussion by Julie Young of the Florida Virtual School, Allyson Knox from Microsoft Corporation, and Tim Magner of the Office of Educational Technology for the federal DOE. I imagine it largely came about because of the report that NACOL prepared with the Partnership for 21st Century Skills earlier this year (see Virtual Schools and 21st Century Skills).

While I don't want all of my entries about the Virtual School Symposium to seem negative or critical, but I have to ask where is the research supporting this notion. I know that the media talks all of the time about this topic, but the media is also always talking about millennials and other labels for today's student and there is little reliable and valid research to support any of the differences that the proponents of these generational differences claim.

For example, one of the slides that the person from Microsoft brought up included:
Life and Career skills
  • flexibility and adaptability
  • initiative and self-direction
  • social and cross-cultural skills
  • and two others that I didn't get typed in before she moved to the next slide...
I'm just wondering which of these skills weren't valued in the workforce prior to the twenty-first century or which of these skills that my father or grandfather didn't possess. My grandfather only completed formal school up to grade eight, as he went to work in the fishery when he was fourteen as way the norm for young men in rural Newfoundland. And while he worked in the fishery for most of his life, eventually becoming a captain of a government boat, he also enlisted during World War II and was sent to England to train for the eventual invasion of Europe. He went from being a fishing captain to a member of the artillery. He fought in Europe in France and Belgium as a member of the artillery, nothing to do with being a fishing boat captain or anything to do with the fishery or the sea in general. He served alongside soldiers from England and her colonies (and other Commonwealth countries), France, and the United States. These soldiers came from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. I'm wondering what skills my grandfather, who only received nine years of formal education, lacked in terms of what the panelists think lacked in terms of the skills outlined as twenty-first century skills.

When Julie Young began to speak, she referenced a report that was completed by the 21st Century Skills people that reported on a survey of private sector companies about what skills they felt today's graduates were lacking (see
Are They Really Ready to Work? - at least I think that this is the report in question). The list that she mentioned during the panel included: ability to write effectively, professionalism, collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving. Then within 90 seconds she made the comment, "What we do very well in this country is teach students to take tests, we don't teach them how to think."

Now, isn't that the truth. Maybe the issue isn't that the skills needed to be successful in the workforce in the twenty-first century aren't all that different than the skills necessary to be successful in the twentieth century or even the nineteenth century, but that schools are just not doing as good a job today as they were ten years ago or twenty years ago or a hundred years ago. So you have to ask yourself what has changed in the United States from then to now that has cause all of these ill-prepared graduates? I think that Julie Young has hit the nail on the head with her teaching to take tests comment.

In the United States, there is a fact fetish in the current political administration. Students must learn the facts, and we need to test these facts, and make sure that students perform well on these tests. And if they don't perform as well as we want, we'll decrease their funding, fire their teachers, essentially publish the school for those failing grades. Let's forgot about the fact that many of the reasons that these students don't perform well often have little to do with the quality of teachers they have access to or the quality of instruction that they receive. To illustrate how ill-informed this notion is, I suggest that you read No Dentist Left Behind.

Before I went into the academy, I was a social studies teacher. When I look at the amount of social studies that is actually taught at the elementary and middle school levels in the United States I get depressed. The reality is that most states do not test social studies and because schools are punished for not performing, subject areas that are not tested get left out. So maybe this whole issue of twenty-first century skills are actually regular career skills that have existed long before the twenty-first century, and the only difference is that because of the political climate of education in the United States schools simply aren't preparing students at the same competency that they used to - through no fault of their own.

The bottom line is that as I listen to the panelists, I don't hear what you would expect - talk about technology skills that are necessary to be successful in the twenty-first century. The soft skills that seem to be included as a part of this initiative simply don't measure up to any kind of research-based support that I would expect to see.

Finally, I should note that apparently that the 21st Century Skills people will be releasing a database called Route 21 that will be released tomorrow morning at http://www.21stcenturyskills.org.

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