Wednesday, December 12, 2012

When skills trump content

The BC edplan, along with most incarnations of 21st Century Learning, calls for a reduction in specificity of learning outcomes in favour of more integration of skill based learning. This is part of a world wide push by business and education think tanks. The underlying theme is to repurpose schools into training centres for the workplace by replacing a broad liberal arts education with a much stronger focus on job training.

The recent changes in the US curriculum give us an idea of what this means when it reaches classrooms. The new Common Core standards will mandate that 70% of high school reading is non-fiction, or "informational text". To do this, there will be a significant reduction in literature in the curriculum. As many commentators have pointed out, literature is probably what engages most students in developing a love of reading and books, so why a school system would limit the relative amount of literature to other reading while claiming to want to engage children certainly seems odd. It also minimizes the role of schools in developing appreciation for literature and creative writing and the personal fulfillment that accompanies exposure to our rich literary traditions. Here is how the British newspaper, The Telegraph, reported the change:

" American literature classics are to be replaced by insulation manuals and plant inventories in US classrooms by 2014.

A new school curriculum which will affect 46 out of 50 states will make it compulsory for at least 70 per cent of books studied to be non-fiction, in an effort to ready pupils for the workplace.

Books such as JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird will be replaced by "informational texts" approved by the Common Core State Standards.

Suggested non-fiction texts include Recommended Levels of Insulation by the the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the Invasive Plant Inventory, by California's Invasive Plant Council.

The new educational standards have the backing of the influential National Governors' Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, and are being part-funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "

A closer look at the "skills" agenda reveals some subtle and some not so sublte undertones.

Critical thinking is almost always included in proposed curricular changes, and certainly should be. But what is the definition of critical thinking? Many of the examples in the 21st Century literature apply this term in an entrepreneurial way looking at problem solving and technology, rather than the historical meaning of critical thinking of identifying bias and interests and determining opinions and beliefs.

For example, a lovely video on the Partnership for 21st Century Skills website shows a student thinking outside the box when she takes her premade kit for a toy car and instead creates an airplane. This is meant to demonstrate critical thinking and creativity - two of the four "C"s in the Partnerships list of 21st Century Skills.

In this example, the "critical" part of critical thinking is going beyond the status quo of the kit provided - that is, using the materials for a purpose other than the one originally intended. While this may be a wonderful attribute (and worth teaching), it is not the type of critical thinking that participants in a democracy need. It is the type of critical thinking that entrepreneurs in a growth based, competitive economy need. It is better described as problem solving rather than critical thinking and therefore to call it critical thinking is misleading.

Critical thinking for decision making requires the ability to analyse information to identify points of view and bias, and use this analysis to develop beliefs and opinions. Students need to understand that information is not value neutral and that democratic decision making includes an understanding whose interests are served with a given set of ideas. 

There is danger in promoting a type of critical thinking whose end goal is merely technological advancement or a product that will sell in the marketplace.  Or put another way, there is a danger in confusing problem solving with critical thinking. If we do, we might ignore or omit genuine critical thinking altogether in favour of entrepreneurial problem solving.

A second example of the subtle ideological undertone in the skills agenda relates to "citizenship". The notion of citizenship is contained in the curriculum of many democratic jurisdictions, as it should be. In my opinion, it should include or even prioritize the notion of democratic citizenship.

Yet much of the 21st Century literature is reframing citizenship using the terminology "ethical citizenship" or "social responsibility". Again, these terms really have different meanings.

Democratic citizenship describes the role of an individual within a group or social structure that involves democratic decision making. Both ethical citizenship and social responsibility focus on individual actions in moral terms - am I behaving respectfully or ethically towards another person. Again, teaching social responsibility is important and necessary. But the concern is that by reframing citizenship towards individual ethical behaviour, we lose the focus on democracy and replace it with personal ethics.

The C21 Canada paper "Shifting Minds" contains the word democracy only once. And yet public schooling should have as one of its primary functions the preparation of citizens to be active participants in democratic process. Instead, the words innovation, entrepreneurism, financial and economic appear frequently. The focus is a shift indeed - away from a school system serving our individual and social well being and toward one serving economic interests.

1 comment:

  1. Another great piece. 21C learning is a commodity: something to be measured, bought, and sold.