Monday, March 9, 2009

The Great Content Debate

There has been a really interesting debate raging about 21st Century Skills and content in education. It seems that many in education think 21st Century Skills is counter to learning content. You can read about their views here:

It is an interesting debate. Both sides make good points, but I find myself stuck in the middle. Why is teaching content counter to the goals of teaching 21st century skills? I for one can not question the need to learn deeply about a topic in order to have relevant arguments. I believe one must understand their topic in order to speak, write, or present on it. But where I believe 21st Century Skills is more than just a fad is in the way in which it shifts our understanding of how we access that content, process that content, and communicate our learning about that content.

There is no denying that content is more readily available today than ever before. However, that content is hiding amid millions of webpages, ads, and other distractions. If we don't teach our students how to effectively sift through the morass of information that bogs so many of us down, we will instead limit our students to either ignore the hordes of valuable information online or give equal value to all the content online. Handing kids a textbook and asking them to ignore the topical, thoughtful information that is available 24/7 is like teaching kids how to write essays on slate boards. It doesn't prepare them for the world they are already participating in.

The challenge we have as teachers is we are being asked to use tools that are essential to our students future, yet somewhat foreign to many of us. In addition, we are struggling to find the time to explore these tools to create meaningful opportunities for our students to learn how to use them. At the same time, we are feeling a great deal of pressure to get up to speed quickly. We don't want to feel responsible for ill-preparing our students.

One thing is for sure, content alone will not prepare our students for a world in which technology is changing the way we access information, connect with others socially and professionally, and organize our lives. On the other hand, technology skills alone will not prepare our students to make deep connections, solve meaningful problems, or communicate in significant ways.

We need both.

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  1. Hi
    I don't think that anyone disagrees with your basic point--that we need both content and skills. (It would be pretty hard to make the case that we don't.) The argument is over whether the specific plan that P21 has put forward is going to deliver skills and content to students. I've argued that there are significant problems in the methods they advocate--that these methods sound plausible, even obvious, but they overlook some fundamentals about how the mind works. My argument dovetails well with that of Diane Ravitch, the historian. She basically says "Most or all of this has been tried before, and it didn't work." Content comes up a lot, because of this historical context--when similar plans didn't work in the past, it was frequently because content got jettisoned.
    So I think the P21 goals are great, but I think their plan is terrible.

  2. Dan-
    Thanks for your reply. I guess I am having trouble in this debate separating P21 from the general discussion of 21st Century Skills. I admit that the term has become watered down and lost meaning as we use it to represent all kinds of things. However, I think it is still worth pointing out that there are clearly some new skills that need to be addressed in order to better prepare our students for the future that awaits them. Technology both complicates and enriches our lives. Furthermore, it is fundamentally changing how we interact, communicate, and learn. As for skills like critical thinking, innovation, and problem solving, I agree that they have been around forever, but I would argue that we have allowed them to become overshadowed by basic skills recently. I also believe that new tools have changed the way we innovate, problem solve, and think critically. For example, online collaborative tools allow us to do these things with people across time and space. This has changed the way we share our ideas, gather input, build on other peoples' ideas, etc... Our students need these types of opportunities.

  3. Hi Dave, I was just reading this article emerging technologies in education. Sort of relates to this topic. Check out this link.