These are the thoughts and ramblings of a techy English teacher.

28th February 2011


Attack on 21st Century Skills Education

Twitter brought me the following article from Common Core (a core standards, back to basics organization? I’m not sure exactly what they represent):

My response is below the blog post from “Emma Bryant.” They have kept it in moderation for over 24 hours for some reason. 

Need Content? Just Google It!

Common Core’s critique of the 21st century skills movement has highlighted the opinions of a host of scholars including Dan WillinghamDiane Ravitch, and E.D. Hirsch, each of whom exposed deep flaws in the program put forth by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Today, we’re bringing you the observations of another expert. And, this time, it is someone tasked with delivering 21st century skills-based education every day.

Emma Bryant is a pseudonym for a teacher at a New Tech High School. There are 62 New Tech High Schools in 14 states across the country. Substantial funding from corporations and foundations ensures that these schools are outfitted with all of the best and latest learning technology. And, even though the New Tech Network’s website says that the schools’ mission is to help students gain both ”the knowledge and skills they need,” skills take top priority–at least according to Emma.

Over the course of the next few months Common Core will be publishing a series of guest blogs by Emma, who will be describing her first-hand experience with 21st century-skills education.


I teach in a school that typifies skills-based education. We practice project based learning, utilize the latest technology, and hold to a mission of helping our students acquire “21st century skills.” We work diligently to replace traditional classroom norms with those of corporate culture so that our students will someday thrive in an increasingly competitive global marketplace — a new world demanding innovation, collaboration, and critical thinking.

Unfortunately, bowing to the norms of 21st century business interests leaves little room anything else. Literature, poetry, music, theater, or even a solid understanding of history are either omitted or given short shrift in favor of developing skills. Utility takes precedence over “fluff” and most content, after all, can be Googled anyway.

So, how does my school help build the much-hyped 21st century skills? Roughly once a month we present students with a new project which must result in a “product.” According to our model the more “real world” the product, the better. Real world, meaning the product mirrors what could reasonably be demanded in a corporate setting — from a redesigned company logo and slogan to a promotional video or a press release. Students work in small teams to complete projects, with each team member receiving the same grade at the end. After all, it’s not about what individual students learn but the final product. Students are assessed on a handful of learning outcomes — collaboration, communication, innovation, work ethic, technological literacy, information literacy and content. Content usually makes up between 15 and 30 percent of a student’s grade.

So, what is the role of content in a 21st century classroom? Content is a shopping list of rubric indicators to be applied to the product. For example, students might work a quote from a short story into a reworded company slogan. Or perhaps they might work with Photoshop to create a company logo depicting an event from European history. They might write a press release in the style of a founding American document or create a user’s manual for a product using a particular rhetorical device mentioned in our state’s English Language Arts standards.

Apart from being grafted onto “real world” products, content is rarely discussed in the classroom. Instead, students deal with content in teams or individually, with little to no scaffolding from the teacher. Dialogue, questions, critical thinking, and debate surrounding content are low on the list of things you will see in a 21st century classroom. And so students end up with convoluted ideas about history, a cursory understanding of and appreciation for literature, and a shaky foundation in math and science.

Emma Bryant

Jay Woods says:Your comment is awaiting moderation. 
February 27, 2011 at 6:21 am

The ability to innovate, collaborate, and think critically is what sets American workers apart from many of their counterparts internationally. Schools that value creativity and the ability leverage our collective intellect with effective collaboration are teaching important skills that will benefit students in their lives, not just their jobs. It could be argued that those abilities are crucially important to individuals taking part in the American economy today. In a world where manufacturing is consistently done more cheaply outside the U.S., isn’t it vital that we continue to lead in ideas and innovation?

I’m struggling with the concept of content vs. skill. Aren’t kids supposed to be picking up the skills necessary to comprehend increasingly complex content as they go through their years in school? Isn’t that what becoming “educated” has always meant?

I feel bad for Emma in regard to her New Tech experience. What she is experiencing is what can potentially happen at any school, and for any first-year teacher. Most schools have a certain amount of latitude in which to make decisions about assessment, instruction, discipline, and so on. If Emma’s New Tech is real (it doesn’t sound like any of the New Tech schools I’ve visited), it seems as if they have made some questionable choices.

I’m a first-year New Tech teacher as well. I taught for 15 years in a traditional high school before this year. I believe that school reform is something that needs to happen in this country. I think that the New Tech approach is a strong model, that when used well, can create exciting options for students and the communities in which the schools are placed.

At our New Tech, every project has a standards-based content knowledge rubric that is worth at least 60% of the student’s overall grade. We believe in working on 21st Century skills, but refuse to sacrifice teaching the content that students should be learning at each grade level. Technology is used as a tool for learning; it is not the curriculum. Our state adopted the Common Core standards for language arts last summer, so every project in an English class is based on standards that are rapidly becoming the national norm. Project construction in the other content areas is similarly based on state and national standards.

Our New Tech also balances project-based assessments with individual assessments. We want to be certain that all students possess the grade level competencies that they should. As the teachers at our school become better at building great projects, we may shift away from some of the individual assessment, but there probably will always be a blend of the two types of assessment in our building.

By the way, there is plenty of room for direct instruction in the New Tech approach. It’s just not the dominant mode of instruction (at our school). Students constructing their knowledge by doing things is probably at least an equal time share with direct instruction at most New Tech schools.

Teaching at a New Tech isn’t easy. It is difficult to create compelling projects that students find motivating. It is made more difficult (but in the end more satisfying) when those projects are based on the core competencies that are laid out in state and national standards. And this is what a school reform effort like New Tech is all about: finding ways to educate students better, getting them to be more involved and motivated to learn content, and encouraging students to become good learners. Good learners will have the opportunity to be successful in any endeavor they choose after high school.

I hope Emma’s New Tech experience improves, and that her school evolves in a positive way over the summer.

Tagged: Common CoreNew Tech Network