And Confusion Reigned

I have not been posting to this blog a lot lately. I have made the decision to use this site for weightier issues and extended personal analysis and Learning Together for posts that mostly involving passing on information about useful tools, posts, and instructional ideas.

I have the sense that the rhetoric is heating up regarding “Digital Age Learning”, “21st Century Skills”, or some similar concept. What is this about? Is this the “back to basics” argument all over again? Is this a basic disagreement about how students learn? Is this a disagreement about the role of schools in society (economic development, preparation for citizenship, etc)? Is the an attempt to argue for money that may be available via some component of some stimulus package?

What I find frustrating about this situation is that it is so difficult to fall back on the criteria I have learned to trust in making decisions. I would describe this as “what do the data suggest”? I still have the sense that this should be the way decisions are made, but I am not optimistic that it will work out this way (I do note that the Gates Foundations is willing to invest millions in generating “useful data and solid research about what works” – eschool News, March, paper version). However, if you are pro-technology, you do understand that recent efforts to demonstrate the value of math and reading software found very little that would encourage optimism.

I attempt to review a wide variety of content that bears on these topics. I think this is what must be done. It is far too easy to take a silo approach and review only the arguments on one side of an issue. For example, I have nearly completed “The dumbest generations” which forwards the argument (my interpretation) that despite the potential of participatory technologies and online resources to provide all kinds of opportunities, adolescents latch on to such opportunities to do adolescent things which limit their academic growth. Their opportunity to focus technology on their own immediate needs and exclude what does not interest them is argued to be a bad thing. In contrast and while talking about nearly the same phenomena, the NCTE argues that schools must “adapt to new modes of writing and design new curricula that support these models” (meaning experience with blogs, wikis, etc. – writing to share).

Perhaps there would be common ground here – it would have to involve the assumption that educators could more strongly influence how the “tools” are used and thereby engage students in productive applications that would offset existing unproductive applications. We need good models of implementation that are honest in their assessment. To me, what exists now, is one group pointing to some exemplary examples and the other group pointing to a great amount of trash. I want to know what most students end up generating when involved in some reasonable educational intervention.

I also think we need to have serious discussion reagrding whether or not and how 21st century skills (new emphases sometimes on new skills) can be combined with core expectations. Can 21st century skills be engaged in a way that incorporates basic knowledge and skill expectations (my wife’s position)? Maybe here reform must include an add-on – more time is needed.

I must say that as this debate goes forward I hope the government becomes more directly involved. I am concerned that sound educational opportunities may become confused with financial opportunities (examine the About Us page for the Partnership for 21st Century Skills). One of the first skills in evaluating web content you teach kids is to determine who authored the material and then to determine if those individuals may have a vested interest in the position taken. It really is difficult to sort these issues out. Businesses have merchandise to sell. Keynote speakers have visions of the future they are paid to present. I guess I am also concerned when turning over any given agenda to politicians. I tend to be a fan of colleges of education, but it seems fashionable to claim such bodies have already had their chance and we would not be in the situation we are in (if it really is dire) if these folks had done their job.

I am still waiting for the researchers to step up and say what their data allows them to say. My travel schedule for the spring includes AERA and NECC. I have always had the feeling that it would be great if these conferences could be combined – what if the researches and the visionaires could be cornered in the same room. I am sure everyone will have more to say on these issues – be a critical consumer.

In the meantime – a sample of what confuses me:
A netbook for every student (ISTE/NECC post by Wes Fryer)
What to learn – core knowledge or 31st century schools (USA Today)
Backers of 21st Century Skills take flak (Education Week)
Bridging Differences (Diane Ravitch)

P.S. – In scanning my blog feeds after authoring this post, I found today’s post from Doug Johnson. I interpret his comments to reflect some of the same issues as I have just expressed.

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