Jay Matthews wrote a piece in the Post this morning titled “The Latest Doomed Pedagogical Fad: 21st Century Skills” to which I replied what follows. Would be interested to hear your thoughts, here or there…

I don’t disagree that the majority of “21st Century Skills” are nothing new, and that we should have been teaching them all along. As computer and online technologies evolve, we have more tools that we can use to teach those skills in perhaps more relevant or compelling ways. But that depends on the teacher’s familiarity and comfort level with those technologies, obviously.

What is different here, though, is something that is not being articulated by the Partnership or many others, and that is the learning that can be done (and is being done already) using online social tools and networks. I’d point you to a recent MacArthur Foundation study which concludes that “New media forms have altered how youth socialize and learn” and that this has very important implications for schools and teaching (http://tinyurl.com/55a878, pdf). While most kids’ uses of these technologies are “friendship based”, the more compelling shift is when their use is “interest based” or when they connect with other kids or adults around the topics or ideas they are passionate to learn about. With access to the Internet, and with an understanding of how to create and navigate these online, social learning spaces, opportunities for learning widely and deeply reside in the connections that we make with other people who can teach or mentor us and/or collaboarate with us in the learning process. That, I think, is where we find 21st Century skills that are different and important. Sure, those connections require a well developed reading and writing literacy, and critical thinking and creativity and many of the others are skills inherent to the process. But this new potential to learn easily and deeply in environments that are not bounded by physical space or scheduled time constraints requires us as educators to take a hard look at how we are helping our students realize the potentials of those opportunities.

Having blogged now for seven years and having learned in these interest or passion-based online networks and communities for almost as long, it’s hard to begin to describe how different it is from the classroom teaching that I did for 18 years in a public high school. My learning is self-directed, and everyone in these virtual classrooms wants to be there because they too are interested in pursuing their interests. They come from all over the world, all different cultures, all different experiences, a diversity that is hard to fashion in most school classrooms. We share our learning openly, admit anyone into the conversation, and constantly seek to make each other smarter.

But while that can sound like a pretty positive and powerful space, it is fraught with complexity. We have to learn to read not only texts but to edit them as well, not just for accuracy but for bias, agenda and motive. In the online learning world, we have to be full fledged editors, not just readers, because the traditional editors are gone from the process. And, we have to be creators as well. In order for us to be found by potential teachers and collaborators, we need to have a presence, a footprint. I’m fully convinced that my own kids need to publish, need to establish their reputations early by creating and sharing and engaging in ideas in provocative and appropriate ways. These are not easy skills to master.(I’d refer you to Dan Gillmor’s new essay “Principles for a New Media Literacy” http://tinyurl.com/4b3pos for more on that.)

My kids need the help of teachers in their classrooms who understand all of this on some personal, practical level. They need teachers who can help them navigate these complex spaces and relationships online that require, at the very least, a different application of traditional skills and literacies. I think as educators we have a duty to do so. You can call it a “fad” if you like, but the reality is that these skills are sorely lacking in our teachers who are suffocating in paper, policies and processes that prevent them from exploring the potential of online networked learning spaces. It’s imperative, I think, that we change that. To quote Kansas State professor Michael Wesch, “We [need to] use social media in the classroom not because our students use it, but because we are afraid that social media might be using them – that they are using social media blindly, without recognition of the new challenges and opportunities they might create” (http://mediatedcultures.net/ksudigg/?p=192). To me, that’s what 21st Century Skills are all about, teaching our kids to navigate the world as they are experiencing it, not the world we experienced.