21st Century Skills? I’ve Got One Word for You

And It Isn’t Technology

Recently a candidate for employment at our school observed one of our teachers working with students using laptops for a research project.  “How wonderful, teaching 21st century skills,” she cooed.  Her sentiment echoed the popular view that our students’ familiarity with the medium, independent of the merit of ideas being researched, will determine whether they’ll be prepared for the global marketplace.

I disagree.  Instead of “technology” as the educational byword for this century, I propose a different word: “curate.”

To curate is to judge quality and separate it from what is less worthwhile, and to interpret for a purpose.  Museum curators may begin with hundreds, if not thousands, of works before choosing a dozen or two to appear in an exhibition.  Each work is carefully selected for a reason, and the viewer is treated to a thoughtful, sensible experience as he or she wanders through the exhibit.

I (and others, as you will see below) would argue that in the 21st century access to information and the ability to retrieve it will become commonplace, if they aren’t already.  Even in Harlem Link’s high-poverty student population, which is supposedly on the wrong side of the so-called digital divide, the latest devices are commonplace.

But as The New York Times pointed out in a recent article, lack of access to technological tools is not the biggest issue facing our most-at-risk families and children.  Rather, having the reason and wherewithal to use these tools for constructive purposes is what is missing.  We need to teach our young scholars to be curators of the flood of information that comes their way on a daily basis.  The real 21st century skill is an old one.

Teaching Curating

At Harlem Link, we have embraced the new, national Common Core standards with gusto.  In the last 18 months we have completely revamped our curriculum around Common Core’s refreshing call for classrooms and lessons filled with more authentic literature, deep textual analysis, argumentation and discussion, and strategic thinking.    There is a role in this pedagogy for technological devices, but they are in their proper place as resources to be directed, not as the focal point of learning.

I have plenty of company in my warning against undue reliance on technological tools.  The rise of the Common Core standards has fostered a groundswell of support for the notion, until recently often dismissed as quaint, that schools should be in the business of teaching children to interpret, judge and critique information rather than simply learn where and how to find it.

The Common Core website hosts an open letter from a diverse array of education reformers arguing against the aims of a panel called the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.  The premise of the open letter is that the Partnership is advocating a curriculum that would rob our schools of the valuable instructional time traditionally devoted to such subjects as literature, history, civics and geography.

One of the most vocal signatories of this letter, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, went a bit further in a provocative 2009 blog entry as the Common Core standards were rolling out.  In this piece she calls not for a panel on 21st century skills, but one on 19th century skills!  Whither individualism, initiative, courage, intellectual curiosity and a host of other attributes that have been increasingly marginalized by the relentless technology drumbeat?

Going further, the Common Core leaders used Ravitch’s ideas as the focus of a debate about educational standards.  The debaters came away less than enthused about organizing future curriculum requirements around “technology skills.”  Six minutes of video highlights and a host of coverage on media outlets are archived here.

A New Old Idea

Who better than a science futurist to give us thoughtful ideas on what’s needed for us to thrive in the 21st century?  Famed quantum physicist Michio Kakui joins me on the curatorial bandwagon.  In Physics of the Future, his recent book on what impact to expect from technology by the year 2100, he takes for the granted the widespread availability of fancy new tools.  He compares the added powers humans will have with those of the gods of the ancient world.  But he laments our ability to use these tools to solve problems and evolve in an increasingly interconnected world without being able to critically analyze:

“Since we are drowning in an ocean of information, the most precious commodity in modern society is wisdom. Without wisdom and insight, we are left to drift aimlessly and without purpose, with an empty, hollow feeling after the novelty of unlimited information wears off.” (p. 350)

Wisdom.  Insight.  Curiosity.  Initiative.

It’s time to teach our children to curate.

About Steve Evangelista

Steven Evangelista is the co-founder of Harlem Link Charter School. He is a native New Yorker with a bachelors degree in Psychology from Georgetown University and a Masters degree in Elementary Education from Bank Street College.
This entry was posted in Common Core Standards, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to 21st Century Skills? I’ve Got One Word for You

  1. Michael McGahan says:

    I appreciate your emphasis on curation as a core skill (or skill-set) that we should be developing through education. However, you appear to set up a false choice between technology and curation. As you correctly point out, curation is fundamentally an “old” ability that has served civilization for centuries. It’s something that our education system has always tried to inculcate, but the 21st-century development that makes it even more important is technology that allows instant access to a greater variety of information from a greater number of diverse sources than ever before.

    I fully agree that the ability to parse that information effectively is a fundamental ability, but that’s exactly what many/most people are referring to when they refer to “technology” as a 21st century skill. It’s not just about access, which, as you describe, is becoming less of a problem – it’s about learning to apply technology toward problem solving and guiding that interaction in order to develop students’ ability to curate the resources technology grants access to. The popular reference to “21st-century skills” can therefore be more accurately characterized as “curation using technology” – exactly what the job candidate referred to in your introduction, and something that should remain a priority in advancing education.

    Ultimately, if we can communicate that technology skills are not the ends but important means by which 21st-century citizens will lead their lives, we can “be done with this unnecessary conflict about 21st century skills”, just as Diane Ravitch hopes.

    • Here’s the thing: you and I are on the same page. I don’t think there is a “choice” between technology and curation. I believe that ignoring iPads, interactive white boards and document cameras is folly. But so is the view, which I hear repeatedly from colleagues and job applicants, that the mere presence of these items is enough to impart 21st century skills to students.

      What I didn’t have space for in the blog post is to share my thoughts on what a distraction the emphasis on the newest, flashiest gadgets can be for teachers. In the roaring 2000s when district budgets were ballooning, thousands of dollars that could have been better spent developing the age-old craft of teaching were instead handed over to the Smart company and others with their cadre of trainers expensively showing the ins and outs of interactive white boards, etc. Meanwhile, we still have legions of teachers who struggle to keep students focused and even safe in their classrooms.

      Running a classroom is an incredibly complex challenge; teachers are CEOs in miniature. The core skills are so hard to master that anything that will distract teachers from them is a huge waste of public time and money.

      So let others play with the new gadgets. Curate first. Figure out what resources are needed later…and then ask the technology lemmings which gadget is best for your needs!

  2. Pingback: “No gadget is going to fix it.” | Blog

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