For a long while, we’ve been in a rut where we’ve tried to shove a metaphorical square peg into a round hole. The way most kids learn today doesn’t look tremendously different from how I learned in the 80’s and 90’s which didn’t look all that different from how my parents learned in the 1950’s. That is both good and bad.
By nature, I am a traditionalist. I believe in the importance of canonical literature, for example, but that is a very controversial and (these days) unpopular opinion. I can’t help it, though. I can’t help but see the value in art, history, philosophy, literature, and a whole mess of other stuff that has kind of been pushed aside. I’m an English teacher and these days this means “get your kids to pass a standardized test” and “get kids to have basic literacy skills and that is all they need” (in other words, if kids can read, that’s good enough). There’s long been a push (at least as long as I’ve worked in the industry) to help kids gain “21st Century” skills, but I am not sure everyone is on the same page as everyone else on what that actually means.
My anecdotal conclusion is that when folks generally think about 21st Century skills, they think about technology. Cool. Yep. Technology is completely important and fundamental these days. No doubt.
But, I’d like to argue that real 21st Century skills are not so black-and-white.
I’m not sure it makes much sense to divide up learning into separate subjects like we’ve always done. I’m not sure that Readin’, Writin’, and ‘Rithmatic are all that different or should be all that separate anymore.
Educational startup, Edalex published a cool infographic that demonstrates the most-often needed skills in modern-day workplaces. They include the following soft skills:
- Emotional Intelligence
The Edalex website also includes these “hard” skills:
- Cloud computing
- Analytical reasoning
- Artificial intelligence
- UX design
- Business analysis
- Affiliate marketing
- Scientific computing
- Video production
You might notice that, indeed, the “hard” skills mentioned are tech-heavy. But, one thing I notice is that NONE of the skills on either list is a class taught to teenagers and only some are taught at colleges and universities. So, my argument is that “English I” and “Algebra” and “American History” and “Chemistry” aren’t necessarily best-suited to exist within their own little corners of education alone. They need to be a part of a larger conceptualization of learning where multi-faceted problems must be solved by considering a variety of lenses, areas of expertise, and “subjects.”
In the biz, we refer to this as “interdisciplinary” or “cross-curricular” education. It isn’t the norm in most places, though there is a cadre of organizations doing this sort of thing online. Most brick-and-mortar schools still have “periods” in a day where student shift from one classroom to another doing work that is largely taught as being completely separate from what they learned in any other classroom that same day.
But, the world doesn’t typically exist within these confines. If I need to plan community infrastructure or evaluate best practices in marketing or build programming for veterans or create solutions to political conflicts, I won’t just use “math” or “English” or even “engineering.” I’d need an interconnected and collaborative team of folks who have more than just niche knowledge in a sub-subject. So, why do we pretend, still in schools today, that music class and geometry class and biology class are so…different?
When I was in school, I was “not good at math.” I was, instead, “good at English.” But, what does that even mean? Now, as an adult, I realize that it meant, at the time, that I struggled to conceptualize theoretical figures and information and that visual forms of data were easier for me to digest. If I had not had English and math separated out and instead had curriculum that intertwined them, imagine how different my understanding would have been not only in those subject areas, but also in my own sense of self-worth.
I encourage you to look more into organizations who are innovating in education. I am not suggesting that you pull your child out of public school right now and send him to a fancy and brand-new cyber academy. But, I mean, you can if you want. But, I actually very much believe in the power and importance of society-building public education. I just wonder if the long-held beliefs about how the public school system as a whole operates might not benefit from taking a look at some alternate ways of doing things.
Some cool folks to check out: