Monday, March 22, 2010

A Response to Diana Senechal

In the latest issue of the AFT publication, American Educator, Diana Senechal writes a lengthy cover article that criticizes progressive reformers and proponents of 21st Century Skills.

While I agree that skills such as communication, creativity and collaboration have been around for centuries, including this one, I also believe that whether using oral tradition, a stone tablet, quill and ink bottle, pencil and paper, a typewriter, or blog, students need to learn how to communicate their thoughts and ideas with the tools available to them.

I have been assisting with a 21st Century Literacy course in our district the last two years, and involved with a group looking at how the Partnership for 21st Century Skills might work in Minnesota as well. Last year, I cringed when the parent advocate for P21 here told a group that these were, "non-academic skills." To me, they are important skills used by students to demonstrate understanding of the core curriculum, not separate from the curriculum. I also believe that schools exist to develop life-long learners, not solely to develop competitors in the global workforce.

In her article, Senechal states:
When the frenzy over 21st Century skills passes--and it will--students will see that their opportunities depend largely on their knowledge. Many will graduate with blogging experience, but those who can write a strong essay on a Supreme Court case will be better prepared to enter the fields of history, law or journalism. Many will have online science portfolios, but those who have studied calculus, have read parts of Newton's "Principia," and can prove Kepler's second law (for example) will be much better prepared to study physics at an advanced level.
Why does this have to be an either/or proposition?!!

Wouldn't a student who blogged about their views on the Supreme Court case, and had to defend their ideas with actual lawyers commenting on the blog be better prepared than someone who wrote the essay only for the teacher's eyes? What if that electronic science portfolio were created to demonstrate their understanding of Newton's Principia and Kepler's second law?

Earlier in her article, Senechal states that "we should pursue perfection in curriculum and pedagogy." I heartily agree! What I disagree with is her claim that "when states and districts heed reformer's calls for technology in all grades and subjects, this leads to situations where teachers must use the technology in class, whether or not it serves the lesson well."
She seems to be saying that if schools are not implementing technology and reform correctly, then we should stop doing it! Perhaps instead, we should work with them to get it right!

Technology and Curriculum are both best served, when they are intricately connected with one another. One of my former colleagues and mentors, Greg Utecht, used the example of the Minnesota Twins TC baseball hat as a metaphor for this. "If you had just the "T", it could represent Texas, Toronto, Toledo, etc. If you had just the "C", it could represent Cleveland, Chicago, California, etc. However, when you combine the two, there is no question that you are talking about the Minnesota Twins. So too with best practice with Technology and Curriculum. If you are doing technology for technology's sake, you will not see good results. If you are creating curriculum without technology, you will falter. It's when you combine the two, that you see the greatest return!"

Senechal's advocates for the teacher to "give stimulating and substantial lessons" and for students to "absorb the material." I say that students should learn by actively engaging with the material, whether imparted by the teacher, the textbook, or the online resource in the palm of their hand. Teachers don't have to "give up intellectual authority in the room," but they should also acknowledge that a tool like "WolframAlpha" might have more! They can still be co-learners! Let us not ignore the tools of the present if they enhance the rigorous learning of our students. As John Dewey, said so many years ago, "Let us prepare students not for the world of the past, but for their world, the world of the future!"

Carl Anderson has some further thoughts on the article here, and here . In a comment, he adds another sad aspect of the article worth noting:
The problem is, I fear the piece was chosen because many of those unsubstantiated claims, poorly argued points, and transparent biases are a reflection of a large percentage of the union membership. The piece screams "status-quo" while her other work seems not to. The problem with this is, the American Educator was sent to each union member's home while the work she has done that lives up to a higher academic standard does not. The union is essentially, by making this their cover story, supporting writing of this low level of academic integrity and supporting the biases behind it. What impact will this have? How many teachers will read this and not question its logic? Where is the other side of this argument given space in this publication? Daniel Willingham is hardly an author with views far from Senechal's.
I hope those who read the article recognized this!
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