Archive for November, 2008

When we are so focused on closing the achievement gap, where do 21st century skills fit in?

I don’t believe in getting too strident over the merits of one teaching approach over another, especially when there are strong camps on either side. Whole language, phonics, New Math, back-to-basics, critical thinking skills vs content. The truth often lies somewhere in the middle. Students need a range of approaches. (The research proves it is the quality of the teacher that matters most in the long run anyway.)

I feel this very much applies to the balancing act between core content and skills (traditionally taught) and new 21st century skills being espoused by groups like ISTE and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

We have worked hard at Teaching Matters to find a balance between helping teachers address core content and new skills. We know you can teach the big key ideas of the Bill of Rights while teaching advanced skills like research, synthesis, and off and online collaborative learning.

But we should keep it real for those in the classroom.

The balance takes more time and it can cut into content coverage of required standards – that is standards that show up on tests.

In content areas like social studies the standards are chock full of information most of us arguably can survive without in the 21st century. Boy I would welcome a chance to take a red pen to these standards. The New York Social Studies Standards do a really great job of delineating critical thinking and new skills, such that the partnership for 21st century skills used them as a basis for their work around ICT skills in social studies. But they also include a kitchen sink full of content to cover. And again, I believe in content! It’s context! It is something to hang your hat on. But give us some power standards please!

But actually, this is not the old debate that I want to address. As an educator working with urban school teachers, we have a much bigger challenge.

It is not just a question of deep rather than wide. It’s a whole bunch of students that can’t comprehend what they read… Be that a test, a text book, or a web page.

These kids are playing catch up. They struggle with reading and score low on tests of academic vocabulary. But we expect them to become information literate, synthesize key ideas, learn to select among different sources for reliability, and construct their own complex, nuanced understandings of big ideas.

Students struggling with reading comprehension:

  • require focused instruction on the unfamiliar vocabulary
  • need to access text resources at their reading level  –(time consuming to find)
  • deep, meaningful, relevant (but structured) learning experiences that ensure struggling readers can access key content ideas and information …

They also need  to participate in 21st century learning and have access to

  • multiple and varied sources
  • choice in their learning activities
  • opportunities to collaborate, discuss, create and analyze  — off and online

For me, the incentive to figure this out is that it is the latter list  — that make teaching the basics palatable for students who have often given up after struggling with reading  well into adolescence.

In the creation of our own model curricula, we spend a lot of time worrying about these issues. Balancing student choice, self direction and critical thinking with the structures sometimes required to provide learning experience accessible to our most struggling learners.

Technology already offers a lot of ways to support students struggling with reading comprehension issues, but those tools are not supported on the tests.  Those tests are not digital.  You can’t click and have the question read to you if you can’t read it. You need to be able to read it anyway – let’s face it.

Worse yet, the technology is continuing to raise the bar and require new skills that go way beyond reading comprehension.

How do you balance traditional and core skills with 21st century skills?

How do you address the needs of  students that struggle with skills as basic as reading comprehension in that context?


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