Green shoots in the Aussie desert

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I was given great heart by a recent article in The Educator Australia. It featured an interview with Dr Paul Browning, the principal of a school in Brisbane that has just won an award for innovation.

I disagree with most of Dr Browning’s comments. He argues for the importance of 21st century skills on the basis of an uncertain future. Such skills don’t really exist in the way that most people think they do because they are highly context dependent. Critical thinking is often held up as one such skill and, as cognitive psychologist Dan Willingham explains, small children can often think critically about subjects they know a lot about whereas trained scientists can often fail to think critically about subjects they are unfamiliar with. The priority, therefore, is to build wide and broad subject knowledge. Indeed, there is evidence that a good college education improves critical thinking abilities – they are not skills – by the same amount, whether students take a critical thinking course or not.

I would recommend anyone read Dylan Wiliam’s new book for a full discussion of 21st century skills and why, in chasing them, we are chasing something of a mirage.

It is also increasingly seen as fallacious to keep invoking an unknown future as the reason for pursuing things such as 21st century skills. The future is inherently uncertain and our best guide to what will be useful in the future is that which has been useful in the past.

Some of Dr Browning’s other ideas are also at odds with the evidence. For instance, he argues for, ‘letting go of control and handing the learning process to the students.’ This is quite a poor idea because students frequently make bad choices when put in charge of their own learning – that’s why we invented teachers – and there is a wide body of evidence to suggest that explicit forms of teaching are the most effective.

So what is there to like about the article? It is the section where Dr Browning states:

“A lot of schools and commentators are pushing back against the notion of 21st century skills, claiming that we’re losing sight of depth of knowledge and that we shouldn’t be letting go of content.”

He then goes on to recognise the importance of content, even if he stresses less effective ways to develop content knowledge.

This is progress. Twelve or even six months ago, I would not have expected an article such as this to even acknowledge that there is a counter-argument. Dr Browning seems to think it is a ‘political’ counter-argument, rather than one based in sound cognitive science, but I’ll take that right now. As Dylan Wiliam argues, and as I have argued, we need a knowledge-rich curriculum and this is a necessary step in the path towards it.

First, those who evangelise for the dominant 21st century skills position need to recognise that there is an alternative view. Next, they will feel the need to develop arguments against this alternative view. They will then put those arguments to the test in articles and at conferences and we can argue back. Finally, the 21st century skills argument will be found wanting and the knowledge-rich curriculum argument will prevail.

I’m ready for the next step.

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2 thoughts on “Green shoots in the Aussie desert

  1. I think perhaps the important point is not the acknowledgement that there is a counter-argument, but the acknowledgement that this counter-argument is being made by those *in the field*, so to speak, rather than by the caricatures that the “21st-century skills” blatherers tend to erect (half the time they seem to believe that the only ones arguing against them are either “neoliberal shills” or gentlemen sitting in their club with their cigars and port, reading these “21st-century skills” articles through their monocles).

  2. The idea of putting students in charge of their own learning removes the opportunity for them to stand on the shoulders of giants, and instead limits them to merely tread on each others’ intellectual toes.

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