Since this, the third post in this series, was to be devoted to the letter "C," I found myself thinking about the various lists of 21st Century skills that I've run across in the last few years, ranging from the four C's to the five C's to NAIS President Pat Bassets five C's plus one to, inevitably, the seven C's and the irresistable nautical wordplay that goes with it. I've looked over many of those lists, borrowing from here and there, and compiled a list I can live with. Here they are, with some explanatory/exploratory comments.
I've got this one first because it's one that often is left out of lists like this. I will be the first to admit that an overt concern for narrowly defined basic skills seems me to be misguided. As I've said before, as an educator, a student, and a parent, I believe strongly in what B.F Skinner was getting at when he said "Education is what's left over after you've forgotten what you learned." But to say that basic skills are not the most important thing we need to focus on is not to say that they don't matter. Simple competency is empowering. Knowing how to perform basic operations in math is a gateway to being able to learn anything else in math. Knowing how syntax works is a gateway to being able to express yourself with clarity and precision and grace. So yeah, there's nuts and bolts stuff I want my kids to learn, and I'm going to try hard to teach it to them. But not at the expense of the more important stuff, like
A former colleague once said to me, "The longer I teach, the more I realize that my ultimate goal is, and should be, to produce a certain kind of human being." I realize that the word "produce" here is problematical, but I take her point. What kids learn (and eventually remember, or forget, it doesn't much matter) is secondary to the whole complicated set of habits of mind and beliefs and inclinations that define their individual identities. Bluntly, I care less about what you know or don't know and more about who you are. So what are the character traits that define that "certain kind" of person? My preliminary list would include
• intellectual humility
• a capacity for enthusiasm
• a sense of care
• a sense of wonder
• a growth mindset
I'm not going to get into unpacking each of those terms; that would take weeks or months, and we'd be talking about a book and not a blog post. But the point is that a student who has these characteristics is going to be in very good shape whether or not he knows the chemistry of photosynthesis or how to solve a quadratic equation. A student like that can learn pretty much anything he wants to. Whereas a student who has learned any number of "basic skills" and procedures by rote is likely to be dead in the water when confronted with a new situation. Nineteenth and twentieth century schools have been very good at teaching students how to follow directions, and rewarding them for doing so. In the 21st century, in a world changing so fast that we cannot even predict what jobs will be available when the student emerges from school, that's not going to be good enough. None of this, of course, is new. Ken Robinson, among many others, has been hammering on this idea, with intelligence and humor, for years now. But everything in the standards-based movement, in combination with the high-stakes test movement, ignores character education entirely, and in fact militates against any kind of independence or originality of thought on the part of teachers or of students. It's implausible. It's tragic. It's unacceptable. But there it is.
This is a useful term, but dangerous, in that it means quite different things to people who use it, and they often assume that they're on the same page when in fact they’re not, or that they're not when in fact they are. I've spent a large part of my career working out what "critical thinking" really means. Surely it involves being a good and patient observer. It also involves being able to enumerate and distinguish between what you know, what you can infer, and what you have questions about. But beyond that I think it boils down to this: confronted with a new idea or a knotty problem or something that you just don't understand, what resources do you have in your mental tool box to be able to attack that problem? Another way of phrasing it might be, "What do you do when you don't know what to do?" Answering that question involves a certain degree of self-awareness (I understand that I'm stuck) combined with willingness to try something and see what happens, without worrying about whether it's the right thing or whether you might fail. An educator I met last year said "There's only two things that can happen when you try something new. The first is that you succeed. The second is that you learn something." I think that mindset is crucial to becoming a good critical thinker.
Another slippery term. We all use it like we know what we're talking about. What is it really? Again, if I get myself going on this I'll be here forever. So here's an attempt at a short take: creativity involves setting up the conditions for things to happen that you do not expect to happen. That's what writers do. That's what artists do. Robert Frost famously said, "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader." So if it's true that we're trying to surprise ourselves, how do we do that? How do we learn that? How do we teach that? There are answers to those questions. As I've said before, I don't think creativity can be "taught." But I think we can create the conditions in our schools in which creative processes can be practiced or played around with, and in which creativity itself can be learned.
One of the most successful innovations in the business world in the last few decades has been the advent of cross-sectional teams. Edwards Deming, one of the leading voices of the quality management movement, articulated 14 key principles that have helped to re-shape corporate culture. Principle number nine stated "Break down barriers between departments. People in research, design, sales, and production must work as a team, in order to foresee problems of production and usage that may be encountered with the product or service." Cross-sectional and cross-discipline teams have become the norm in much of the business world, even as globalization has complicated the business environment by demanding communication and cooperation between people from different countries, different cultures, and even speaking different languages. One of the most important things students can and should learn in school is how to adapt their individual roles in any given situation to what the group needs as opposed to what they is used to doing or being. This kind of purposeful, strategic redefinition of oneself in the context of a group enterprise does not come naturally for students. It involves a kind of metacognitive awareness. The good news is that the need for that kind of awareness is not hard to communicate, and the awareness itself can be honed with practice.
The obvious point about communication is that it's simply necessary. It's a given. I don't know that I've ever heard anyone argue that their world or the world would be better off if we just communicated less well. The less obvious part about communication is that it's an essential part of any process of generative thinking or design thinking. Articulation is only the first step in the process, but it's an essential step. We need to attempt to communicate for the same reason that we sometimes need to write: words make thinking visible. Until you know what your first thoughts are, you can't really move on to second thoughts. "Iteration" in the design thinking process refers to producing a series of non-precious prototypes which allow a design to become progressively more sophisticated as each prototype is tested and feedback is gathered. But the word iteration has another, earlier, more primary meaning: to say again, to repeat. Saying it, saying it again, saying it out loud; each iteration reshapes the original idea and brings us closer to the core of what we really mean or are really trying to get at. Simply stated, communication is practice, and practice makes, well, you know.
This one, proposed by Pat Bassett, is perhaps pushing the C thing a few notches too far (especially when he defines it as "cross-cultural competency, which brings us up to nine or ten Cs, depending on how you feel about hyphens) but I agree that it is scarcely possible any longer to imagine a world in which our present students and future adults will NOT need to be able to interact with and pay attention to people from other backgrounds, other countries, other cultures. Global education is something that American schools have not typically emphasized or gone greatly out of their way to facilitate. One of the unfortunate spinoff effects of the notion of American exceptionalism, currently showing up again in our presidential campaign, is that if we believe ourselves to truly be better than everyone else, we have no real reason to want to listen to what anyone else might have to say to us. If you do that at the interpersonal level, you will acquire an earned reputation as an arrogant jerk. Why we believe it works differently at the international level is beyond me. It takes us back full circle to the notion of intellectual humility as a key element in character.