"A growing number of business leaders, politicians, and educators are united around the idea that students need twenty-first century skills to be successful today. It's exciting to believe we live in times that are so revolutionary that they demand new and different abilities. But in fact, the skills students need in the twenty-first century are not new."
- Rotherham, A. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2010). “21st-Century” Skills. American Educator, 17. Retrieved from tinyurl.com/RotherWill
I entered my initial teacher education (ITE) during the transition from the old curriculum to the National Curriculum (which is not at all national, but that is a different conversation) and actually had to buy the new curriculum for Mathematics and English and the old curriculum for the other Key Learning Areas (KLAs). Throughout the new documents, as well as throughout the discussions in media, rhetoric used by politicians and language used in discussions online, I consistently see references to things such as twenty-first century learning, the new skills or the twenty-first century skills as if these particular skill sets were only discovered post-1999.
Why do we refer to these supposedly new skills as new or as twenty-first century, imbuing them with some sort of mystical innovative and revolutionary qualities? One issue I have with them is that it is hard to pin down exactly what people mean when they refer to these twenty-first century skills. The Four Cs are one example I often hear people refer to as being twenty-first century skills.
"The Four Cs of 21st century learning, also known as the Four Cs or 4 Cs, are four skills that have been identified by the United States-based Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) as the most important skills required for 21st century education: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity."
I really struggle with thinking of these as being twenty-first century skills. Or rather, I struggle to think about twenty-first century skills as being anything other than a temporal indicator; as indicating in which time period the skill is being used by the person learning it. Do we really think that Plato and Aristotle did not think critically? Do we think that the Indigenous peoples around the world did not communicate? Do we think that the famous Chinese General and philosopher, Sun Tzu did not collaborate with his peers when developing strategy and tactics? Do we really think that Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Picasso or Van Gogh were not creative?
Why then, do these skills, highly useful and versatile to be sure; valuable for a successful life most certainly, continue to be referred to as twenty-first century skills in such a way that it implies a newness, a revolutionary nature to them that they most certainly do not possess. Or have I simply completely misunderstood what people are saying when they talk about twenty-first century skills? Let me know your thoughts.
“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”
– Attributed to Albert Einstein
I like to open each of my blog posts, where appropriate, when I type it at the desktop computer (as opposed to the iPad) with a quote that is somehow relevant to the topic of that particular article. Today’s quote is, I believe, particularly fitting as the topic of this article is the presentation titled Why and How might schools build cultures of thinking? by Simon Brooks from Masada College as delivered at Thursday’s Teaching for Thinking Forum (#T4TConf) hosted by St. Leo’s Catholic College. If you have not read the introductory review article from that conference, I would recommend you do so by clicking here.
Simon opened his presentation with the statement, and I am paraphrasing here;
“…learning is the product of thinking, and that for those teachers who hold that they are unable to take on new educational fads, such as allowing their students time to genuinely think and reflect about their learning because “…we have to get through all the content…” then it has to be asked, what does getting through the content look like?
This was a very interesting statement, as it is one that I have heard numerous times throughout my undergraduate degree from lecturers and tutors at university and from many teachers with whom I interacted whilst on various professional placements. I have found that this statement is elicited by teachers being advised that they need to undertake a particular professional development activity, or in relation to the use of technology in the classroom .
Simon then led us into the first of his four focuses, a poem. Specifically, The Schoolboy, by the poet William Blake.
I love to rise in a summer morn,
,Simon prefaced his reading of this poem by very briefly introducing us to the thinking routine known as the four C’s with the side-note that we would be returning to it reading through Blake’s words. The four C’s is a thinking routine that can be deployed in any context and which encourages the user to think critically.
Specifically, the four C’s consists of the following thinking prompts:
My initial connection was with the third-to-last stanza, and it took me to the very structure of education and its relationship with the origins of education in the industrial revolution, a topic that was covered extensively during my initial teacher education, and the dichotomous relationship that is shared between early-childhood and primary education structures, and indeed, between primary and secondary education structures and then following on, between secondary and tertiary education structures. Focusing on the first, the structure of early-childhood education (or my understanding thereof at least, I am sure that my readers involved in that sector will disabuse me of any misconceptions) is that learning is largely play-based and more free-form than it is structured. Upon arrival at ‘big school,’ we expect students to stand in two straight lines, adhere to rigid structures administered by bells, eat when they are allowed to, go to the bathroom during specific breaks, sit at their desks in chairs and utilise pencils, all in ways that would be as alien to them as the concepts of neurological surgery would be to me.
The obvious challenge from this connection, then, is why is education structured in such a way? Why, two hundred years after the industrial revolution, have there been so few changes to the way in which we structure our children’s education? Why is the assumption that all students should be grouped by age still prevalent, other than convenience? The key idea from this is that education, or rather, schooling, is something to be abhored and avoided in favour of the summer morn’ and that changes need to be made, effectively, to change this mindset.
“Cultures of thinking are places in which a group’s collective as well as individual, thinking is valued, visible, and actively promoted as part of the regular, day-to-day experience of all the group’s members.”
This exercise started the audience along the pathway of thinking, and of questioning what they were reading, and Simon lead on from this by posing that there are a total of eight cultural forces, that are entirely unavoidable, that impact upon our thinking and that a culture of thinking is apparent when all eight forces are aligned and directed towards encouraging and appreciating thinking. These eight forces have been identified by Ron Ritchart in his 2002 publication Intellectual Character and can be directed towards thinking as indicated below:
Returning to the notion of there being no time for thinking because “…we need to get through all the content…” SImon made the point that it is in the time of thinking and reflecting that the richness of understanding develops, and further posited that our classrooms walls be used not just to show off students’ completed works, but their in-progress works, to demonstrate, and to empower our students to think of thinking as being an on-going process, a tool for them to deploy, rather than being the goal for them to achieve.
Simon continued by introducing us to six contiguous key principles for a culture of thinking, which are expanded in an article by Ron Ritchhart and David Perkins.
A comment that Simon made on a number of occasions throughout the night, and I think one that is fitting with which to close out this article is that a culture of thinking is not something you do. Simon related that he often hears teachers say to him that they are “….doing this culture of thinking thing” and Simon responds that you do not do a culture of thinking, you are and you have a culture of thinking.
Thank you, as always, for taking the time to read, and I would very much like to hear from my readers in regards to where the four C’s took them after reading The Schoolboy by William Blake, and strategies that have been used in your school or classroom to create a culture of thinking.
See here for the list of articles in this series.
Ritchhart, R. (2002), Intellectual Character: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Get It, San Francisco, California, United States, Jon Wiley & Sons.
Ritchhart, R., & Perkins, D. (2008). Making Thinkin Visible.Educational Leadership, 65(5), 57-61