Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve never seen a position description for a good job that didn’t have a long list of knowledge, skill, and character requirements. It makes me wonder why those focused on “21st century” careers seem to place skills and character—or problem solving, team work, and perseverance—far above knowledge.

David Brooks provides the latest example as he laments widespread enthusiasm for the new documentary “Most Likely to Succeed.” In lauding High Tech High, it dismisses the need for broad knowledge. Students’ time is devoted to long-term projects, so they end up with narrow bands of knowledge:

Teachers cover about half as much content as in a regular school. Long stretches of history and other subject curriculums are effectively skipped. Students do not develop conventional study habits.

The big question is whether such a shift from content to life skills is the proper response to a high-tech economy. I’d say it’s at best a partial response.

Ultimately, what matters is not only how well you can collaborate in groups, but the quality of the mind you bring to the group. In rightly playing up soft skills the movie underemphasizes intellectual virtues. For example, it ignores the distinction between information processing, which computers are good at, and knowledge, which they are not….

The cathedrals of knowledge and wisdom are based on the foundations of factual acquisition and cultural literacy. You can’t overleap that, which is what High Tech High is in danger of doing.

Brooks is absolutely right. The question is how to convince others.

Collaboration Shutterstock Photo
What’s the value in collaboration without enough knowledge to generate and implement excellent ideas? (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

While the overwhelming evidence from cognitive science will win over our education system eventually, today’s students can’t wait. Fortunately, a new report from the Center for American Progress could catalyze change. The Hidden Value of Curriculum Reform: Do States and Districts Receive the Most Bang for Their Curriculum Buck? shows that better curriculum could be a low- to no-cost, high-impact reform. Focusing on return on investment (ROI), it should turn the heads of policymakers, philanthropists, and reformers:

Switching to a higher quality curriculum has a huge ROI relative to other educational policies—in large part because curricula cost so little…. The average cost-effectiveness ratio of switching curriculum was almost 40 times that of class-size reduction in a well-known randomized experiment….

State adoption decisions are often based on limited assessments of quality and weak proxies for alignment to state standards…. There is also a clear gap between the reality of which curricula are effective or aligned to state standards and the curricula that publishers advertise as such.

Much of the problem with adoption seems to be a lack of information. Curriculum has long been ignored by academics, funders, and decision-makers, so there’s shockingly little evidence of which curricula are most effective. Lots of approaches and materials result in at least some learning; rigorous comparative studies are needed to find out what works best for various groups of students.

The report calls for investments in creating better curricula, comparative evaluations, and improvements to the state and district selection processes (including a wise recommendation to pilot materials prior to adoption). The one suggestion I’d add is that districts and states need not do this work alone. Consortia could be more effective and efficient, especially for finding materials aligned with the Common Core standards. One large consortium might even have the resources to fund comparative studies.

5 comments on “Help Wanted: Smartphone and Grit Required, Knowledge Optional”

  1. 1
    Will Fitzhugh on October 22, 2015

    Henry Kissinger writes about knowledge and wisdom:

    The policymaker undertakes multiple tasks, many of them shaped by his society’s history and culture. He must first of all make an analysis of where his society finds itself. This is inherently where the past meets the future; therefore such a judgment cannot be made without an instinct for both of these elements. He must then try to understand where that trajectory will take him and his society. He must resist the temptation to identify policymaking with projecting the familiar into the future, for on that road lies stagnation and then decline. Increasingly in a time of technological and political upheaval, wisdom counsels that a different path must be chosen. By definition, in leading a society from where it is to where it has never been, a new course presents advantages and disadvantages that will always seem closely balanced. To undertake a journey on a road never before traveled requires character and courage: character because the choice is not obvious; courage because the road will be lonely at first. And the statesman must then inspire his people to persist in the endeavor. Great statesmen (Churchill, both Roosevelts, de Gaulle, and Adenauer) had these qualities of vision and determination; in today’s society, it is increasingly difficult to develop them.

    For all the great and indispensable achievements the Internet has brought to our era, its emphasis is on the actual more than the contingent, on the factual rather than the conceptual, on values shaped by consensus rather than by introspection. Knowledge of history and geography is not essential for those who can evoke their data with the touch of a button. The mindset for walking lonely political paths may not be self-evident to those who seek confirmation by hundreds, sometimes thousands of friends on Facebook.

    In the Internet age, world order has often been equated with the proposition that if people have the ability to freely know and exchange the world’s information, the natural human drive toward freedom will take root and fulfill itself, and history will run on autopilot, as it were. But philosophers and poets have long separated the mind’s purview into three components: information, knowledge, and wisdom. The Internet focuses on the realm of information, whose spread it facilitates exponentially. Ever-more-complex functions are devised, particularly capable of responding to questions of fact, which are not themselves altered by the passage of time. Search engines are able to handle increasingly complex questions with increasing speed. Yet a surfeit of information may paradoxically inhibit the acquisition of knowledge and push wisdom even further away than it was before.

    The poet T. S. Eliot captured this in his “Choruses from ‘The Rock”: “Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

    Facts are rarely self-explanatory; their significance, analysis, and interpretation—at least in the foreign policy world—depend on context and relevance. As ever more issues are treated as if of a factual nature, the premise becomes established that for every question there must be a researchable answer, that problems and solutions are not so much to be thought through as to be “looked up.” But in the relations between states—and in many other fields—information, to be truly useful, must be placed within a broader context of history and experience to emerge as actual knowledge. And a society is fortunate if its leaders can occasionally rise to the level of wisdom.

    Kissinger, Henry (2014-09-09). World Order (pp. 348-350). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

  2. 2
    Ponderosa on October 22, 2015

    Maybe Kissinger got wiser by 2009, but a recent issue of The Nation has a piece on the dubious philosophical underpinnings of the influential advice he gave in the 70’s.

    Nonetheless he makes a good point here: a blank mind that relies on looking up information is not a wise mind.

  3. 3
    Peter on October 27, 2015

    Has it ever occurred to the “21st Century Skill” crowd that we seek these skills in young people because their knowledge base is so weak, thus making it difficult if not impossible for them to ‘collaborate’, ‘think-critically,’ and ‘communicate’? As I share with my students regularly, “If you don’t know anything, you can’t do anything.” A shallow vocabulary means limited communication skills; narrow experiences makes it difficult to collaborate with folk who you don’t ‘get’ what they’re talking about. You can’t reason deductively without facts, nor inductively without prior experiences, thus ‘critical thinking’ becomes a fruitless exercise.
    Kelly Johnson built the SR-71 and the U-2 in the 50’s. He was ‘collaborating,’ ‘communicating,’ and ‘creating’ with a rotary phone, drafting table, and a slide rule. Kelly Johnson knew his aeronautics like no one else; that sounds like ’21st century’ skills with 20th century knowledge, because knowledge is timeless.

  4. 4
    Shawn Allison on January 22, 2019

    Peter, your post had some valid points. How can students learn if their knowledge base is so weak? Makes sense, but I respectfully question the merit in saying that students do not have knowledge – more importantly, that past students or non-21st-century students had this knowledge. For example, a grade 8 student 20 years ago would not have a knowledge base prior to starting a unit – much like a 21-century skilled student. There seems to be an assumption that in the 21-st century teachers do not teach knowledge or that students do not learn the knowledge and this couldn’t be further from the truth.

    Personally, I use Problem-Based Learning, Project-Based Learning, and Inquiry-Based Learning together in large projects. Yes, there is a lot of collaborating and communicating but there is a much deeper form of learning – the students are thinking critically! Currently, I am in my 15th year of teaching and once taught with the traditional teacher-centered model, however, I realized that the students were forgetting the information, as soon as, the test, project or year was complete. Now, my students retain difficult concepts for several years after completion – this is important! In addition, I truly believe that the collaborative skills that students are developing are more important than several of the learning outcomes – not that they aren’t important – however, these 21st-century skills will translate to future jobs.

    Moreover, there is often the assumption that teaching doesn’t occur in strategies such as Project-based learning, however, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The students do need a knowledge base – as you stated – to work and mold ideas. However, in the 21st-century the speed at which our students can find this knowledge has increased rapidly, which can allow for more time to work 21-st century skills. Still, teaching must occur prior to setting up the learning of concepts – educators just can’t send students off on their way to learn everything, that just doesn’t work.

    According to Anagün (2018) “global education reform movements goal is preparing students
    to solve complex problems associated with living in a competitive, technology-intensive
    world. Twenty-first-century learners are digital learners and independent thinkers” (p. 825), however, “these students also have high expectations for speediness and access to information. In order to manage the realities of 21st century, learners require education systems to change their practices” (p. 826). Furthermore, “it is clear that the goals of education can no longer simply provide basic literacy skills for the students. Education systems should provide higher order thinking skills and competencies for all students. For these reasons, education systems should integrate “21st-century skills” into the core curriculum. School systems have to enable students to
    develop the knowledge, skills and characteristics that will lead them to become personally successful, economically productive, and actively engaged citizens (p. 826).

    The education system must continue to improve in the Pedagogy to ensure greater learning for our students.


  5. 5
    Mike on January 23, 2019

    Any educator will tell you that state and district standards and assessments, as well as curriculum selection, are decisions that need to be made by a collaboration of teachers. Teachers know the kids they serve much better that any principal, administrator and/ or superintendent. The real challenge is also how different and diverse classrooms are with different socio-economic statuses, family backgrounds, ethnicities and learning styles. We have valuable resources for districts and state educational decision makers with Teachers that serve these diverse students and these teacher leaders can be the ones that create better curricula.

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