I get a kick out of it when educational reformers (aka politicians) rationalize their foolish public education policies by saying things like, “We are preparing kids for technology and jobs that don’t exist today,” and, “It is essential that we prepare our students to succeed in the 21st century,” as if they have stumbled upon some great revelation. They act as if today’s children and today’s schools face some magical challenge that they never faced before. That would, indeed, be a revelation if it was true. But, of course, it is not.
One of the “go to” political phrases reform proponents have been using for nearly two decades now is the importance of creating “21st century skills” in our students. Why, I can remember being in a panic in 1999, because I was afraid that my “20th century skills” wouldn’t do me much good when the calendar flipped to 2000. What would I do; what WOULD I do? Actually, I’m kidding. I wasn’t in a panic at all, because I knew the phrase was nothing but a trite saying created by some PR guy for politicians who were intent on convincing us there was some special new law they needed to implement to prepare kids to succeed. I was also pretty sure that whatever magical potion we were told was the elixir to all that ailed us, there would be a long line of businessmen waiting in the wings to figure out a way to profit from whatever was mandated.
But, I’ve been wrong before, so to be sure I wasn’t missing something I looked up what “21st century skills” were, and I discovered that they were not much different than the skills I had learned in the previous century; skills like “communicating effectively,” “working collaboratively,” “problem solving,” “creative thinking,” and “being socially responsible,” to name a few. Check, check, check, check, and check. Nothing new there. So, apparently that’s why those of us who are older than 18 haven’t dissolved into a puddled mess in a corner completely devoid of ability to survive in this century. Nothing much had really changed.
Because I am old, I can remember one of my math teachers bringing the first calculator I had ever seen into his math class; because I am old, I learned how to type in a high school typing class with a noisy, old Smith Corona typewriter because PC’s didn’t exist; because I am old, I remember taking pictures with a camera that had a removable flash bulb that was hot to the touch; because I am old, when I first began teaching, copies were made on funky-smelling mimeograph machines with blurry blue ink; and because I am old, my family had an old rotary phone that utilized a party line that included a few of our neighbors who were more than interested in the conversations we were having with whoever was on the other end of the line.
Amazingly, today I can use a calculator on my iPhone that has more capabilities than that first calculator I saw; I now pound out written documents on a computer or iPad; I take pretty cool pictures (and even videos) with my iPhone, the quality of which is better than the clunky old camera I had when I was young; I can actually make a copy today by knowing which button to push on the Ricoh copier that sits near my office; and I have figured out how to call people all over the world on my iPhone with nary a rotary phone in sight. Hecksfire, I can even navigate the internet from my phone in the comfort of my lounge chair.
And, not a one of these things existed when I was in school.
Similarly, before our generation, there was another group of schoolkids who used an outhouse as a restroom; who traveled by horse and buggy; and who communicated with someone across the country via telegraph.
Amazingly, they learned how to flush a toilet, drive a car, and use a telephone.
In other words, when educational propagandists pretend as if this is the first generation of kids that schools are preparing “for things that don’t even exist today,” it is pure, political hogwash.
So, how in the world have we Twentieth Century relics survived?
Perhaps it is because our education didn’t require teachers to spend every waking hour preparing us to pass some stupid test a testing company had made millions of dollars creating. Perhaps it is because becoming educated was about learning to use our brains for something other than memorizing useless information to regurgitate on a test that politicians like to pretend would “tell our community how our schools are performing,” as they like to say. Perhaps it was because not everyone was forced to take classes they had no interest in or would never use, and people understood it was more important for us to learn how to THINK, COMMUNICATE, WORK HARD and SOLVE PROBLEMS, regardless of what life threw at us.
So, the next time you hear a policy wonk utter the phrase “21st century skills,” or “We must prepare our students for jobs that don’t exist today,” just remember, the same thing could have been said about us.
Tom Dunn is the superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.