7 Essential Questions from GCEN’s Singapore Symposium

Worthwhile discussions tend to raise more questions than answers. Here are seven vexing questions after deliberations with education policymakers from across the globe.

Last week I was fortunate to join seven practicing teacher leaders from four different countries while they engaged in high-level policy deliberations with education ministers and system leaders from 10 municipalities across the globe.

As is true of any worthwhile discussion, we left with more questions than answers. Here are seven of the most vexing ones:

  1. Are 21st-century skills distinct from those required in previous centuries? With the exception of information technology (IT) and certain media skills, all of the other popular “21st-century skills” were every bit as important in previous centuries: critical thinking, communication, creativity, collaboration, etc. We can dance with nuance all night, but I’m skeptical of the notion that these are newly important skills.
  2. What pedagogical shifts are required to teach 21st-century skills? Consider the complexity of instruction that effective teachers have practiced for years: differentiating lessons to ensure that the needs of all learners are being met in a safe community. Engaging students requires strategic reliance on the four Cs mentioned above, so it is not clear that anything is “new” about classroom best practices.
  3. Will the 21st century require teaching new skills or redesigned systems for new objectives? Maybe? But to me, the 21st-century education conversation is really about equipping all students with these skills (rather than just the college-bound minority). If we’re talking about ensuring that all learners (50 million in the US alone) are capable of demonstrating learning at a high level, then we should follow Finland’s lead by allocating resources to achieve equitable outcomes. Finland’s success is due in large part to minimal variations in achievement across schools and regions, despite economic differences. The US remains one of four countries (Israel, Slovenia, and Turkey are the others) where schools serving students from wealthy families are better funded than those serving students from poorer families.
  4. Do teaching and learning conditions reflect 21st-century collaborative environments? This may be the most familiar question to anyone who has wondered why students ‘power down’ before entering the classroom or why the teaching profession maintains feudal hierarchies while other sectors have flattened their operations. There is a lot of talk about schools evolving to reflect the times, but few are willing to design schools that look different from those they attended as students. For more on this, consider the 15,000 Hour Problem.
  5. Is learning a matter of process or outcomes? If learning is about process, then how do we deal with the diverse outcomes that ensue? If learning is about outcomes, then how will we prepare students for an unpredictable, ever-changing world? It seems to me that we have been slanted toward outcomes for too long, but I’m not about to kick the pendulum in a new direction without the insight of practicing teachers. (That’s what the comments section is for!)
  6. Is cultural bias carried into discussions of 21st-century skills? Specifically, do we neglect the skill sets of second language learners and students living in poverty when assessing for [fill in your favorite “21st-century” buzzword here]? The survival skills exhibited by increasing numbers of students from these backgrounds are too often glossed over when giving lip-service to “high-expectations.”
  7. How can assessment systems both measure and promote student learning? When participants at last week’s meeting were asked if any aspect of their summative assessment system inhibits the goals of appropriate teaching, only US delegates had a hand in the air (adamantly!), save for one representative from Hong Kong. He explained that while exams have been part of “chopstick cultures” since the seventh century, they are the primary impediment to modifying curriculum. Sounds like a (very) familiar case of the tail wagging the dog.

Questions without definitive answers make for the best discussion starters. You’ve gotten a sense of my perspective, and I’m interested in yours. Send this to a friend or colleague and let’s grapple with these complex questions in the comments section.

Related Reads

  • JustinMinkel

    “May I be excused? My brain is full.”


    Your brilliant questions make me feel like the pin-headed character in the Far Side strip asking to be excused since his brain is full.  So much to think about here, but here are three thoughts out of the many you have set churning in my full brain:

    1. “With the exception of information technology (IT) and certain media skills, all of the other popular “21st-century skills” were every bit as important in previous centuries: critical thinking, communication, creativity, collaboration, etc.”

    I think the huge difference is that content used to really, really matter.  If you were an apprentice cobbler, yes, you needed creativity and communication skills.  But you could also be pretty sure that what your mentor taught you about cobbling shoes would still be relevant in a generation, and certainly would still be relevant in 10 years.  I don’t know if that’s the case with most content now.

    I asked a friend of mine who works on things like hydrogen cells and color systems for e-readers if the content he learned K-12 helped him do what he was doing.  His answer was no.  (The ways of approaching problems, communicating, asking questions, and so on were tremendously useful, but not the content itself.) Further, he said that even the content in his Masters program in Engineering wasn’t useful, because the technology he works with didn’t exist 5 years ago when he graduated.

    Blew my mind.  I asked, “So what should I be teaching 3rd graders?”  No hesitation.  “You should be teaching them how to learn new things.”

    2. “The US remains one of four countries (Israel, Slovenia, and Turkey are the others) where schools serving students from wealthy families are better funded than those serving students from poorer families.”

    This, too, blows my mind.  I’m skeptical, I admit.  I assume this means public schools?  I’ve heard of too many tales of great inequity in other countries to believe in the statement fully, though I’d buy that the US is one of the worst in terms of inequity. 

    It’s hard to even wrap my mind around the reality I heard expressed by several delegations at the International Summit that, indeed, those who need the most and best to make it actually receive the most and best.  I’m in a high-poverty, high-performing public school, and my students succeed in large part because we’re a pocket of extreme poverty in a middle-class district and we do receive the things our students need (like effective PD for teachers, ESL specialists, an in-school clinic) to excel.

    I taught the same demographic in New York and my students now come to me a grade or two above the kids in New York.  That conveys a simple truth: “There’s nothing wrong with the kids.  There IS something deeply wrong with the system.”

    3. On the outcomes vs. process question, Gandhi was asked, in effect, if the ends justify the means.  He said it’s a false question; if you take path X to reach point Z, or path Y to reach point Z, you’re not arriving at the same point Z.  The path shapes the destination.  I think the way our students learn, the process and non-cognitive skills, have a profound effect on the products they create–whether it’s a research paper or a science experiment.

    Thanks for the brilliant post.  No more for awhile, though, please–my brain is full.

    • KristofferKohl

      Learning, Unlearning and Relearning: At home and abroad

      Teaching students how to learn, un-learn, and re-learn is an idea I was first introduced to in Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It. It’s a new literacy. The tension I’ve always had in my mind is at what point we stop teaching ‘the basics’ and transition to focusing on teaching students how to learn. It occurs to me that my K-12 education equipped me with the basics and I learned how to learn in college by extending and connecting what I was learning. If we’re talking about bringing metacognition into the K-12 classroom, what does that look like? Is it simply a matter of modifying our questioning strategies? Is it encouraging instructive failure? (I’m avoiding answering the questions by asking them 🙂

      There was a terrific TEDx speech from a teacher in Philadelphia (Diana Laufenberg) who posed a similar question: what is the role of teachers when students no longer need to go to school to access content? In the days of the one room schoolhouse, children had to go to school to get information. That paradigm has shifted, but it’s not clear we have remade the profession as facilitators of learning. 

      As for the stat about funding equity, it originally came from Marc Tucker’s introduction in Surpassing Shanghai, but it came up again in Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World. The book continues returning to the quality of teachers as the primary factor in student outcomes. While Finland fosters conditions that make the profession attractice to the best candidates, other countries try achieving that outcome on the back end through coercive, distorted incentives meant to accelerate effectiveness and eliminate low-performers. Problem is that even if you eliminate the small percentage of low performers, there aren’t enough high performers being developed to replace them, as well as teachers who are escaping an unfriendly profession in droves.

      The modal year of teaching experience used to be 15+. Now it is 1 year. No one ever believes that stat, so check out the quote in the right hand column at the top of page 10 in NCTAF’s Who Will Teach? Experience Matters