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.

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