“We are no longer interested in what units of knowledge students possess. We now focus on what students can do with information.” That was the main theme of the “21st Century Learning Environment” report presented to the Kansas State Board of Education in November and adopted this week.
This plan proposes to develop “critical thinking skills” that are “universal across all areas, math, English, etc.” No need to study content in any depth when you have universal “critical thinking skills.”
Normally I can walk away from benign position statements that have no effect.
But in this last month I have walked into several schools that are already implementing these “visions.” The effect is already devastating.
Veteran teachers burn my ears with the mandates forced on them. They can only speak for a few minutes each class, and then only to give directions for this problem-based learning. Students will become “independent learners.” Across all subjects and down to junior high levels, students will engage in exercises in group ignorance.
Muzzled and essentially handcuffed, teachers must stand aside. “I learned biology,” they complain, “and I can’t use it!” On their own, the students are learning little. And much of the little they learn is wrong. This new fad is a resurrection of the 1970s individualized learning and the 1990s cooperative teaching, fads that were both proven failures.
But can students develop “universal critical thinking skills” so they don’t need to know anything in a specific discipline? The “critical thinking” movement is also about 20 years old and lives on among those who make big bucks speaking and presenting workshops on it. Education schools like it because they believe that you don’t have to know anything to teach.
But the fallacy of any universal “critical thinking” is easy to show. You cannot solve a chess problem unless you know how to play chess. You cannot fix a car problem unless you know how a car works. And you cannot cure a medical problem unless you know both anatomy/physiology and the appropriate surgery or medicine. And becoming a chess master does not improve your ability fixing cars or curing patients.
Simply, no “critical thinking” skill is generalizable. Will Rogers put it clearly when he said: “There is nothing so stupid as an educated man, if you get off the thing that he was educated in.”
Other countries know they must continually expand the depth of education of all of incoming generations. The American “21st Century” strategy of just looking up information is a lazy dodge using technology. It ignores the fact that you have to have a basic knowledge in each area in order to be able to ask the questions, and to be able to understand the answers.
There is a reason that the term has switched from “21st Century Schools” to “21st Century Learning Environment.” The futurists who propose this “vision” do not ultimately believe in schools and the rich proven context of the face-to-face classroom with a well-trained teacher. Education-futurist literature predicts that students will remain at home on computers, “learning” from teachers who are also at home on their computers. Going even further, some even propose that we can stop teaching students to read or write, since computers can scan and read books to us, and computer programs can translate our speech into writing. This “21st Century...” proposal stops short of these no-schools, no-read, no-write “visions” but takes us up to this doorstep.
Far from being a valid “vision,” this is a dangerous delusion. If followed, these so-called “21st Century Schools” will push our children’s level of education back to the 18th Century.
John Richard Schrock trains biology teachers and lives in Emporia.