After one year on the job, one thing is clear about Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr: He never misses the opportunity to preach the importance of MCPS students mastering “21st century” skills. Here is a typical Starr 21st century drumbeat on the issue:
"True, the schools must teach hard skills—math, science, reading—but it's what he calls ‘21st-century skills’ that need to be emphasized as well. Problemsolving, understanding complex problems and working in groups are skills that will allow us to compete on the global landscape. These are the skills that lead to innovation.”
Last month, the National Research Council of the National Academies issued a report on 21st century skills. The report is worth reading. You can find it here.
The Academies report identified three broad 21st century skill sets or competences. They include cognitive skills (e.g., the ability to think—Was there ever a time when that wasn't important?); intrapersonal skills (e.g., the ability to regulate emotions—Same thing, when was that not important?); and interpersonal skills (e.g., the ability to express or communicate with others—We've been telling kids to use their insides voices for decades now, right?).
OK, I’m going out on a limb here, but this stuff sounds vaguely like the common sense stuff my father drilled into me when I worked for him. For a large Washington DC catering company, my father hired and managed workers—bartenders, car hops/parkers, dishwashers, and waiters—for all kinds of fancy affairs. From the age of 15 through my early 30s I worked part-time with my father in whatever capability required (e.g., I was a waiter at a Ted Lerner—owner of the Washington Nationals—family wedding). The extra income was always appreciated, and the cash tips were extremely nice. My father died many years ago, but I can still hear—in my head—his words of wisdom about work, working, and work skills. And they sound just like what Starr and others are preaching as new 21st century skills: problem solving, initiative, grit, flexibility, coordination, teamwork, service orientation.
I used to think that my father was some kind of wizard, but he wasn’t. He was a simple man who just mastered everyday smarts and used a lot of common sense approaches to manage people and customers. And it all worked and worked well. And he was a ninth grade high school dropout.
Years after I stopped working for him, I came across a book by Charlie Trotter called Lessons in Service. It was as if Trotter had picked my father’s brain about work and written it all down. And even though this book is about the restaurant industry, I dare anyone to read the book and not come to the conclusion that it really is all about what makes any successful workplace a success—now, today, and tomorrow.
Of course some of what Starr and other 21st century advocates are preaching is real and some skills are new (but in my opinion that list is really short). Still, a lot of what I read in the Academies report and elsewhere is just plain old-school common sense that fits any century. And I wish that educators, including Starr, would honor what was and where things really come from and stop trying so hard to sell us on the next great thing that really is just recycled wisdom from the past. The Academies report mentions, for example, that "hardworking" is a 21st century skills. Duh! Really? Or as my old man would say if he had Starr in a room: "Dude, put some elbow grease on that thing."