How can James Madison help us better understand how to apply 21st century skills in teaching and learning? The answer is an exercise in problem solving. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills features problem solving as a key skill for success in school today (see more here). James Madison, the father of the Constitution, was a world class problem solver. Maybe Madison was ahead of his time, or better yet maybe we can learn something about problem solving from Madison.
One of the greatest problems of Madison's day was the question of how to make democracy work. No democracy had, previous to the 1780s, been successful. The problems besting democracy were multiple. As Madison put it in Federalist #10, "Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths."
The problem of factions stood out for Madison as one particularly vexing impediment to a successful democracy. To resolve this problem, Madison suggested a specific system of representative democracy, partly described in Federalist #10. The fix for Madison preserved liberty while guarding against the narrow self-interests of factions. Madison supported a government with representatives who were close enough to the people they represented so as to understand and reflect their interests, but far enough removed so as to check the sometimes unruly narrow interests of small groups. The resulting system of government can be frustratingly deliberate, but safeguards the people from the passions of individuals, small groups and even majorities that do not have the interest of the whole in mind.
How did Madison solve his problem? Ultimately, he solved it by striking a delicate balance between liberty, diversity of thought, and the reasoned judgement of representatives. The system framed by Madison was designed to control the effects of factions instead of causes of factions. Madison reasoned that the latent cause of factions is liberty, and liberty is, in Madison's words, "sown in the nature of man." Since removing the cause of factions (i.e. liberty) is undesirable, controlling for the negative effects of liberty is the next best option.
At the onset of this post, I suggested that we might learn something from Madison's approach to problem solving, so let's try it out. The problem we are considering is what we'll call, for connivence sake, the problem of 21st century skills. Specifically, it is the problem that emerges when we emphasize a skills approach to education given the current climate of academic standards and high-stakes testing. A chorus of critics have suggested that emphasizing 21st century skills, specifically those skills put forward by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills is mistaken. Some have suggested that P21 skills are faddish and even redundant, but the most consistent complaint is that these 21st century skills lack an explicit grounding in academic content. For more on these critiques see the following
• Video on The National Summit on 21st Century Skills from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2009)
• Highlights from a Common Core Conference on 21st century skills that critiques the 21st century framework
The P21 Skills framework includes the following skills as illustrated in the graphic below.
1. Learning and Innovation Skills (including the following)
3. Life and Career Skills
These three sets of skills are supported by Core Subjects and 21st Century Themes.
With a nod to Madison, let's examine the problem of 21st century skills given the critique of the groups such as the Common Core by first looking at the issue of fads and redundancy. Much on the list above might look familiar. Critical thinking and problem solving are staples in most academic and professional preparation programs. Likewise, innovation and creativity are have long been valued in the workplace and in schools. Most academic standards include skills such as the ones featured in the P21 project as either a subset or context for the presentation of academic content. For example, the National History Standards include standards for historical thinking such as Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision-Making. The inclusion of these skills in a stand-alone project is, according to the critics, redundant and in some ways distracting.
The second issue has to do with the lack of explicit academic content. The P21 standards are supported by academic content (as illustrated in the image above), but the standards do not make explicit what content might be learned using specific P21 skills. For example, under a P21 standard in the area of Critical Thinking and Problem Solving, students are expected to "effectively analyze and evaluate evidence, arguments, claims and beliefs." In contrast, the National History Standard for Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision-Making requires students to "support interpretations with historical evidence," and "marshal evidence of antecedent circumstances." Unlike the P21 skills, the history standards are situated within the context of a larger effort to support disciplinary thinking, in this case aimed at authentic historical inquiry. The P21 standards float free of an academic context. This lack of an academic emphasis in the P21 skills has been the main line of critique for Common Core. Diane Ravitch, a Trustee at Common Cause sumed up the critique. "We have neglected to teach [students] that one cannot think critically unless one has quite a lot of knowledge to think about. One thinks critically by comparing and contrasting and synthesizing what one has learned. One must know a great deal before she or he can begin to reflect on its meaning and look for alternative explanations."
Despite these two issues, P21 has been adopted by 16 states including North Carolina. At the same time, states are under increased pressure to standardize instruction around academic content. So, the problem is, an overemphasis on P21 skills might undermine students' performance on academic standards-based tests. I, for one, do not want to abandon the 21st century skills. In fact, to the contrary I think these skills are "sown in the nature" of learning - to borrow a phrase from Madison. As with Madison and liberty, I would argue that P21 skills are immutable, and the consequences of eliminating the cause of our problem (i.e. an emphasis on P21 skills) are greater than the problem itself.
Continuing to follow Madison reasoning, I think great attention should be given to the process of teaching and learning (i.e. the effect) as opposed to P21 skills (i.e. the cause). Teaching and learning involves the process of applying skills to content - e.g. historical thinking; spatial reasoning, literacy, and algebraic reasoning. If we use Madison's approach to problem solving, we can control for the effects of P21 skills by focusing on teaching and learning. To control for these effects, I would propose that no skill (whether 21st century or not) be introduced in a classroom unless in the context of academic content.
Here is a simple example from a recent class at NC State. This exercise illustrates how we can embed a P21 skill in an academic context. The exercise takes the skill of creativity and applies it to the study of Federalist #10. Instead of focusing creativity as a a detached skill, students were expected to make a creative interpretation (specifically a new, good and relevant interpretation) of Federalist #10. The result is the video below. In a follow up, students posted additional interpretations as replies to this post.