James Madison and the problem of 21st century skills: A problem solving exercise


Updated August 22, 2010
Updated again August 15, 2011

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)

  • Creativity and Innovation
  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Communication and Collaboration
2. Information, Media and Technology Skills (including the following)
  • Information Literacy
  • Media Literacy
  • ICT Literacy

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.  

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Comment by Lu Yang on August 26, 2011 at 2:08pm

Finally, I finished it. I'm so sorry, it's late. I've been trying to make it new, good and relevent.

I made a crossword puzzle by the most commonly used words in our responses and here is the link http://www.armoredpenguin.com/crossword/Data/2011.08/2610/26105106.... , you can do it yourself first, then click the answer key to check it. Hope you have fun!

Comment by Justin Keever on August 25, 2011 at 12:49am
Sorry it's late...my truck was stolen yesterday from my apt complex and I've been dealing with authorities, insurance ppl, etc...it was found in the woods twenty miles away totally stripped down! What awesome luck...
Comment by Justin Keever on August 25, 2011 at 12:44am

I created a Federalist #10 calendar, including a snippet of everyone's post...Enjoy!


Comment by Edgar Huff, III on August 24, 2011 at 4:42pm
Comment by Marah Kelsey Richards on August 24, 2011 at 4:19pm
This is a synthesis of everyone's posts in a format that a high school student can digest.
  1. “The contrast between the two quotes in understanding the way of man is interesting to me.”  Madison’s understanding of human nature is in tension with the current corruption of many politicians that Madison’s solution was supposed to protect of from. 
  2. Separation of classes inevitable leads to separation of interests… factions.  Is this more aptly the source of factions then the wide sweeping umbrella of Liberty?
  3. Factions not the death of society but serves more as checks and balances.
  4. Have we ever had true liberty since our court systems control for the actions for violent actions of factions.
  5. “Madison does not see public good as tied to majority opinion but instead connected with justice.”
  6. Compromise is Madison’s key to factions as should it be a key to current political turmoil.
  7. If factions were inherently bad then so too would be the primary element it is composed of… Liberty.
  8. Representation was an avenue to allow for difference in opinion with giving rule to factions.  Current issue: is the debt ceiling being handled in the same way?
  9. Madison’s view on human nature is quite negative and is representative government really representing people or just the views of those representatives?

10. Madison was “completely brilliant” with the idea of extending the sphere of representation as a solution to the effects of fractions.

11. “Madison was making the point that people do not necessarily know what is good for them and therefore direct democracy would enable people to destroy what the revolution had accomplished,” but the revolution was fueled by the people’s desires.

12.  Madison really views the root cause of factions to be: ‘ “The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests.” ‘

13. Madison’s negative view of factions misses the beauty of a group of people joining together to fight for a common interest… like the American Rev.

14. Madison’s ability to solve a major problem like factions using a logical progression is magical while maintaining strong ties to ideological aims is fantastical.

15. Republican form is the solution over a pure democracy.  Unfortunately this does not necessarily protect us from ”unfit characters.”

16. Madison’s discussion of the balance of liberty and the effects of factions is sill debated around the world.

17. Factions can have positive results: women’s rights civil rights…

18. Fire scares people and so should factions!

19. Factions are innate in the hearts of men.

20. Teachers must unite for the better good regardless of personal opinion.  Tip my hate to Madison’s zeal for diverse opinions.

21. Somehow America is still plagued with the maladies of factions.

22. Madison speaking to refute discrimination?

23. Madison 18th century man with 21st century solutions.  Bravo!

24. While the republican model has done some damage control with factions, the sheer size of this country has enabled factions to thrive.

25. Factions like fire are destructive, but the effects can be limited.

26. Americans are sill wary of the power of groups that have a footing in the government.

27. A bland homogenous society, no thanks you.

28. Problem solving 101 from Professor Madison:  All problems cannot be completely dissolved in that case limit the effect of the problem.

29. Federalist #10 great primary source for the classroom and… as a means of classroom management!

30. Republican form of government not perfect but best we got.  Thanks Madison.

31. Technology has allowed for greater communication between factions than Madi

Comment by Ya-Shen Huang on August 24, 2011 at 3:26pm
Comment by Summer Hill on August 24, 2011 at 3:22pm

In remixing the Federalist No. 10, I chose to use the format of the traditional Christmas song The Twelve Days of Christmas. My remix includes taking the thirty-three responses of my classmates and using them in the days leading to the ratification of the Constitution.


The 33 Days of Ratification


On the 33rd day of ratification political parties became impartial and just.


On the 32nd day of ratification the self interest of the people was acknowledged.


On the 31st day of ratification factions created a balance between the common good and political activity


On the 30th day of ratification technology created a new approach to government


On the 29th day of ratification balance is discovered again between liberty and the dangers of bias.


On the 28th day of ratification the Federalists papers lends itself to the education of the people.


On the 27th day of ratification citizens are at the forefront of the government.


On the 26th day of ratification the idea of extreme equality is introduced.


On the 25th day of ratification the role of representatives has evolved.


On the 24th day of ratification the limitation of factions is enforced.


On the 23rd day of ratification the size of factions has increased.


On the 22nd day of ratification problems of the future are recognized.


On the 21st day of ratification factions have led to a “do-nothing” Congress.


On the 20th day of ratification factions threaten liberty.


On the 19th day of ratification tests the ideals of diversity.


On the 18th day of ratification factions hurt human nature and human nature hurts liberty.


On the 17th day of ratification the dangers of factions is reality.


On the 16th day of ratification factions may pose great advantages than disadvantages.


On the 15th day of ratification the dangers of factions have played out in the 21st century.


On the 14th day of ratification the approval of wisdom in representatives is questioned.


On the 13th day of ratification were recognized as a contemporary issue.


On the 12th day of ratification factions are needed at times and have added to the civil rights of our country.


On the 11th day of ratification factions do not protect individual rights.


On the 10th day of ratification factions argue the struggle between majority and minority.


On the 9th day of ratification republicanism as thought of as the “most suitable” approach to ensure liberty.


On the 8th day of ratification representatives are seen as a cause of factions.


On the 9th day of ratification representatives are charged with the task of knowing their communities and being able to reason.


On the 8th day of ratification factions are compared to the dangers of fire.


On the 7th day of ratification a balance is needed between representatives and their intentions.


On the 6th day of ratification public good is linked to common good.


On the 5th day of ratification factions are compared to the downfall of the economy


On the 4th day of ratification James Madison foresaw its dangers looking into the future.


On the 3rd day of ratification factions have led to a socio-economic divide.


On the 2nd day of ratification factions have led the unethical character of politicians.


On the 1st day of ratification delegates met to sign the Constitution.


Comment by Robert Hooper on August 24, 2011 at 3:04pm

For my remix I decided to create a word puzzle of important words/phrases that were found in the responses to Federalist Paper #10. I wanted to make a practical activity that could be fun for students who might be studying the Constitution.


Federalist Paper #10


Faction, Government, Madison, Constitution, Federalist, Democracy, Interests, Technology, Rights, Liberty, James, Representation, Elites, Majority, Minority, Balance, Republic, Commongood, Justice, Effects, Causes, Timeless, Weaker, Population, Intellectual

Comment by Christian Kupatt on August 24, 2011 at 3:03pm

For my creative interpretation of Madison's Federalist #10 in the form of a haiku. I choose to do this, as I feel that it summarizes the point of Madison's argument, but forces it to be reduced to small, understandable words due to the structure of a haiku.


Factions can oppress

Freedom must be protected

Use the system to solve


Comment by Melissa Hoard on August 24, 2011 at 2:39pm

Here you'll find a word analysis I did of our class's responses to Madison's Federalist #10.


Google Doc: Madison Remix



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Learn Digital History Blog

Teaching about Historical Reconstructions using the Vail Telegraph Key

The reconstruction of historical inventions can provide a powerful context for students to explore how inventions affect society. In fact, the social impact of the invention of the telegraph ripples through to today. It set the stage for the invention of other communications technologies such as radio, television, and the Internet. The ability to send messages across wires in a fraction of the time humans were accustomed had a profound impact on society. Rossiter Johnson captured the spirit of that change in an 1882 poem written in tribute Morse and the telegraph. The poem describes limits of humans imposed by nature, but imagines that with the invention of the telegraph those limitations begin to fade away.

But one morning he made him a slender wire,
  As an artist’s vision took life and form,
While he drew from heaven the strange fierce fire
  That reddens the edge of the midnight storm;
And he carried it over the Mountain’s crest,
And dropped it into the Ocean’s breast;
And Science proclaimed, from shore to shore,
That Time and Space ruled man no more.

Students often have myopic views about how technologies impact their own lives. While it is true that students today seem to live in a constant state of ‘revolution’ regarding new technologies, an understanding of history can temper our enthusiasms. By studying records and relics from the past, such as Johnson’s poem, students can build up a long view of technological innovation and understand how the telegraph fits in that history.

Students can also use these experiences to explore important historical skills related to cause and effect. A reconstruction of the Vail telegraph key provides students with an opportunity to examine the development of scientific knowledge and challenge the narrowly constructed textbook history of the telegraph.

The history of the telegraph is typically transmitted to students as a neat and tidy story about Samuel Morse and the 1844 transmission from Baltimore to Washington DC of the message “What hath God wrought?” But, history is never so simple. Behind the story of Morse is the complex history of the invention of the telegraph, and that story is impossible to tell with Alfred Vail.

A social studies activity exploring this complicated history might begin with the simple question – Who was on the other end of the message sent by Samuel Morse on May 24, 1844? Of course, it was Alfred Vail. From there, students might explore Vail’s 1845 book length survey of the history of the telegraph, The American Electro Magnetic Telegraph: With the Reports of Congress, and a Description of all Telegraphs Known, Employing Electricity or Galvanism.  The book, which has three parts, includes a detailed description of the telegraph system developed by Vail and Morse; letters, reports, and other correspondences about the development of the telegraph system; and a contemporary history of the telegraph. Students can analyze this source to develop questions for inquiry about the development of the telegraph in the 1830s and 1840s.

From Hathi trust and Harvard Library at http://hdl.handle.net/2027/hvd.hw1wl0

The Lincoln Telegram project provides another avenue for exploring the newly invented telegraph and, specifically, how it affected the course of the Civil War and its participants.

The Lincoln Telegrams Project

The Lincoln Telegrams project (http://lincolntelegrams.com) includes digital versions and transcriptions of 354 telegram memos written by Lincoln from March 10, 1864 to his death in April of 1865.  The telegram memos function as source material for helping students and teachers understand how to analyze historical sources using the Hicks, Doolittle, and Ewing’s SCIM-C method (http://historicalinquiry.com). Direct access to the telegrams, either via the web or through an iPad app with the same content, allows students to explore the historical context and follow the ways in which the telegraph affected communications during that era.

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