There has been much ink spent on the debate around 21st century skills. The eminent historian Diane Ravitch has rightly blasted 21st century skills as a fad with lineage that can be traced back to at least the early part of the 20th century when "the dean of the education school at Stanford called on his fellow educators to abandon their antiquated academic ideas and adapt education to the real life and real needs of students."????????????
Despite the criticism of Ravitch and other leading lights in American education, 21st century skills have taken hold not only in education circles but in state law. Consider Ohio where state law now requires a senior project to be completed by a "student or a group of students" for graduation. In lock-step with the mantras of 21st century skills, the purpose of the senior project is to assess the student's:
a) Mastery of core knowledge in a subject area chosen by the student;
b) Written and verbal communication skills;
c) Critical thinking and problem-solving skills;
d) Real-world and interdisciplinary learning;
e) Creative and innovative thinking;
f) Acquired technology, information, and media skills;
g) Personal management skills such as self-direction, time management, work ethic, enthusiasm, and the desire to produce a high quality product.
These 21st century skills are actually listed in state law????- yes, even a prescription for "enthusiasm" - and the state is expected to hold schools and districts accountable for delivering them. And, this is where the theory of 21st century skills melts down under the heat of implementation.
Pity the officials at the Ohio Department of Education - and at other state education departments facing similar legislative mandates - who have to come up with criteria for measuring and determining whether students, or groups of students, have actually acquired these skills. Imagine a young person in 2014 not receiving a high school diploma because they have been deemed as not having the "personal management skills such as self-direction, time management, work ethic, enthusiasm and the desire to produce a high quality product." This is a lawsuit simply waiting to happen.
As with earlier education fads, 21st century skills will surely collapse under their own weight, but one must hope that schools, teachers and students are not forced to take time away from subjects like Algebra, American History, and English Literature to prepare for their "creative and innovative thinking assignments."