Archive for December, 2013

What are the “21st Century Skills”?

December 27, 2013

Back in November Alfred Thompson made a brief picture post on 21st Century Skills.  One of the commenter’s gave a list of what is commonly considered the 21st Century Skills.  This got me thinking, and it has taken me until now to get a response sort of figured out.  (I am not noted as a fast thinker but I think deep.)  After a few minutes of looking on the internet this is pretty much the list that is considered 21st Century Skills.  Weird.  These look like the same skills that teachers have been trying to impart to students since there were teachers.

Learning Skills
Critical Thinking
Creative Thinking
Collaborating
Communicating

Literacy Skills
Information Literacy
Media Literacy
Technology Literacy

Life Skills
Flexibility
Initiative
Social Skills
Productivity
Leadership

This is a great list of skills.  These are definitely skills needed for the 21st Century.  But are they skills defined by the 21st Century?  Or alternately, does the 21st Century define these skills?  As I said earlier, these skills have been around a few years, like a few thousand years.  Ugg, the guy that taught Glug how to make fire would recognize these and agree they are important life skills, and would undoubtedly agree they will be popular in 25000 years.  (I am sure someone would argue Technology Literacy requires technology.  In my opinion the abacus is technology.)   I suspect these will be popular in another 25000 years.  So what “skills” define the 21st century?  Personally I think it is kind of ridiculous to try and list a set of skills that will last 100 years.  10 or 20 years is practical, but 100 years?  So let me put the list above in the category of “Ageless Skills” and look at a more sensible list that is relevant specifically to the early 21st Century.

Can there be any argument to the fact that the most influential development to the 21st century is the computer?  The early 21st Century is based on the computer.  It defines the 21st Century.  Cell phones, cars, TV’s, almost anything electronic are computer based.  (You can get picky and say it is the microchip but “microchip skills” lacks a certain umph.)  There is no two ways about it; computer skills and there by Computer Science, are the 21st Century Skills.  Without computer skills a person is pretty much unemployable, at least at a career that earns more than $10 an hour.  Now the question is which computer skills fit the idea of “21st Century Skills”?

There are a lot of “computer skills”.

Programming

networking

building and repairing

virus removal and repair

Apps (Office, Photoshop, …)

and a couple dozen other very critical skills.

Are all these skills equally critical for everyone?  I sure hope not because most people are really bad at most of them and have no inclination to get any better at them.  But everybody should know those skills are important and even if they are bad at them they should have a little understanding of what those skills entail.  A common counter argument is you do not have to be a mechanic to drive a car.  No, but you had better know the difference between a good mechanic and one that will cheat you.  I do not believe programming is one of the required 21st Century Skills but everyone should know what it is, what it can do and why it is a desired skill.  The only way to ensure this is to be sure every kid gets a taste of it in school.  The kids need some taste in all the computer skills.  Not to the point they are skilled in all computer fields, but to the point where they understand the meaning of the skill.

As a school IT guy it would be nice if kids could be taught how to troubleshoot their own laptop issues with Google.  Now that is a 21st Century Skill.  Perhaps that can be generalized into “Troubleshooting Technology”.  Looking at the “Ageless Skills” list this new 21st Century Skill fits.  It includes Critical thinking, Media Literacy, Technology Literacy, and Initiative but it is driven by the changes brought about by the 21st Century.

21st Century Skills need to reflect the requirements of the 21st Century (or at least the first 20 years or so).   The “Ageless Skills” will always be a big priority but I think my “Troubleshooting Technology” has become a necessary skill that must be taught.  At the rate technology is taking over the world, and I do not seeing it going away anytime soon, it might have to become part of the “Ageless” list.  At least until technology troubleshoots itself, which is a scary thought.

For me “Computer Science” is just a bit too broad to be made a “21st Century Skill”.  Heck, most people, even those in the supposed know, cannot even decide on a definition of “Computer Science”.

Dang, that is one short list of 21st Century Skills.  I am going to have to think a bit deeper.

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Hanging in there with Python

December 20, 2013

I will be teaching a Python class for dual-credit this Spring semester so I figured I ought to learn Python before then.  No big deal, I am used to learning a language in a hurry to a level I can teach it, and there is no other way of learning the language.  I worked through “Think Python” by Allen Downey which got the fundamentals out of the way.  The book was OK but did a lot of string manipulation assignments which is about as exciting as watching grass grow.  Oh well, the book is free which is the major factor in my textbook selection.  I am now working through “Making Games with Python & Pygame” by Al Sweigart.  Another freebee.  This is a bit more fun but I am not too crazy about the approach.  The author gives a program code at the beginning of the chapter then disassembles and explains the code.  This would work fine for those motivated to learn the language.  For high school kids it is not so optimal.  I think I need to keep looking for a fun factor textbook.

After working with Python for a month or so I do not really understand the educational hype I keep hearing about the language.  It is a perfectly good language but there are several out there that would seem just as good.  It is definitely better than Java or C languages for an early language but for lower levels (middle school or intro high school) Small Basic is much more teachable.  Working with Python has helped be design my programming curriculum.  My Programming I will stick with Scratch, Small Basic and a very brief glance at Visual Basic.  Programming II will be either Python or Corona, depending on who took what last year.  Programming III will flip Python and Corona.  Kids that hang in there for a fourth semester can be given a choice of what they want to do.  I really need to nail this down so it is solid.  I keep jumping all over the place (Codea, Alice, App Inventor, GameMaker, Lego Mindstorms, Arduino, Flint’s latest Great Idea) because there is always something new and fun to play with out there but I do not think that approach is best for the kids.  Of course once I get this nailed down something new and cool will appear and I will have to mess with it with the kids.  I just read an article about Microsoft’s Project Siena.  Arggg!  Just say no!

December 16, 2013

Larry Cuban had an interesting post on “Predictions about Technology in K-12 and Higher Education for 2024”.  So I sat and thunk.  I have been teaching for about 30 years with a few deviations here and there.  What changes in those 30 years have I seen in teaching methods and material that technology has caused?  I have been teaching math so that has to be my primary personal reference, and I have only taught in three different high school schools so that will shade my outlook to some extent.

Thirty years has given me a chance to see the evolution of technology in education.  In high school I used a slide rule.  High tech was a bigger slide rule.  My first true experience with classroom technology was a calculator that was actually programmable.  It was a civil engineering course at a junior college and the technology was cutting edge.  The school had one and it looked like an old electric adding machine.  The programs were stored on an 8-track.  The calculator was a huge time saver for closing a property survey.  Did this tech change the way the course was taught?  Not really, we still learned the hand methods.  And we did not trust the calculator results.

My next classroom tech was with my first teaching job in 1984.  (I graduated HS in 1970 but with the combination of the Marines, various jobs and wanting to go to college as long as possible I got a pretty late start on the teaching career.)  The room had 2 Apple IIes and 2 Radio Shack TRS-80s.  There were some fun math games (Green Globs was a favorite) but there was no change in how or what I taught in mathematics.  This was the very beginning of the graphing calculators in the classroom.  I was a big fan because we could now actually see the graphs of functions and find roots without tedious algorithms.  Good old Dolciani and Saxon.  Repetition and memorization of techniques were still the methods of the day.

Next it was back to the university for the Masters in Math Ed and teaching intro math courses at the university.  Most of the tenured math profs and many of the adjuncts considered the graphing calculator a form of cheating.  Students should use their brains, not one of them calculator things.  I was a rabble rouser.  If I wanted to find the max or min of a function, I used the calculator to find an approximation instead of an algorithm that found a worst approximation.  I would assume my students had them.  If they did not they were welcome to use hand methods.  They bought calculators.  It was not changing what I was teaching, just how I was finding some of the answers.  FOIL and memorizing the quadratic formula were still hot.  (FOIL (First, Outside, Inside, Last) to me is an excellent representation of what is wrong with HS math education.  It works in one trivial problem type that technology has made inconsequential.  FOIL destroys what little value there actually is in learning to multiplying two binomials.)  During this time the SIMMS project was starting up.  SIMMS was a technology based curriculum that was attempting to change how math was taught and what math was taught.  SIMMS wanted to teach how to derive needed math, not memorize needed math, and used the graphing calculator extensively.  A whole new paradigm for teachers to learn and very much out of most teachers comfort zone.  SIMMS struggled, then died, then was somewhat reborn to look much like a traditional math curriculum.  This is also the time when Texas Instruments introduced the TI-92.  An affordable algebraic manipulator (Wolfram was out but was very expensive) that could do most of a high school precalc textbook by typing.  Say it ain’t so! Panic ensued.  High school teachers confiscated the things and banned them.  I owned one two days after they hit the market.  At the time I was taking an upper level stats course that was pretty heavy on calculus.  I started using the thing in class and answering computational questions before the rest of the class had written the problem down.  My professor wanted to borrow the thing.  He was excited because he said he could now teach stats instead of algebra and calculus.  The precalc and calc teachers saw it as a possible job killer.  The TI-92 (and subsequent TI-89) were banned.  The technology was there but there was absolutely no inclination to change teaching methods or material.  FOIL was still king.

Status quo was being maintained.  The 92 and 89 were still a bit pricy and were still not popular in HS math classrooms, especially lower algebra classes where those “necessary skills” were being taught.  (Is multiplying two binomials by hand really a “necessary skill”?)  Now to add insult to injury comes along WolframAlpha.  Panic ensues again.  The “necessary skills” in HS Algebra I, Algebra II and Precalc are really under pressure.  You can type almost anything in the box and an answer will pop out.  And all the kids have access to a computer.  After all, it is the computer age and computers are supposed to change how and what we teach.  The approach to the Wolframalpha issue was to stay quiet and maybe the kids will not find out about it.  Like that is a good solution.

Now back to the original direction of this blog, where will technology take the math curriculum by 2024.  Experience has indicated to me it will take us nowhere.  High school math content is almost identical to what it was 10 years, 20 years and even 50 years ago.  Traditionalist will still be fighting tooth and nail to maintain those 300 year old “necessary skills”.  By “traditionalists” I am referring to math teachers that are comfortable with what they know how to do, publishers that sell traditional math textbook and make really big money doing it, school boards that know how math should be taught because they were in high school 40 years ago, math methods professors who have not seen a HS classroom in 15 years and believe “technology in the classroom” means a Smartboard, and worst of all, standardized test writers (and by implication those who think a standardized test is useful for anything other than finding out who can take a standardized test).  For technology to truly change the way and what math is taught we would have to throw out the baby with the bath water.  There are just so many of those “necessary skills” (about 80% of a high school math curriculum) that are no longer skills in the Wolframalpha world.  The massive changes need to evolve the present curriculum to a true technology aware curriculum would have to happen in K – 16, which is not likely.

The big counter argument to the technology driven curriculum is the “black box” argument.  If all the kids have to do is type into a magic box then they will never understand the foundations of how things work.  I can remember the same argument when the calculator became affordable.  “Kids will not know who to multiply anymore!”    Well, they do not know how sharpen a feather quill or how to change a typewriter ribbon any more either.  When I was in high school a necessary skill was finding square roots using an algorithm or using a CRC manual to look them up (along with sine, cosine and tangent).  Technology has changed that but we are still doing the exact same problems in the textbooks.

Change in education moves like glacier.  I fear in 10 years the methods and material taught are going to be totally recognizable to a teacher from the 1960’s.  And I am an optimist.

Always something new and annoying

December 4, 2013

This week has been rough on my peace and tranquility.  The book I am planning to use for my next semester Programming II Python course has developed issues and a reply to one of  Alfred Thompson’s posts got me off on a thinking tangent.

The issue with the book is trivial but just continues my running battle with authors that make simple mistakes that complicates life for the classroom teacher.  The author has a number of useful exercise problems in each chapter.  After each exercise he gives the url to the solution website.  Some kids might use the solution to understand how the program works and compare it to their own solution.  Some kids will cut and paste and keep on truckin’.  I would prefer to not have these solutions readily available in the text.  This is a survivable issue but it is still annoying.  What really tweaks me off is the solutions have code that is not covered up to that point in the text.  Magic code should not be a feature of a beginner solution.  The magic is not extensive but is just enough to bring up the “what in the heck does this do?” question.  I have enough experience to figure the magic out but a kid looking at the solution is not going to be happy.  If magic is used, a least put a comment explaining what is does.  Turtle.x, turtle.y and turtle.redraw are fairly obvious as to what they do but still put a list of all turtle commands so the kids can see what is available for turtle commands.  If the solution uses them then the reader might need to know what is available before they work on the exercise.  And dropping in world.mainloop() with no explanation is just not good.  Since I am just learning Python myself that bit of code took me a few minutes to understand what it is doing.  I still do not know for certain how it works but hopefully the book will enlighten me in a later chapter.  These are little issues but they are just annoying enough to be a pain.

The anonymous reply to Alfred’s post regarding 21st Century Skills got me thinking about what “21st Century Skills” really means.  Are the skills Plato, Socrates and Aristotle were trying to teach considered 21st Century Skills?  Sure they are but the capital letters implies these are new and were brought on by the advent of the 21st century.  I will have to work up a later post on what a tech guy, tech teacher and math teacher (me) really considers 21st Century Skills.  I do not think the list should emphasize skills teachers have been trying to teach since the first teacher picked up a sharp rock and said “Ugh”.