Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Foreign Aid and 21st Century Skills

Right now the discourse over "21st Century Skills" reminds me of polling in the US over the correct level of foreign aid. This is a pretty old example, but you'll get the point:

Among the 801 people surveyed, 15 percent was the median figure given when Americans were asked about how much of the budget went to foreign aid. Other recent polls, including a Harris Poll in November 1993, indicated that Americans thought the Government devoted 20 percent or more of its spending to foreign assistance.

The figure is about 1 percent of the Federal budget. Total foreign aid -- military and non-military combined -- is now about $13 billion a year. About half that, devoted largely to human-development programs relating to health, family planning and economic self-help, is administered by the United States Agency for International Development.

When asked about an "appropriate" expenditure for aid, respondents to the January poll said about 5 percent of the budget, or about five times what is spent now.

Beyond that, if you asked Americans what "Democrats in congress" want the share of the budget devoted to foreign aid to be, they'd probably say 30%.

Similarly, listening to one set of critics of "21st Century Skills," you might get the impression that schools are spending a lot of time teaching analysis, synthesis, critical thinking in isolation from content knowledge. I'm sure some do (there are a lot of schools!), but if you wanted to do some data-driven analysis, and actually go into classrooms and record what was happening, you'd see very little evidence of this practice. I've seen enough of surveys of teaching practice to know I'm right, I'll leave the Googling as an exercise for dubious readers.

And while this idea of teaching thinking skills in isolation from content is not a 100% straw man, there are a hell of a lot more classrooms in the US where the opposite extreme is true, and decontextualized content and procedure is taught in isolation.

There is a consensus you have to be able to do both, and to teach both together. And if you'd ask opponents of "21st Century Skills" how much time should be spent teaching "thinking skills" or whatever in conjunction with content knowledge, I'm sure their recommendation would be significantly more time than is actually spent on these things in real classrooms. There are differences about balance, breadth vs. depth, etc., that will never go away, any more than people will stop arguing about what the prime interest rate should be or what the best marginal income tax rate is. But this idea that in our schools--nationwide, not at locally--we're already spending a lot of time on "21st Century Skills" that are driving out content, and likely to see "21st Century Skills" become dominant is just fantasy. If anyone has data on classroom practice that contradicts me, I'd like to see it.

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