Practise and 21st Century Skills


Originally posted on Half an Hour, December 9, 2009.

Responding to Andrew Pass, Fencing & the New School

> policy-makers can get all mumbo-jumbo about 21st century skills...

You write as though the domains of 'practice' and '21st century skills' are diametrically opposed. But this is not the case at all.

Nobody I know believes that you simply learn from exposure, and not from the sort of focused effort you describe in your examples. People learn by training their mind, just as they do by exercising their muscles. That's how connections are created: very rarely from single instances, and more commonly from repeated experiences.

The difference between 21st century learning and what preceeds it has to do more with (a) the content of that learning, and (b) the construction of practice exercises.

With respect to content, we know that simply drilling in grammar, mathematics, and (perhaps) geography will leave a student woefully unprepared for contemporary society. A much wider range of skills is required, ranging from information literacy, multimedia production, and managing complex phenomena.

With respect to construction, while it is tempting to focus on *simple* and well-defined practise sessions, as you describe in your post, and while sometimes these may even be useful, it is more educationally efficacious to engage in complex and varied practice sessions, in order to learn *multiple* skills or concepts in a single activity, and to experience these from various perspectives.

Drilling a single riposte over and over , or drilling a three-point stance over and over, will produce a very good riposte or three-point stance, but will not (despite the misleading examples provided) produce effective fencers or football players. Practice is specific skills helps, but any athlete knows that the best practice is real-game experience. Because you need to learn the various nuances of the game that can't be described and that will never ever form part of a practice regimen.

21st century literacies focus on the much greater range of competencies required in a dynamic and complex environment, and the complex and dynamic educational methodology required to learn anything more complex than simply defined skills. That doesn't mean the skills are useless. But it does mean that it would be a horrible mistake to assume that training in just those skills can substitute for a real 21st century education.
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