Partnership for the 21st Century Core Subjects and Themes: Be Careful of the Silos

Below please find the Partnership’s identification of the core content they would argue should be the foci of a 21st Century curriculum spectrum.
  • English, reading or language arts
  • World languages
  • Arts
  • Mathematics
  • Economics
  • Science
  • Geography
  • History
  • Government and Civics
In addition and far more importantly I think the group offers several themes they believe that underly the formal content of the subject areas above. These are:
Two thoughts come to mind:
1. In your experience, how often do teachers; their curriculum; and their lesson design, become bogged down on the “content-facts” and fail to leave the time for or make the time to create lessons that highlight thematic instruction?
2. Even as noble as these themes are and I embrace and endorse all of them utterly, do their criticality still suffer by how teachers and by school systems approach their instruction?
I fear the answer to both questions is pretty much the same. Teachers, either because they hadn’t been trained in their teacher preparation institutions, or because there has not formerly been an instructional design emphasis in their school systems, more often than not at best address thematic underpinnings such as these above at best haphazardly.
Throw in at least two other yes-buts:
1. Since thematic issues are cross-disciplinary, school systems haven’t been smart enough to design organizational sharing and co-planning cultures among subject area teachers or among self-contained elementary teachers to facilitate the kind of process learning the themes demand.
2. It’s pretty easy to guess my other yes-but. The infernal perception and / or reality of accountability and test assessment measures continuously imposed on schools and on teachers often influences the lesson and unit designers to AVOID teaching to any sort of futures-based interdisciplinary theme.
So, it’s safe, it’s less risky to stay to surface content and to at best identify such themes when it may by serendipity present itself in an isolated lesson or two. This is in comparison to any concerted effort to consistently address and weave these all-important themes into the program’s highest expectations.
I am NOT demeaning what the the Partnership advocates. I am endorsing it. I am also saying that wishing won’t make it so.
Therefore I will try to offer two surface solutions to the yes-buts I raised and hope to get deeper into these in future posts after I continue to react to the Partnership model for futures-based schooling.
Point one: The school-organizational system and / or culture does not lend itself to designing such instruction.
Yep. They don’t. The traditional 40 minute day is still the rule of the day and often required by state education agencies. This is even true in elementary classrooms where one might think there is more latitude to reorganize the day.
But it can be done when the leadership recognizes that is should be done and when the leadership works with its stakeholders to grasp the same vision, adjust or replace its educational values, and make it happen. A great example, and I will provide more up the road is, Bethpage Schools’ 21st Century Scholars.

Point two: Ah the tests …..! Need I say more, often the excuse for why we can’t do anything!

This is a harder issue to rebut. I acknowledge the angst and will not take the soap box against it yet whilst others do a much better job about railing against it.

Nonetheless I would argue that good teaching and good lesson designs that address the kinds of themes the Partnership advocate can first of all be assessed for any standards you wish to throw at them and secondly may in fact be more effective lesson strategies to ensure that students can demonstrate competency and mastery of content and skills that these assessments purport to measure!


“What we resolve to do in school only makes sense when considered in the broader context of what the society intends to accomplish through its educational investment in the young.” — Jerome S. Bruner, The Culture of Education

I have always embraced Bruner’s paradigms for education, beginning with his advocacy for teaching processes.

The quote above is taken directly from the Partnership’s Intellectual and Policy Framework web page

There are those who may have a slightly different take on Bruner’s assertion. Ravitch, in her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, says “…we tend to forget that schools are responsible for shaping character, developing sound minds in healthy bodies …, and forming citizens for our democracy ….” (Kindle, Location 3197)

It is hard to differ with this point of view. And this may be one of the several problems edufuturists must resolve; i.e. generating a consensus on the function and intention of schooling in the first place. While in this instance Ravitch appears to advocate a smorgsbord of intentions any of which carrying a good amount of validity I would argue that Bruner’s statement, as espoused by the Partnership captures best what edufuturists should embrace.

After all, anticipating society’s needs is what futuring is about. Therefore Bruner’s “umbrella” statement does not negate Ravitch’s point of view at all. What it does do is focus education’s intent on society’s overall anticipated needs.

The Partnership’s policy statement proceeds to point out “three themes – education and society, education and learning science, and education and learning tools – are all converging to form a new educational framework – one built around the acquisition of 21st Century knowledge and skills.  

Partnership for 21st Century Skills

An earlier post asked what sort of future we imagine awaits our future citizens. And if we could identify enough of said future we could then shape an education system that would best align with it.

I will leave the conversation about what is forecast as a repeating thread in succeeding posts. I will point out that a group of respected thinkers and educators have developed an interesting set of frameworks that we can use for real analysis.

What I think makes most sense of what they offer is the recognition that edufuturists will not be responsible for creating structures to perpetuate content for content’s sake. Instead the future will require that learners practice competency sets of various literacies whose mastery will enable future learners to be prepared to not only meet future needs but proactively create futures we all will prefer.

This organization is The Partnership for 21st Century Skills. We will spend considerable time parsing their thinking and assessing what they offer.

Please take a look at


As you will quickly draw from the posts that have and will accumulate I am an educator. For over forty-two years I have “toiled” in the trenches as a social studies teacher, teacher and coordinator of gifted and talented programs, curriculum specialist, dean of students, Director of Pupil Personnel, Principal, Director of Humanities, and Assistant Superintendent for Educational Services.

Sprinkled in and among these jobs, were several educational publications, simulations and curriculum guides. Along the way I became involved in Higher Education too; as an adjunct professor, full professor, and Assistant Dean for the largest School of Education on Long Island.

Sprinkled among both sets of careers ; is a pretty full set of consulting and presentation activities about simulation design, technology embedded instruction, systems thinking and shared planning, and organizational development. The threads that knit the fabric are simple but deceptively complex. On the one hand, I’ve always believed that as teacher / professor / presenter I was morally obligated to highly involve my students / participants in helping me make sense and meaning of the content or skills – set at hand. That meant I had to create highly involving strategies to engage the learner. But that also meant that I needed the training, and the time, and the resources to be creative and effective.

That meant that I needed educational leaders to create systems for me to flourish. I quickly realized that that was easier to say than it was to do and as I began to peel back the onion I also realized that the systems and the structures intended to help me and other teachers of like mind were few and far between. And, where they may exist, they were also hard-pressed to reshape their organizations out of monstrous obstructions of monstrously encrusted educational systems.

That made me think about future schools or better put, schooling. Did we, do we, really know what we mean by education for the 21st century?  Are our imaginations welded with our capacity to recreate what must be recreated in order to truly meet the needs of the children we are yet to educate for a future society we are yet to imagine?

Enough Ranting

And ranting it was. I am passionate about what I said my preferred future for education is and embrace it with all the zeal I can muster up in this old soul.

And I am pressing you, my readers to press yourselves too. You must decide what it is you prefer about the EduFuture that is out there, just around the bend and also way down the highway of time.

Be wary of the paragraph above because it subtly suggests yet another paradigm about futuring. You, and I too, must align to the extent that we can, what metaphor best captures what we mean by future.

By future do we mean a fixed track, something like a roller coaster track whose course our car must follow whichever way it swerves, rises, or dips? We can’t see where we are going too far ahead but we do know we have little control over where we end.

Or do we mean that the future is more like an ocean liner? Such a vessel has a course charted by the stars and compass. Yet it can also be buffeted and even blown off course by unexpected storms and currents? In the end though, our charts and engines will enable us to find our way.

Are there more metaphors? For sure. But let’s work with these for now and feel free to offer up others if you think it will enrich the conversation.

For me I like the ocean liner one. I realize I may not be able to withstand the buffet of overpowering winds and turbulence all the time but I also know that I have the power to prepare properly and build my capacity to chart my own course.

Here Are the Educational Futures I Prefer

At this point I am pretty sure I know what educational  future I want for today’s and yet – born children.

I want a schooling system, formal and informal, that will enable all of our children to not only survive uncertain futures but thrive in them.

I want a formal and informal schooling system that will power wash off the  collective crusts of stultifying mental models and of self serving interests that do little more than perpetuate mediocrity.

I want a schooling system, formal and informal, that will repudiate organizational structures that only mostly work for middle class white children and that acknowledges all children deserve all chances to be all of what they can be.

I want innovation and creativity to rule all forms of instruction, formal and informal. I want rote, Baltimore Catechism (most of you will have to look that up!), spit back learning to be BANNED at best or at least permitted as a minimum quota of instructional time.

I want technology used, NOT for technology’s sake but embedded in innovative and creative instructional strategies that will in the end create what I want most of all:

I want schooling, formal and informal, to create what the future, whatever it may be most nearly, most certainly, will demand, to create people who can think for themselves rather than to accept the Flavor of the Day or to mindlessly accept their lot life.

What did Paul Simon once sing?

When I think about all the crap I learned in high school it’s a wonder I can think at all.”