Vivek's parents, Anand and Shivani, are worried. Vivek's teacher has told them that he is often shy and is struggling to express himself in group projects. Anand and Shivani work in IT companies and are familiar with 21st century skills of collaboration and critical thinking. They are worried that if their child doesn't develop these skills, he will not be able to succeed in jobs of the future. They implore him to collaborate more with his group members and enrol him in public speaking courses. They search Amazon.com for books on critical thinking and buy a handful of them. Saturday and Sunday evenings are now spent working through these books with Vivek.
Vivek's parents are not an isolated lot. A constant bombardment in the media that children need 21st century skills such as collaboration, critical thinking and others is often misleading. Many people assume that collaboration and critical thinking are skills like riding a bicycle. Daniel Willingham, the famous cognitive scientist, in his influential article "Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach?" says that critical thinking is not such a skill. Rather, how we critically think and collaborate on a topic in any school subject is influenced by what we know about the topic. Simply put, this means that subject knowledge precedes social skills.
Even in common everyday actions, we put knowledge first. Take the case of ordering food online on Swiggy or Zomato. Unless you have the basic knowledge of the dish you want to order, you will be left bewildered. You can collaborate with your colleague, who would again want to know what you would prefer to eat.
In a learning environment like the school, any knowledge gap stands out like a red traffic light or a speed breaker. A knowledge gap stops children like Vivek or slows them down. When the teacher tries to foster a collaborative activity or a critical thinking activity, they are left clueless. Vivek's parents and teachers need to ask fundamental questions: Does he know the concept in that subject well enough? Does he have clarity in the concept he is askedto critically think about or collaborate on?
In the clamour of 21st century skills like critical thinking and collaboration, we should not forget that subject knowledge is what enables them. In the absence of knowledge, there is no critical thinking or collaboration. So if children like Vivek are unable to demonstrate critical thinking or collaboration, we should look closely at their knowledge and understanding of the subject topics. We will often discover that shyness or hesitancy is only a symptom while the real problem is knowledge or the lack of it.
A recent report on reading assessment 'Where India Reads 2017-18' by FAST revealed that for grades V & VI, out of the 12,477 children who appeared for the assessment, only 2.7 percent displayed good comprehension skills. This is appalling. It means most children lacked the skills to read and the background knowledge to comprehend the passages. Even if they were to critically think and collaborate, they would fail at the comprehension part.
This is why building a strong knowledge foundation is crucial for any 21st century skills like collaboration and critical thinking. These skills are not in isolation of the knowledge content in subjects. They should be taught in integration with the knowledge content in the syllabus.
Just like Vivek, doesn't your child too deserve a relook at their knowledge gaps? It is time for all of us to think collaboratively and critically about these 21st-century skills. Else a generation will neither have knowledge nor effective social skills.
By Naveen Mandava, Co-Founder, ClassKlap
Holding a Doctorate in Public Policy Analysis from the Pardee RAND Graduate School, Naveen has worked with Centre for Civil Society, RAND Corporation, World Bank, and Tumi Education, prior to incepting ClassKlap in 2009.