Core Knowledge vs. 21st Century Skills

The debate between core knowledge and 21st century skills is an interesting one.  The core knowledge website states that it “is not driven by ideology, but logically by science, history, and research,” (The Core Knowledge Foundation, 2010).  This statement implies that there is little to no research to support other frameworks such as 21st century skills, but rather just ideologies/theories.  This argument is one among many on their “our philosophy” section of the website that presents its simplistic, misleading views on education in a black-and-white manner.

21st Century Skills

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) website reveals an excellent overview of their comprehensive, differentiated framework for learning.  The framework identifies several essential skills, including: core subjects, 21st century content, learning and thinking skills, ICT literacy, life skills, and 21st century assessments (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2011).  The P21 framework encourages higher-order thinking skills, versus a “knowledge gap,” (The Core Knowledge Foundation, 2010).  Rather than focusing on providing a greater breadth of knowledge, the P21 framework emphasizes inquiry-oriented learning, which involves students taking a more active role in their learning; this is supported by the “practice by doing” section of the learning pyramid, as shown below (Coffman, 2009; Educational Origami, 2012).

The Learning Pyramid

As Coffman (2009) states, “planning for inquiry projects goes beyond having students achieve content knowledge; planning should also engage students into practicing higher-order thinking skills, such as applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information in order to create a new understanding of knowledge.”  Therefore, P21 skills goes above simply planning more comprehensive content knowledge curricula; it pushes for critical thinking skills that will transfer more easily into the student’s everyday life, as well as be maintained in their long-term memory.


My content area, English, has several important components that are relevant to the content knowledge/21st century skills debate.  The most important component is reading comprehension.  The Core Knowledge Foundation states that “narrowing the curriculum to make more time for reading strategy instruction is ultimately self-defeating,” (2010).  The Foundation indicates that teaching reading strategies is a waste of time, and that the educational effect is only a temporary boost.

But how can reading strategies be temporarily effective when explicitly teaching these strategies can help struggling readers to realize where they might be struggling in the reading process?  If you had unlimited amounts of time and resources, some students would still not understand the text because of the method by which they are reading (ex. not internally creating a picture of what they read, etc.).  It is essential to explicitly teach these reading comprehension skills in order to further aid your students in being able to apply these skills to any subject, as every subject in school requires a student to possess adequate literacy skills.


Coffman, T. (2009). Engaging students through inquiry-oriented learning and technology. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Educational Origami (2012). 21st century pedagogy. Retrieved September 6, 2012 from:

Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2011). P21 FAQ. Retrieved September 6, 2012 from:

The Core Knowledge Foundation (2010).  Our philosophy: Every child deserves equal access to common knowledge. Retrieved September 6, 2012 from:

6 responses to “Core Knowledge vs. 21st Century Skills

  1. “The debate between core knowledge and 21st century skills ” that you begin this post is really not a debate. Core knowledge is enhanced with 21st C skills while 21st C skills are more effective with core knowledge. These are complementary ideas, and great teachers need both.
    “In determining what makes a teacher great, on #edchat or in any other forum, there is no ‘or’…the balanced combination of content and skills is what makes a teacher great.”
    full post:

  2. You write, “the Foundation indicates that teaching reading strategies is a waste of time, and that the educational effect is only a temporary boost.”

    This is a somewhat nuance-averse reading of the Foundation’s viewpoint. I would argue (and have, frequently) that reading strategies are not a “waste of time” but they are of limited efficacy. Research seems to indicate that there is no payback from continued teaching, reteaching, and practice of reading strategies. The principal value appears to be in helping students understand that there is communicative value in text, and providing some work-arounds when meaning breaks down.

    But critically, strategies are useless when students lack the background knowledge and vocabulary needed to make meaning. So there is an opportunity cost to continuing to practice strategies, when the time might be better spent building background knowledge and language proficiency.

    The bottom line: reading comprehension is not a “skill” that can be taught, practiced and mastered as an abstract exercise. It is largely knowledge-dependent.

    Here are some articles/resources you might find useful:

    Building Knowledge: The Case for Bringing Content into the Language Arts Block and for a Knowledge-Rich Curriculum Core for All Children
    American Educator, Spring 2006

    How Knowledge Helps: It Speeds and Strengthens Reading Comprehension,
    Learning–and Thinking By Daniel T. Willingham
    American Educator, Spring 2006

    There’s No Such Thing As a Reading Test
    By E.D. Hirsch, Jr. and Robert Pondiscio
    The American Prospect, June 13, 2010

    Teaching Content is Teaching Reading, YouTube video by Dan Willingham

    Robert Pondiscio

  3. kathrynboccaccio

    I completely agree with your point about the value of teaching reading strategies to struggling readers. As an avid reader it is difficult for me to imagine someone else not enjoying reading, and I often wonder how many people would enjoy the activity more if they were able to read with more ease. It seems an important consideration for an English teacher to not only present great works to his or her students, but to also make sure they possess the basic skills by which to understand them. You’ll create a reader for life:)

  4. I totally agree with not being able to reach those struggling. It is always my concern that all these new models don’t take into account all the different types of students that are out there and not just in learning style or disability but also socio economically. We have to remember that each student is an invidual and learns differently from the others.

  5. I also found the learning pyramid interesting. It is nice to put numbers to the different ways to teach students. I think all along we know that discussion groups, practice by doing, and teaching other is more beneficial, but we tend to focus on lecturing. I think teachers spend more time lecturing because, it is easier when actually it is the hardest thing for the students when it comes to learning. I find the larger portions of the pyramid can be related to inquiry activities by using the upper levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation (Coffman, 2009, p. 5). By applying Bloom’s Taxonomy to activities the students will be able actively engage in their learning either through small groups by doing what they learned about or having a discussion where they have to defend their stance on what they learned or a topic

  6. I like the learning pyramid model (and it reminds me of the now defunct food pyramid). We need to serve larger portions at the base of the pyramid in our classrooms! I think the “practice by doing” section of the learning pyramid may be the related to the The Core Knowledge Foundation’s statement that “narrowing the curriculum to make more time for reading strategy instruction is ultimately self-defeating,” (2010). A broad reading curriculum has students practice more types of reading rather than being instructed in how to read. I think a balanced diet of reading practice and instruction is important!