What do we mean by 21st Century skills? Aren’t they just, well, skills?


STEAM, Entrepreneurship, Critical Thinking, Collaborations, Out-Of-The-Box Thinking.  If you’ve ever listened to words like this being bandied around your school meetings, PD conferences or just the Bloggosphere, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about.  I read this the other day and it got me thinking.

The idea seems to be that we are educating our children for a future that we do not understand, a world where jobs that don’t exist in the present will be the norm in the future, that skills that we don’t value now will be in high demand in this Utopia.  You might also have heard an add on to this: if the above is true, then we need to be teaching or children in this way or that in order to equip them for this uncertain future.  How does that make sense, I hear you ask?  My thoughts exactly.

If this truly is the case, go some  – rather bizarre (in my view) – arguments that we should stop teaching students to write in pen.  Or that we should encourage more group work, or that we should move education towards solving real-world problems.  Okay, I’m all for making learning relevant and valuable but if top scientists and politicians can’t eradicate poverty or reverse climate change, then I’m not so confident that 8C will have much of a chance either.  Sorry, 8C, I know you try your best.

But What Might These Skills be:


According to the World Economic Forum, these are the skills that 21st Century students will need.  Can you spot any that surprise you or that you think weren’t 20th Century skills?  In fact, I’m thinking of Chaicer’s The Wife of Bath, other thatn ICT and perhaps science skills, I’m not sure she lacked any of these other assets and she was written about in the 1300s.  Go figure.

I’m a bit mystified by this whole idea.  It seems to be driven by speakers such as Ken Roninson and his book (well worth a look, by the way) about creative education.  But I think it’s a book, and a way of thinking, that is not only flawed but blinkered to what creativity actually means, blind to what actually happens in schools (as if there is no creativity, collaboration or problem solving) and also deeply illogical.  If we don’t know what we’re training students for, then how can we really make any sensible decisions about what to teach them now?  It’s an argument that seems to fall flat on its backside every time it raises is head like an imbalanced Bambi on ice.

I love this ironic quip:


I’m sure at all ages and stages, people have stopped to ponder the future and how to prepare for it.  It’s not a unique 21st Century issue.  I’m sure that William the Conqueror wondered how to protect his newly won power and the Romans pondered how to develop their mighty war machine; not many successful businesses, schools or homes fail to think of what’s around the corner. Here’s another interesting swipe:

21 cent

Yet we are swallowing this mad panic to predict the futre at an alarming pace.  The emergence collaborative activities as a way of preparing children for an unknowable future by getting them to build go-karts or whatever is like some sort of clinical and corporate version of a very real childhood that many teachers above a certain age actually lived in.  How is that preparing anyone for anything new? I’m not saying it’s not worthwhile by the way, just that it’s not exclusively ‘novel’.

Now, please don’t think I’m totally against these days per-se.  Actually, I love the idea of students coming off timetable and sinking their teeth into issues.  Yes, I see creativity and joy and very useful groupwork so what’s not to like?  My kids quite like it and I suspect learn a great deal from these days but I’m not sure it’s preparing them for a future any more than other lessons that we might learn from Science, Maths, English, History or Geography for example.  In fact, I would agree with Daisy Christoudoulou’s thoughts in Making Good Progress? that a) students need knowledge in order to create and b) real-life problems and collaborative work can actually hinder actual learning.  These ideas must be taken into account before we go off hoping that by introducing critical thinking all our problems will be solved (by the way, critical thinking?  Isn’t all thinking critical and hasn’t it been with us for some time?)

I suspect that by the time my children are adults (they are 9 and 12 at the moment) there will still be lawyers, doctors, shop assistants, data-input clearks, drivers, factory workers, accountants and the other jobs we know about.  Yes there will be a few new roles and lots of new ways of doing things but essentially the things humans need to survive are pretty much the same whether you present them on appleTV or not, right? Programming skills and coding are not new jobs at all.  In fact, a father of a friend of mine in the 90s was a programmer and used code to design software for finance companies.  I’m sure the errors of my thinking can be pointed out by programmers and coders who will let me know I’m wrong.  Fair enough.  But let’s not pretent that there’s that much here that’s novel or groundbreaking.

One problem that persists is the continual complaint from the corporate world that graduates do not have the skills they need.  No.  They don’t.  There’s a reason for this: teachers aren’t supposed to train students into being good at the specific skills that businesses need.  They are responsible for instilling students with a base of knowledge and skills that can be developed post-16 and further into higher education.  If businesses want to extend that, then train your recruits better.  An old colleague of mine once said, if you teach a student to think – even if it’s about Shakespeare -they will be able to adapt ove time.  but if you teach a student to do account ledgers, all they will be able to do is account ledgers.  This might sound incredibly old-fashioned and flies in the face of some of the ideas around  domain skills and deliberate practice models of teaching. I don’t think that moulding students into jobs benefits anyone.

The highly readable Martin Robinson’s Blog, Trivium21c sums up the problems with this kind of thinking and writes a poingnant and thought-provoking piece on ‘Future Fallacy‘.  It’s well worth a read.  As ever, I’d love to know your thoughts.


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