Thursday, March 12, 2009

Thinking about 21st Century Skills and the Future of Education

Spent part of the evening last night taking part in a chat synchronous to a 'Future of Education' online talk with the Da Vinci Institutes's Thomas Frye.

And it really got me thinking about this whole recent debate about '21st Century Skills'.

Two very valid arguments anti-'21st Century Skills' folks have is that a) there's nothing '21st Century' about problem solving and creative thinking and b) it is freaky that computer and software makers are often the big proponents of such skills; I mean, they are the ones most likely to benefit financially, right?

Well, two things have been rolling around in my head since last night. First, 'problem solving' and 'creative thinking' are not the 21st century skills. Rather, the ability to navigate an immediate and massive fully-connected online world is the primary 21st century skill. And it is an absolutely necessary skill; to deny students this skill is tantamount to denying them drivers' ed and then putting them out on the highway in a VW Bug.

Fundamentally we are now living in a networked world; so we need to present information to our students that demonstrates an awareness of this. That's not to say that technology should dictate content, but rather that the method of delivering the content should be of the connected variety.

Second, one of the biggest fallacies in the 21st Century Skills debate comes dressed up in the guise of necessary 'courseware'. In my mind, 'courseware' is just the 21st century version of a textbook. Well, I got rid of textbooks a long time ago.

Maybe it works great for teaching a memorization-heavy technical course, but it's not gonna be showing up in my Latin or Art History classrooms anytime soon.

Especially if I have to pay for it.

I'd say the rule of thumb is that if someone is trying to sell you something to help teach '21st Century Skills', then they assume you are a sucker. Because Web 2.0 already offers free (and generally speaking better quality) apps that do just about anything and more than some proprietary software package would.

Don't fall for it. Instead, invest your time and money in something worthwhile: advocating for free accessible and universal Internet access for all and an end to the digital divide.

-- ADDENDUM March 12 3:29PM -- Just for the record, the reason I say 'problem solving' and 'creative thinking' are not '21st Century Skills' is because they are 'All Century' skills; without them, you are kinda screwed one way or another. Network Navigation, on the other hand, especially at the scale of the Internet, is something specifically '21st Century'.


  1. Excellent points! I think that excellent teachers are already teaching these "All Century" skills as you state. Unfortunately, this is not occurring in many classrooms across America for a number of reasons.

  2. Good teaching is "All Century." With the skills you talk about, students will be successful. The technology reinforces the learning. Well stated!

  3. Thanks for a reasonable, sensible take on this. I've been fairly vocal in raising questions about (and resistance to) the 21st century skills meme at the Core Knowledge blog, but it's important to note a third important point to your list: even those of us who find themselves questioning 21st century skills do not deny the value in these skills, merely how we go about developing them in students. There's nothing to suggest that teaching skills as transferable "mental muscles" works at all. To the extent that these skills can be taught, it's in the context of a broad, rich curriculum. I remain deeply skeptical of any move to advantage skills over academic content. It simply doesn't work.

  4. I found this post while working on my lesson plan. LOL.


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