Bills blog: Why we need to stop talking about twenty-first century skills

Bill Lucas urges us to move on from the rhetoric and focus on the evidence

It’s a characteristic of human beings to want to look ahead and think about what might happen next. Indeed our capacity to anticipate and plan for new experiences is, at least in part, why we have evolved as a species so successfully.

So it was entirely natural that, as the year 2000 dawned, with all the extra bezazz of it being a millennium milestone, the futurists got to work. Buoyed up by the potential for the so-called ‘millennium bug’ to shut down virtual civilisation as we knew it and driven by genuine uncertainties about the opportunities afforded by the invention of the World Wide Web in the 1980s, speculation about what this might mean for society in general and schools in particular was rife. In 1998 Google was invented and the two decades which followed saw the birth of Facebook (2004), Twitter (2006) and Instagram (2010). Surfing on this wave of human inventiveness were and are the many tech companies which enable these digital breakthroughs to flourish. It was and is in the interests of such companies to suggest that their products provide solutions which bricks and mortar schools cannot. The marketing device to create the necessary sales climate in education was the idea of ‘twenty-first century skills’.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary the first use of the phrase ‘twenty-first century was by novelist Dick Barton in 1964. But with the sense that it has when linked with ‘skills’ its earliest outing was by the Royal Society of Arts in London in its journal in 1980 in the sentence ‘Everyone in the country must adapt to twenty-first century living and working patterns.’

For the last four decades the phrase ‘twenty-first century skills’ has become ubiquitous. At its core, twenty-first century skills suggests three things:

  1. that there are some skills that are especially relevant to the twenty-first century
  2. that, by implication, these skills are different from those which we needed in the twentieth century, and
  3. that these skills are somehow relevant for a whole century.

Over the past decades ‘twenty-first century skills’ has become widely and uncritically accepted, an educational meme. The phrase has gathered many associations with it including ideas that:

  • a digital, technology-driven world requires some pupils to learn new skills
  • classrooms in schools no longer have walls given the global reach of technology
  • with technology knowledge is much less important if it can be acquired by searching the Internet
  • direct instruction by teachers is no longer relevant
  • in a world with so much data available knowing too many things might be a waste of cognitive space
  • that learning is life-long more than it is school-based.

The idea of twenty-first century skills both delights and infuriates.

As a thinking frame for considering the role of schools in rapidly changing times, it seemed helpful at first, seemingly inviting educators to ask profound questions about education. Four decades on the phrase is increasingly irritating. Its refusal to distinguish between skills which are eternally useful as opposed to those which are legitimate responses to the world we live in now is lazy. And it distracts from a much more interesting question: what makes a good learner?

A legitimate concern about what skills students might need today has gradually morphed into a mantra and, more recently, into an uncritical movement. The danger with this mutation is that the words have acquired an evangelical fervour and started to put off the very people who need to be considering their role today, the majority of thoughtful teachers across the world. For this group twenty-first skills can seem jingoistic, simplistic or distracting.1964—1980

Reaching a consensus as to what is and is likely to be different in the coming years is contentious territory. But most commentators agree about some of the main trends. These include:

  1. the increasing complexity of problems such as climate change, global migration and growing resistance to life-saving drugs
  2. the ubiquity of data; it was never possible for schools to teach everything and these days they are selecting from an ever-expanding menu
  3. the proliferation of knowledge sources from the Internet and wider digital world
  4. the increasing interconnectedness and global nature of our relationships
  5. the potential of automation via Artificial Intelligence and its impact, often contested, on life and work
  6. increased self-employment
  7. an ageing society.

In direct response to each of these elements it can be argued that the kinds of capabilities, competencies or dispositions that we need are likely to include:

  1. complex problem-solving that is frequently multi- and inter-disciplinary by nature and always ethically driven
  2. critical thinking and high level project- and time-management
  3. digital literacy, design and computational thinking
  4. intercultural collaborative problem-solving and emotional and social intelligence
  5. creativity, adaptability, meta-cognition
  6. creativity, communication, adaptability
  7. learning to learn.

While each disposition broadly maps onto its equivalent number it is not so simple; the categories are much more permeable.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) response over a number of years now has been to describe the kinds of skills needed as follows, Figure 1:


figure 1

Figure 1 – 16 skills for the twenty-first century (World Economic Forum, 2015)

Framing skills or dispositions as applying to a whole century is irksomely lazy. If an underpinning argument is that we are in turbulent, fast-moving times and need a changed set of skills then it is plainly silly to assume that what we need to learn now is the same as what we will need to learn in 10 or 30 or 80 years from now.

While the debate about twenty-first century skill has been going on, a quiet consensus has been emerging about the kinds of dispositions which young people need to get on at school and beyond. The five lists on the next page are indicative, Table 1.

Each of these seven or so wider skills or capabilities frameworks have been drawn from research, research from fields spanning employment, technology, education, psychology, education and the learning sciences. There are many more and these five are illustrative only.

The point of including them is simply to show the considerable overlap which exists.

Whatever we call ‘twenty-first century skills’ there is growing agreement that there is a set of near timeless dispositions which, taken together, make a powerful learner. These are expansive, valuable ideas for all schools to focus on.

The debate now needs to move on to how we do it not whether they are important. And in answering this question we need to draw on evidence and not rely on technologically inspired rhetoric. That’s where we at the Expansive Education Network come in, by helping you to frame action research questions designed to help you embed valuable expansive dispositions into your teaching.


European Key Competences for Lifelong Learning, 2007 Pellegrino and Hilton, 2012 Gutman and Schoon, 2013 Heckman and Kautz, 2013 Lamb et al., 2017


·  Communication in mother tongue

·  Communication in foreign languages

·  Digital competence

·  Learning to learn

·  Social and civic competences

·  Sense of initiative and entrepreneurship

·  Cultural awareness and expression

·  Critical thinking

·  Information literacy

·  Reasoning

·  Innovation

·  Intellectual openness

·  Work ethic

·  Conscientiousness

·  Positivity

·  Communication

·  Collaboration

·  Responsibility

·  Conflict resolution


·     Motivation

·     Perseverance

·     Self-control

·     Metacognitive strategies

·     Social competencies

·     Resilience and coping

·     Creativity


·  Perseverance

·  Self-control

·  Trust

·  Attentiveness

·  Self-esteem and self-efficacy

·  Resilience to adversity

·  Openness to experience

·  Empathy

·  Humility

·  Tolerance of diverse opinions

·  Engaging productively in society


·   Critical thinking

·   Creativity

·   Metacognition

·   Problem-solving

·   Collaboration

·   Motivation

·   Self-efficacy

·   Conscientiousness

·   Perseverance


Table 2 – Skills for a lifetime of learning

This blog draws on a much longer article published by the Centre for Strategic Education, Melbourne, Australia.


Gutman, L., and Schoon, I. (2013). The Impact of Non-Cognitive Skills on Outcomes for Young People: Literature review. London: Institute of Education, University of London.

Heckman, J., and Kautz, T. (2013). Fostering and Measuring Skills: Interventions that improve character and cognition – NBER Working Paper No. 19656. National Bureau of Economic Research.

Lamb, S., Maire, Q. and Doecke, E. (2017) Key skills for the 21st century: an evidence-based review. Sydney: Centre for International Research on Education Systems.

Pellegrino, J. and Hilton, M (eds) (2012) Education for Life and Work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the twenty-first century. Washington: National Research Council.

World Economic Forum (2015) New Vision for Education: Unlocking the Potential of Technology. Geneva: World Economic Forum.

European Parliament (2007) Key Competences for Lifelong Learning: European Reference Framework. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.


‘New blog – An open letter to the Secretary of State for Education’

An open letter to Damian Hinds MP

damien Hinds

Dear Secretary of State,

Congratulations on your new appointment from all of us at The Expansive Education Network.

We hope very much that you will wish to combine your passion for creating chances for all young people to excel with a desire to ensure that schools focus on much more than academic success.

Putting character and capabilities back into education

In 2014 the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility which you once chaired reminded us that children who come from the least disadvantaged contexts need to develop some key capabilities if they are to thrive.

As your committee put it:

Research findings all point to the same conclusion: character counts. People who overcome adversity and realise their full potential tend to exhibit many of these traits. In simple terms, these traits can be thought of as a belief in one’s ability to achieve, an understanding of the relationship between effort and reward, the patience to pursue long-term goals, the perseverance to stick with the task at hand, and the ability to bounce back from life’s inevitable setbacks. These various attributes all fall under the broad heading of Character and Resilience.

The Department for Education’s relentless interest in ‘academic’ success in schools, as exemplified by its focus on measuring Progress 8, has shifted the debate away from character and resilience towards something much narrower to do with certain subjects on the curriculum. Perhaps unintentionally a determination to class some subjects as academic (maths and English, for example) and others as not (such as music), has further polarised the debate about what counts in school.

Making excellent progress in core subjects is, of course, crucial, and nothing I am saying here seeks to take away from that fact.

But cultivating character is equally important and, as the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility reminded us, especially so when we are looking at factors which will influence the life chances of those who are least well off.

Can you help us change the tone of the debate as we all try and improve schools? Simply by using the conjunction ‘and’ in your speeches and writings you could do this, by talking about the need to improve standards in numeracy and resilience, academic success and character.

With Guy Claxton, I have been making the case for character for several decades. Recently, in Educating Ruby: what our children really need to learn, we imagine an imaginary girl called Ruby and describe a world in which she might be acquiring seven important capabilities at school – creativity, curiosity, collaboration, craftsmanship, confidence, and commitment – as well as the seven or more subjects you would expect to see on a typical timetable.

We wrote this book for parents and so, for ease of impact and memorability, we chose words beginning with the letter C. In the Expansive Education Network we use a more technical and educational language drawing on research to show how perseverance, self-regulation, self-belief, empathy and creative thinking matter and how schools can cultivate these in their students.

What’s the true purpose of education?

Almost exactly two years ago the Education Select Committee asked this question. At the Centre for Real-World Learning we worked with nine national bodies to see if common agreement could be reached – Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), City & Guilds, Comino Foundation, Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (CUREE), Mercers’ Company, PTA UK, Royal Academy of Engineers, Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) and Schools of Tomorrow.

Of the suggestions we made, two seem particularly important at the moment, that education should

  1. see capabilities and character as equally important as success in individual subjects, and
  2. make vocational and academic routes equally valued.

Can you help us change the conversation so that we begin to talk about these two twin aspirations for education – success in any test of character and success in examinations, a focus on ‘hand’ and ‘heart’ as well as on ‘head’ – as being equally desirable?

Researchers from across the world have shown how have shown how character and resilience, the twin themes of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility report with which I began this letter, also contribute to success in examinations. And our own research into vocational pedagogy and apprenticeships has shown how, as you think about introducing T levels and developing more higher-level apprenticeships rigorous pedagogy will help to ensure high-quality teaching.

Avoiding false opposites

In short, can we try and avoid the over-simplification of education being either about knowledge and skills or about capabilities and character, academic or non-academic and focus instead high-quality learning to equip all young people to be successful throughout their lives.

Here in the UK we are at the forefront of thinking about the kinds of capabilities young people will need if they are truly to thrive. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility’s plea for character and resilience is an example of this. The fact that the OECD’s PISA test of Creative Thinking in 2021 will be based on work undertaken by the Centre for Real-World Learning is another illustration.

But at home such innovation can easily get drowned out by the noise of simplistic argumentation.

Please help us all to strike a more measured and balanced tone when it comes to talking about what schools need to do.

Bill Lucas

Professor Bill Lucas, Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester


Why knowledge isn’t enough

Written by: Professor Bill Lucas | Published: 08 November 2017

With even PISA acknowledging the importance of creative thinking, there is an emerging consensus that ‘dispositions’ or ‘skills’ must be considered just as much as ‘knowledge’

Knowledge of all kinds is very important. We need to know about our world, about weather and migration, about warfare and peace, about languages and literature, about number and letter.

Sometimes this can be relatively simple – why things fall downwards; sometimes much more complex – understanding the so-called god particle, for example.

Of equal importance is process knowledge, how to do an array of things from arriving at the correct lesson with the right books to using a map when we get lost; how to work out whether a special offer is good value or how to plan a complex investigation into a topic and distil findings for a class presentation.

Many schools teach these kinds of knowledge well. Student timetables make it easy for learners to know what to expect by organising life into subjects – English, maths, science, music and so forth.

But we also need more, students who know how to do things they have not yet been taught, who are able to operate effectively in situations they have not previously encountered.

Across the world a significant shift is taking place as it is increasingly being recognised that something other than knowledge is required. Australia calls them capabilities. Others call them “dispositions” or “habits of mind” or “attributes” or “competencies”. Key dispositions include creative thinking, collaboration, perseverance and self-perception.

We know from the work of Lesley Gutman and Ingrid Schoon (2013) and James Heckman (2014), for example, just how important these are for success in both subject-based tests and more widely throughout life.

Professor Guy Claxton and I have explored such dispositions in greater detail in Educating Ruby: What our children really need to learn.

Over the last few decades in England we have dabbled with introducing these ideas into schools. Personal, learning and thinking skills (or PLTS) as they became known were one laudable attempt. But too often these did not work well as they became “siloed”, with schools somehow imagining that they could be taught in the abstract in separate “skills” lessons. Over-keen advocates seemed to suggest that they were more important than knowledge and we quickly found ourselves in an unhealthy false dichotomy: skills versus knowledge.

Worse still they became branded as “21st century skills”. This latter notion became increasingly silly as we entered the 18th year of the millennium suggesting as it does that we have not yet worked out what they are and that, magically at the strike of midnight, we needed a different skill-set.

For dispositions truly to be embedded in schools requires a shift in our thinking. A secondary school such as Thomas Tallis in London shows us how this can be achieved. Talented teachers continue to focus on the subjects of the curriculum with which we are all familiar, at the same time as selecting teaching and learning methods which cultivate things like curiosity, perseverance and effective collaboration.

Initially it was necessary to highlight the dispositions explicitly. Gradually they become integrated so that, for example, as part of a maths lesson, students learn strategies for working their way through difficult questions or in science they are introduced to different roles which scientific teams play when conducting experiments (see further information).

Ellen Spencer and I feature schools like this from across the world in our new book, Teaching Creative Thinking.

Recently the importance of dispositions has been acknowledged by one of the “guardians” of global comparative standards, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). In 2021, as well as tests for 15-year-olds in English, maths and science, PISA will introduce a test of creative thinking.

I am honoured to have been appointed as co-chair of the PISA Strategy Group which will advise on the development of this test, based on our research undertaken at the University of Winchester.

Further corroboration of the importance of capabilities alongside knowledge can be seen elsewhere in the world by the explicit inclusion of them in the national curricula of, for example, Australia, Finland, New Zealand and Singapore.

Employers are increasingly making their voices heard on this matter, too. Often using the phrase “soft skills” to describe the kinds of dispositions listed earlier, the Confederation of British Industry recently called for an education system that develops determined, resilient, curious and creative young people who are also knowledgeable and skilful.

Put simply then, there is an emerging consensus. We need schools which embed capabilities in the formal and informal curriculum with just as much rigour and thought as when they focus on knowledge.

‘Forget technical and professional education: there’s nothing wrong with the word vocational’

By Bill Lucas

25th November


Ditching the term ‘vocational’ is likely to perpetuate an even more corrosive split than the academic versus vocational divide, writes a leading educationalist.

There are at least three ways of raising the quality of vocational education. We can look at assessment (as Baroness Wolf did so effectively five years ago), we can look at structures and systems (as Lord Sainsbury has done recently) or we can focus on workforce capability and pedagogy (as we have argued in our research into vocational pedagogy).

Whichever method we prefer – and we need all three – we need first to specify the outcomes we desire from our vocational pathway before designing systems, qualifications and pedagogies. Our choice of language needs to follow not precede such thinking.

Read full article here

Schools will teach ‘soft skills’ from 2017, but assessing them presents a challenge

20th November
Bill Lucas

When students go back to school in January 2017 there will be some significant changes to their timetables. As well as learning areas like English, maths and science, there will be some new things to grapple with called “capabilities”.

The Australian curriculum will be focusing not just on the 3Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic – but also on the kinds of “soft” skills young people will need if they are to be successful throughout their lives.

The new capabilities are:

  • Information and communication technology – using technology to access information, create products and solve problems
  • Critical and creative thinking – learning how to think and find ways to approach problems
  • Personal and social – recognising others’ emotions, supporting diversity and working together
  • Ethical – understanding values and concepts that underpin views
  • Intercultural – learning about your own and others’ cultures and beliefs.

Read full blog here