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:
- that there are some skills that are especially relevant to the twenty-first century
- that, by implication, these skills are different from those which we needed in the twentieth century, and
- 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:
- the increasing complexity of problems such as climate change, global migration and growing resistance to life-saving drugs
- the ubiquity of data; it was never possible for schools to teach everything and these days they are selecting from an ever-expanding menu
- the proliferation of knowledge sources from the Internet and wider digital world
- the increasing interconnectedness and global nature of our relationships
- the potential of automation via Artificial Intelligence and its impact, often contested, on life and work
- increased self-employment
- 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:
- complex problem-solving that is frequently multi- and inter-disciplinary by nature and always ethically driven
- critical thinking and high level project- and time-management
- digital literacy, design and computational thinking
- intercultural collaborative problem-solving and emotional and social intelligence
- creativity, adaptability, meta-cognition
- creativity, communication, adaptability
- 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 – 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
· Intellectual openness
· Work ethic
· Conflict resolution
· Metacognitive strategies
· Social competencies
· Resilience and coping
· Self-esteem and self-efficacy
· Resilience to adversity
· Openness to experience
· Tolerance of diverse opinions
· Engaging productively in society
|· Critical thinking
|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.