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.


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.


West Sussex Deputies Network

As part of a new series of posts we are reporting back the progress made on the Joint Practice Development Projects that ran last year.  Shortly we will be sending out details of how you can request a JPD partnership this year with WSDN support. More details will be out via email shortly but for now here is the first of 3 blogs sharing the cross-school collaboration that defines our network and makes WSDN a unique and vibrant example of effective  and purposeful networking.


 The Weald decided to utilise the WSDN JPD Project opportunity in 2013/4 to support the cross phase development it has started earlier that year. It lent a context and purpose to the work that was already underway and meant that all parties involved could take advantage of the training from Professor Bill Lucas and membership of Expansive…

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In recent years it has become fashionable to knock local authorities. They are, so the argument goes, inefficient and an unnecessary brake on school autonomy and innovation. It would be better to free schools from their ‘interference’. That local authorities are a bad idea when it comes to coordinating schools has become an accepted orthodoxy. Given the challenging financial times we have been in this has also meant dramatic cuts to any remaining local school improvement capability with many authorities able to little more than ensuring adequate school places are available and dealing with safeguarding issues.

Collaboration between schools where it occurs these days is most likely to be through membership of a chain of Academies – potentially spread across England – or via voluntary working with a body such as SSAT or to our own Expansive Education Network (eedNET).

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Vocational Pedagogy – what it is, why it matters and how to put it into practice

Lucas (2014) Vocational Pedagogy Forum for UNESCO

The 2014 Education for All Global Monitoring Report on teaching and learning reminded us that there is a global learning crisis and that the quality of education is at the center of it. The quality of education largely depends on good teachers. This is particularly evident in technical and vocational education and training, where TVET teachers have a distinctive role to play in improving the quality of education. Quality TVET teachers are those with both expert knowledge in their field and who have the ability to transfer this knowledge to their students. However, we too often forget to discuss this important question: how to teach TVET?
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