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21st century skills are important because …

Michael Merrick (@michael_merrick)
Scratch the surface of the ‘21st century skills’ brigade, & the justification you always seem to get revolves around serving the market/business/tech sector. Which is more dystopian (and properly Gradgrindian) than any school getting a bit over-zealous with a knowledge curriculum

I feel this needs a response of more than 280 characters. So here it is ... 

I guess I am a member of the '21st century skills brigade', though I tend to refer to 21st century attributes. To be clear, I am referring to such things as: collaboration, communication, problem solving, creativity, digital literacy, learning to learn, flexibility, resilience, and persistence. The only one of these that seems to be 'new' is digital literacy - Plowden in 1967 was talking about the importance of the others.

Areas of agreement

I completely agree with Michael that 'serving the market/business/tech sector' is not a good justification for a focus on 21st century attributes in schools, and many of the people advocating for 21st century attributes do indeed have a vested commercial interest in doing so. However, there are also lots of sound educational reasons for advocating a focus on 21st century attributes in schools.

Some assumptions:

  1. One of the main purposes of schools should be educational - it should be about enhancing learning and preparing people for their lives now and in the future
  2. Human beings are social animals - indeed much of our world and the way we engage within it is a social construct (e.g. money, democracy, the law, schools)
  3. Digital technology has had a major impact on many aspects of our lives already
  4. Digital technology will have an increasing impact on our lives in the future - and we cannot predict what the implications of that are, for example in terms of work (will most jobs be automated - even the new ones?)
  5. The world is facing a range of significant challenges such as: global warming; growing pressure on finite resources (e.g. fossil fuels, land for growing food); increasing populations and changing demographics; increasing disparities between the very rich and everyone else; ethical issues associated with digital technology (e.g. whose life should an autonomous car prioritise) and biotechnology (e.g. to what extent should genetic engineering be allowed?)

So why are 21st century attributes vitally important?

Assumption 1 suggests that teaching children how to learn more effectively (learning to learn) would be a good thing. If we cannot predict what the future will hold but can be pretty sure that it will be continually changing (Assumption 4) then being able to learn and adapt seem pretty important outcomes that school should be fostering. Learning is often challenging, requiring resilience and persistence - and a willingness to recognise your mistakes and build upon them (being flexible in our thinking).

Assumption 2 highlights the critical role of communication and collaboration for human societies.

Assumption 3 suggests that digital literacy is important today. Assumption 4 and aspects of Assumption 5 suggest that digital literacy will become increasingly important in the future.

Many of the issues in Assumption 5 have global implications and will require collective solutions, and thus the ability to communicate and collaborate will be important. So too will problem solving. There won't be simple solutions that please everybody, so we will need to be able to be flexible and creative.

The future looks pretty challenging - which suggests that attributes such as persistence and resilience will be important.

So, 21st century attributes will be critical for people in the future as they deal with the challenges of our changing world, and thus ought to be an important element of what schools focus on.

Some potentially flawed assumptions

I have two further thoughts re Michael's post.

Michael seems to assume that most schools have a knowledge curriculum. I think this is not often the case. What most schools (at least in England) have is an information curriculum. Knowledge is the ability to apply information in valued ways in specific contexts. That requires not only information but also skills - dare I say '21st century skills'.

Whilst Michael doesn't allude to this in his tweet, we often make the mistake of assuming that we can EITHER focus on the traditional 'knowledge' curriculum OR on 21st century attributes. That is clearly not the case. You cannot develop 21st century attributes in a vacuum, you have to be working in a context with information. The two things go hand in hand. Similarly, it is hard to envisage learning in school not relating to 21st century attributes - though often this is happening through the hidden curriculum and often what is being learnt is the opposite of what ought to be being learnt (e.g. we learn how not to learn).


I agree that commercial rationales are un-educational justifications for advocating 21st century attributes. However, I think there are many strong educational justifications for 21st century attributes being a key focus in schools.

Debating whether or not they are important, or whether they are more or less important than the content of traditional 'knowledge' based curricula is a distraction from the important question of how do we ensure that schools serve their core purpose of preparing young people for their lives now and in the future.

Related post: What do you mean by learning?

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