Forget 21st Century skills - revive 18th Century skills
A mantra (that has now turned into an empty trope) among educators who need a serious sounding phrase to rattle around in conferences and reports is ‘21st Century Skills’. I hear it often, almost always in some overlong, text-heavy Powerpoint presentation at an educational conference, accompanied by a cocktail of 'C' words - collaboration, communication, creativity, critical skills. Can the real world really be that alliterative?
But does this idee fixe bear scrutiny? In a nice piece of work by Stepahnie Otttenheijm, she asked some youngsters (radical eh?) what 21st C skills they thought they’d need. Not one of the usual suspects came up. They were less vague, much bolder and far more realistic. Rather than the usual 'C' suspects and abstract nouns, they wanted to know how to handle and maintain a strong digital identity, be nice, recognise what’s learnt outside school, learn how to search, use Facebook privacy settings and so on - exceedingly practical these youngsters. My suspicion is that they know far more about this than we adults. It’s schools, colleges and Universities that need to be dragged into the 21st century, not their users.
18th century skills
I'm all for abandoning this ‘21st century’ label - we're 15% into it already and education has become less interested in these skills, more academic, more test-driven, PISA obsessed and has failed to use the technology that we all use, even during the dull lectures we're still fed. Forget futurists, I want some educational archaeologists that revive 18th century enlightenment values.
What drove him and other enlightenment figures, like Mary Wollstonecraft and Rousseau, was a more sympathetic view of the learner but above all the basic idea of self-improvement and education as a progressive force.
Why teach the love of a set of incompatible systems of certainty, rather than the love of critical thought, a sceptical disposition and autonomous thinking. On learning he was incredibly progressive, observing that "it is the content, not the person who matters... as you know there is nothing to be learnt from a Professor, which is not to be met with in books, and there is nothing to be required in order to reap all possible advantages from them, but an order and choice in reading them...I see no reason why we should either go to a University, more than to any other place, or ever trouble ourselves about the learning or capacity of the professor."
I'd prefer young people to have the skills that keep them sceptical, critical and independent. Genuine inquiry needs that enlightenment spirit of curiosity, good analytic skills and abandonment of dogmatic positions. To be honest, I suspect they have this in abundance. Like their enlightenment forefathers they don't want to lock up knowledge in institutions but share, discuss, communicate, even hang out in coffee shops.
Collaboration and sharing
Young people communicate and collaborate every few minutes – it’s an obsession. They text, message, chat, post, comment, snapchat, whatsapp, use Instagram, Facebook and tools you're likely never to have heard of. Note the absence of email and Twitter. Then there’s Spotify, Soundcloud, Flickr, Vine, Vimeo, YouTube and Bitorrent to share, tag, upload and download experiences, comments, photographs, video and media. They also collaborate closely in teams, often international, when playing computer games. Never have the young shared so much, so often in so many different ways.
Then along comes someone who wants to teach them a 21st C skill, usually in a classroom, where all of this is banned. I’m hugely amused at this conceit, that we adults, especially in education, think we always have the skills we want to teach. There is no area of human endeavour that is less collaborative than education. Teaching and lecturing are largely lone-wolf activities in classrooms. Schools, colleges and Universities share little. Educational professionals are deeply suspicious of anything produced outside of their classroom or their institution. The culture of NIH (Not Invented Here) is endemic. Many educators far from being consistently collaborative, have a sneering attitude towards online collaboration.
Again, we live in the age of abundant communication. There’s been a renaissance in communication and writing among young people, who have become masters at smart, concise dialogue. The mobile has taken communication to new levels of use and sophistication. They know what channel to use, whether it’s archived (txts & Facebook) or not (snapchat), synchronous (realtime voice) or asynchronous (access when you want). They can also handle multiple, open channels at the same time.
What do we educators have to offer on this front? Whiteboards? Some groupwork round a table with felt-tip pens? Not one single teacher in the schools my sons attended has an email address available for parents. I’ve attended innumerable educational conferences where only a handful of the participants used Twitter.
Problem solving is a complex skill and there are serious techniques that you can learn to problem solve, such as breakdown, root-cause analysis, supplemented by good documentation, issues' lists, request registers and so on. If you've been through serious project management training or lived for a while in a heavyweight IT environment, where serious coding takes place, you'll meet people who are skilled at this.
I’m not at all convinced that many subject-focused teachers and lecturers know much about these generic techniques. Problem solving for a maths teacher may be factoring equations of finding a proof but they’re the last people I’d call on to solve anything else in life. Do teachers actually know what generic problem solving is or is it seen as some skill that is acquired through osmosis when a group of kids get together in a project to make, for example, a movie?
Beware of big, abstract nouns. This one has become a cipher for almost everything and, I fear, nothing. I have no problem with art, drama and other departments talking about creativity but why does creativity have to be injected into all subjects and education. When it comes to creativity, my own view is that the music, drama and other creative skills my own offspring have gained, have mostly been acquired outside of school. You can listen to as many Sir Ken Robinson talks as you wish, it's still a vague concept backed up with little more than his easy-going, jokey rhetoric.
I have some sympathy with this one, as critical thinking is often well taught in good schools and universities, but it needs high quality teaching and the whole curriculum and system of assessment needs to adjust to this need. However, as Arun has shown, there is evidence that in our Universities, this is not happening. Arun (2011), in a study that tracked a nationally representative sample of more than 2,000 students, who entered 24 four-year colleges, showed that Universities were failing badly on the three skills they studied; critical thinking, complex reasoning and communications. This research, along with similar evidence, is laid out in their book Academically Adrift.
Across the world young people have collaborated on Blogs, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to bring down entire regimes and force political change. Not one of them has been on a digital literacy course. And, in any case, who are these older teachers who know enough about digital literacy to teach these young people? And how do they teach it – through collaborative, communication on media using social media – NO. By and large, in educational institutions, this stuff is shunned, restricted, even banned. We learn digital literacy by doing, largely outside of academe.
Beneath all this talk of 21st C skills, is not a view of autonomy and independent skills and thinking. Isn’t it just a rather old, top-down, command and control idea – that we know what’s best for them? Isn’t it just the old master-pupil model dressed up in new clothes? In this case, I suspect the pupils may know a tad more than the masters.
There’s also a brazen conceit here, that educators know, with certainty, that these are the chosen skills for the next 100 years. Are we simply fetishising the skills of the current management class? Was there a sudden break between these skills in the last century compared to this century? No. What’s changed is the need to understand the wider range of possible communication channels. This comes through mass adoption and practice, not formal education.
It is an illusion that these skills were ever, or even can be, taught at school. Teachers have enough on their plate without being given this burden. I’ve seen no evidence that teachers have the disposition, or training, to teach these skills. In fact, in universities, I’d argue that smart, highly analytic, research-driven academics tend, in my experience, often to have low skills in these areas. Formal educational environments are not the answer. Pushing rounded, sophisticated, informal skills into a square, subject-defined environment is not the answer. It’s our schools and universities, not young people, who need to be dragged into the 21st century.