The new mantra, the next big thing, among educators who need a serious sounding phrase to rattle around in reports is ‘21st Century Skills’. I hear it often, almost always in some overlong, text-heavy, Powerpoint presentation at an educational conference, where collaboration, creativity, communication and emotional intelligence skills are in short supply. Thank god for wifi!
But does this idee fixe bear scrutiny? In a nice piece of work by Stepahnie Otttenheijm, she asked (radical eh?) some youngsters 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 these usual suspects and abstract nouns, they wanted to know how to create and maintain a strong digital identity, be nice, recognise what’s learnt outside school, learn how to search use my Facebook privacy settings. My suspicion is that they know far more about this than we adults.
Collaboration and sharing
Young people communicate and collaborate every few minutes – it’s an obsession. They text, MSN, BBM, Instagram, Facebook, Facebook message, Facebook chat and Skype. Note the absence of email and Twitter. Then there’s Spotify, Soundcloud, Flickr, YouTube and Bitorrent to share, tag, upload and download experiences, comments, photographs, video and media. They also collaborate closely in parties when playing games. Never have the young shared so much, so often in so many different ways. Then along comes someone who wants to teach them this so called 21st C skill, usually in a classroom, where all of this is banned. I’m always amused at this conceit, that we adults, especially in education, think we even have the skills we claim 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.
Again, we live in the age of abundant communication. There’s been a renaissance in writing among young people, who have become masters at smart, concise dialogue. The mobile has taken communication to new levels of sophistication. They know what channel to use, in terms of whether it’s archived or not, synchronous or asynchronous. Texts and Facebook comments are archived, some messages are not (voice). You call people, synchronously, when you want them to make a decision. Text is asynchronous, therefore slower, more relaxed. 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? Not one single teacher in the school my sons attend has an email address available for parents. I’ve just attended two major European conference where only a handful of the participants used Twitter. What do we know - really?
Problem solving is a complex skill and there are serious techniques that you can learn to problem solve such as breakdown, root-cause analysis etc. I’m not at all convinced that many subject-focussed teachers and lecturers know what these generic techniques are. 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 to make a movie?
Beware of big, abstract nouns. This one has become a cipher for almost everything and nothing. I have no problem with art and drama departments talking about creativity but why does creativity have to be injected into all education. Creative people tend to struggle somewhat at school where academic subjects and exams brand them as failures. 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.
I have some sympathy with this one, as critical thinking is sometimes 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 they 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 about 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 this stuff is shunned in schools. We learn digital literacy by doing, largely outside of academe. To be frank, it’s not something they know much about.
Beneath all this, is there 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 they know better. There’s 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 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 school and university. 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 environment is not the answer. Pushing rounded, sophisticated, informal skills into a square, subject-defined environment is not the answer. Surely it’s our schools and universities, not young people, who need to be dragged into the 21st century.