21st century skills do not exist; here are 9 skills that do

Guest blogger Derek Blunt suggests what the real 21st century skills are.

Has there ever been such a frenzy of thinking and activity over a concept which does not even exist? I am referring, of course, to the ridiculous notion of so-called '21st century skills'.

Bloggers, teachers, employer organisations and even governments have fallen over themselves to produce documents 'proving' that 21st century skills are essential in the 21st century. Papers have been written. Rubrics have been created. In England the National Curriculum itself has been perverted from its course to include 'Personal Learning and Training Skills' (aptly pronounced, generally, as 'pelts').

I am surprised that I've yet to see jobs advertised: "Wanted: Dynamic Director of 21st Century Skills"; "Needed as soon as possible: 21st century skills co-ordinator."

The truth of the matter is that there are no such things as 21st century skills, only the skills that have always enabled people to get on in their lives since time immemorial.

Think about it for a second: 21st century skills can't include technical ability, because technology is changing so rapidly that what is far more useful is an ability to learn, and an ability to be flexible. Since when was that not the case?

Before the Industrial Revolution, people had to learn to be flexible when the harvest failed, or when the local squire decided to hog all the produce for himself.

During the Industrial Revolution, people had to learn new skills, and almost certainly didn't finish their working lives using the same skills as they started with.

Perhaps the pace of change was slower, in which case perhaps a candidate for the title '21st century skill' might be the ability to cope with change taking place at a breakneck speed. I haven't seen that on any syllabus or rubric.

So what are the skills which are essential to every young person? They're certainly not the wishy-washy 'soft skills' like 'being a good team member', which is not even something you can measure. No. Any decent educational system will make sure that young people leave school being proficient in the following:

  1. Ability to size people up instantly. We don't have time to mess around with people who are going to mess us about or, worse, rip us off. An ability to spot charlatans and other ne'er-do-wells instantly and to act accordingly is essential.
  2. Aye, and there's the rub: to act accordingly. Too often we don't, choosing instead to ignore first impressions and intuition and to give the miscreant the benefit of the doubt. Malcolm Gladwell, in Blink, has convincingly shown us that making near-instant judgements is natural and normal. A good education system will teach youngsters to listen to that inner voice, regardless of what their reason is telling them.
  3. Next, an ability to network is crucial. What matters in the 21st century is being connected, both offline and online. All young people should have to take some form of Enterprise education in order to develop their networking abilities.
  4. A corollary of this is that a good school will ensure that every member of staff and every pupil belongs to a social network. It can be a closed (Ning) network if Facebook is felt to be too risky. People have to learn how to behave in such environments, which are becoming part of the normal work and leisure landscape in modern societies.
  5. Manners. We seem to have reared a generation of young people who feel that the world owes them a living and that grunting and snarling are appropriate forms of behaviour. You only have to look at the behaviour of the people who are rejected early on in shows like the X Factor or American Pop Idol. How many of them say, "Thank you, panel. That is a really useful piece of free advice given by three experts at the top of their game."
    Not a bit of it. What you see instead is the all-too-familiar curl of the lip and the barely decipherable mumble along the lines of "You'll be sorry you missed this opportunity when I'm famous!"
  6. An ability to write. I have no issue with text-speak. Used in the proper context it's fine. But I expect to see apostrophes used correctly, and not see a comma when a semi-colon should have been used.
  7. Skill in making small talk. Schools should run simulated parties in which pupils learn key skills like how to hold a glass of wine, how to make light conversation, and to how to talk without spraying their audience with the mushroom vol-au-vent they've just put into their mouth.
  8. An ability to change course almost at the drop of a hat.
  9. Finally, how to think, and how to put a logical and coherent argument together are absolutely critical. To this end I would make Computer Programming compulsory from the first grade of primary school to the final grade.

Twenty-first skills? On the contrary: what we need is a return to the basics which have served people well for as long as anyone can recall.

Derek Blunt: Blunt by name, blunt by nature.