A 21st century skills paradox

Every time I attend an educational ICT conference, at least one of the speakers talks about how little we know about the future. The refrain goes something like this:

  1. Kids entering school now will be leaving to join the world of work in around 2030.
  2. We can’t predict what the world is going to be like even in five years’ time, let alone 20.
  3. Therefore we need to teach kids 21st century skills (working as part of a team etc).

This all sounds profound and straightforward, but it really isn’t.

Me thinkingFirst, maybe I missed a step in the logic, but if we can’t predict what the world is going to be like, how can we possibly know what skills will be needed?

Second, who says that the so-called 21st century skills are the best ones to have anyway? Recently, Lord Puttnam said, quite rightly, that the only certainty is change. That being the case, the two best skills for (young) people to acquire, surely, are being able to cope with change or, even better, being able to adapt to, and take advantage of, change?

Third, why is “working in a team” a 21st century skills? People have needed to do that since time immemorial. A far more useful one would, in my opinion, be working as part of a virtual team, which requires skills and approaches not entirely encountered when working as part of a physical team. The technology has been a game-changer, but the mantra of team working as a 21st century skill to be acquired in school usually doesn’t acknowledge that to be the case.

Fourth, I’d argue that a crucial skill is to be able to work not as part of a team. As a freelance consultant, I work a lot on my own, and that requires self-discipline, decision-making (eg “Should I go to this conference or not?” It’s actually much easier of your boss tells you to go or that you can’t go – not better, but certainly easier!) and knowing when to stop working!

We tend, as a community, to accept or even use buzzwords and phrases like “digital natives”, “21st century skills” and others, but quite often when you start to delve into them they simply don’t hold up to scrutiny.

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