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.

What young people can do, and 7 implications of that

What do the Cambridge Primary Review, the 14-19 Diploma and walking down Piccadilly have in common?

In the evening of 19 October 2009 I attended the launch of the Cambridge Review of the Primary Curriculum, at the Royal Society of Arts. What the report brings out is the fact that there is much that children know, understand and can do. This will not be news to anyone who believes that children are (or could and should be) active agents in their own education as opposed to empty vessels into which a teacher pours knowledge. Anyone who believes that teaching is more than merely following a script written by a third party, which is about as creative as painting-by-numbers, knows this.

Indeed, my own small-scale research (please see References), and the research which Miles Berry and I undertook (ditto), shows this to be the case. So hearing it emphasised at such a meeting and in such a robust publication was most welcome.

It was interesting to learn, for example, that when asked what makes a good teacher, the children came up with the same answers instantly as academic researchers take eons to discover! The teacher must know their stuff, make learning fun, and tell the class in advance what they will be covering.

(I intend to write a separate article about the Cambridge Review, but I'd like to go on record now as saying I think it's a seminal piece of work, and likely to prove the modern-day equivalent of the Plowden Report (and no doubt suffer the same fate). I haven't read the final bit about ICT thoroughly yet, but was impressed enough by the statement, at the launch, that ICT was seen as fundamental a type of literacy as oracy or numeracy, and not merely as an instrument for achieving something else, to say that perhaps I was wrong when I said the educational ICT community should reject the ICT aspects of the report. But, as I say, I will write more when I have read more)

The following day I attended a Westminster Forum on the subject of Diplomas and Apprenticeships, as I have already mentioned. There are two dangers in education. One is that conference organisers too often fail to include young people as an integral part of the programme. Another is that good ideas like the Functional Skills and the Personal Learning and Thinking Skills will end up as just more sets of tickboxes for teachers to complete.

I am delighted to say that my worse fears on both counts were allayed at the seminar. Not only did the organisers have the good sense to include a talk by a young person, the school had the good sense to choose an excellent spokesperson!

Victoria is undertaking the Advanced Diploma in Engineering, and was one of the most articulate speakers I've heard. In her allotted five minutes she managed to convey vividly the benefits and challenges of the Diploma, and what doing it has meant for her personally.

She also said, in response to a question of mine, that her teacher's ability to teach the course improved dramatically after s/he had attended an Inside The Workplace event as part of their professional development!

Victoria was accompanied by a friend, who sat in the front row giving her moral support, and who was also prepared to assist in answering questions. In speaking to their teacher I found out that preparing for, taking part in and attending such events was all part of the school's approach to teaching Functional Skills and the Personal Learning and Thinking Skills.

Finally, whilst walking down Piccadilly writing the draft for this article in my head, I was brought back to the here and now by a girl asking me if I knew where Regents Street was. I replied that I did, and that it would be easier for me to take her there than to try to give directions (and before you leap to any conclusions, I should mention that she was accompanied by her mother!). We got chatting, and it turns out that the reason she was in London was to attend St James's Palace, where she was presented with her Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award by Prince Philip, the Duke himself. Just listening to the catalogue of what she had done in order to achieve the award was enough to make me feel exhausted!

So what do these three episodes have in common? I think the obvious conclusion is that young people know and can do an awful lot, given the right set of circumstances. So, as far as ICT is concerned, what are the 'right circumstances'? I would suggest the following:

  1. Start from the premise that the young person in front of you knows a lot, but is keen to know more.
  2. Provide a real challenge, as far as possible, not a made up, and therefore irrelevant, one.
  3. If audience is involved, let it be a real and important audience. Victoria sat next to, and was spoken to by, Tim Boswell, MP. That's more than a lot of adults have done. And it's so much more meaningful than having an 'audience' of several thousand unknown people on YouTube in my opinion.
  4. Build the teaching and learning of Functional Skills, Personal Learning and Thinking Skills and other kinds of skill into the work itself, not as some kind of artificial add-on.
  5. Make learning enjoyable.
  6. Treat the young people as adults, as far as possible. At least, treat them with respect: the ideas and opinions and scenarios they come up with may pleasantly surprise you.
  7. Make sure you and your colleagues obtain relevant and enjoyable professional development.