Technology, 21st century skills, and education

As Jon Andrews points out, the education world seems obsessed about framing our thinking around what the future holds, and guestimations of its possibilities. The term ‘21st century skills’ is a symptom of our future-obsession, as schools and governments scramble to prepare their students for … duhm duhm daaaahhhhmmm … The Future. In the late 20th century those words were a way of saying educators were futures thinking, but almost 20 years into the 21st century, I wonder about the usefulness of the phrase. How about just talking about the knowledge, skills, and capabilities students need now and into the future? Does ’21st century skills’ mean anything or is it a meaningless phrase interpreted in different ways by different people? When will we start talking about 22nd century skills?

In my recent reading and thinking about technology in education, talk of 21st century skills is ubiquitous. As Higgins (2014) notes, however, there is no consensus or clear definition of what it means, or what these skills entail. On the one hand, there is a sense of global urgency around the integration of technology in schools, and on the other there is challenge and resistance to technology integration and the contestability of 21st century skills (Hunter, 2015).

Higgins (2014) points out that discussion of 21st century skills is driven by a focus on the economic imperative for productivity and preparing students for the future world of work. In his review of literature around 21st century skills, he finds that the central tenant of what is considered a 21st century education is critical thinking, especially because digital worlds mean that information is increasingly available and questionable in its nature. Other skills that abound in global discussions around the skills required for being successful in the current century include creativity, innovation, communication, collaboration, problem solving, risk assessment, research and information fluency, and digital citizenship (Higgins, 2014). The US Committee on Defining Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills defined deeper learning as knowledge that can be transferred or applied into new situations (Pellegrino & Hilton, 2013), mirroring Wiggins and McTighe’s (2005, 2011) focus on transfer as the key focus of learning.

Fullan (2013a) is critical of the 21st century learning skills agenda, calling it a vaguely defined skill set with too much focus on standards and assessment and not enough on pedagogy, and with little integration of student use of technologies. For Fullan (2013b), deep learning goals are what he refers to as the 6 Cs:

  • Character education: honesty, self-regulation and responsibility; perseverance; empathy for contributing to the safety and benefit of others; self-confidence, personal health and wellbeing; career and life skills.
  • Citizenship: global knowledge, sensitivity to and respect for other cultures, active involvement in addressing issues of human and environmental sustainability.
  • Communication: effective oral, written, and digital communication; listening skills.
  • Critical thinking and problem solving: thinking critically to design and manage projects, solve problems, and make effective decisions using a variety of digital tools and resources.
  • Collaboration: working in teams; learning from and contributing to the learning of others; social networking skills; empathy in working with diverse others.
  • Creativity and imagination: economic and social entrepreneurialism; considering and pursuing novel ideas; leadership for action.

Fullan (2013a) urges educators to move beyond a superficial homage to 21st century learning skills to developing what it means to actually implement them in practice. Higgins (2014) challenges us to ask: “Do we need a curriculum with less specified knowledge, allowing a greater emphasis on skills, based on the argument that information (and therefore knowledge) is more readily accessible? Or do we need more knowledge, as the basis for developing greater expertise and the ability to make informed and complex judgements, based on a deeper understanding of a topic or field?” (p.571). Certainly there are those who argue that knowledge is now more important than ever, and question a primarily skills-based education (e.g. Hirsch, 2016).

As part of the 21st century skills movement, digital literacy has become a global focus. In the UK, the Communications Act 2003 tasked the media regulator, Ofcom, with promoting and researching media literacy, defined on its website as enabling “people to have the skills, knowledge, and understanding to make full use of the opportunities presented by both traditional and new communications services” and helping “people to manage content and communications, and protect themselves and their families from the potential risks associated with using these services.”

A Commonwealth of Australia (2009) report highlights digital media literacy as a dynamic concept and a necessary condition for a successful digital economy. It says: “Digital media literacy ensures that all Australians are able to enjoy the benefits of the digital economy: it promotes opportunities for social inclusion, creative expression, innovation, collaboration, and employment. … The focus of digital media literacy policy and programs is on the development of three core skill sets:

  • the technical ability to engage at a basic level with a computer and the internet, such as to create documents and emails;
  • the ability to understand and critically evaluate digital media and digital media content; and
  • the ability to create content and communications.”

While the movement to focus education on a contested set of 21st century skills is debated in education circles, governments around the Western world have acknowledged the need for their citizens to be critical, creative, collaborative, interdisciplinary in their thinking, and to be able to leverage technologies. I agree with Fullan that we need to move beyond lip service homages to preparing students for uncertain futures. I also align with Higgins’ suggestion that students need more knowledge as the basis for expertise. Skills don’t exist in a vacuum, and students can only think critically, creatively, divergently, and entrepreneurially, once they have a knowledge base from which to do so. I would like to think, for instance, that a knowledge of literature and history can help our students to become global citizens knowledgeable about past events, multiple perspectives, and dystopian possibilities. And that a knowledge of mathematics and science can lead to creative problem seeking and systematic problem solving.

What do you think? Can we retire ’21st century skills’, and instead talk about what knowledge, understandings, skills, and capabilities, our students need now and into the future?

References

Fullan, M. (2013a). Stratosphere: Integrating technology, pedagogy, and change knowledge. Toronto: Pearson.

Fullan, M. (2013b).  Great to excellent:  Launching the next stage of Ontario’s education agenda.

Higgins, S. (2014). Critical thinking for 21st-century education: A cyber-tooth curriculum? Prospects44(4), 559-574.

Hirsch, E. D. (2016). Why knowledge matters: Rescuing our children from failed educational theories. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Hunter, J. (2015). Technology integration and high possibility classrooms: Building from TPACK. Abingdon, England: Routledge.

Pellegrino, J. W., & Hilton, M. L. (2013). National Research Council. Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2011). The Understanding by Design guide to creating high-quality units. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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