What do children in the twenty first century need to know?

Whilst this topic is inherently subjective, there is nonetheless a broad consensus emerging amongst education experts globally that our society needs to take the rapidly shifting cultural, political, economic, environmental and social factors that are prevalent today into consideration in figuring out what children need to be able to know and do to thrive in the twenty first century – these have been termed “21st Century Skills”.

There are two key features which define our global society at the beginning of the 21st century. These are:

  • Widespread systems collapse, and

  • Rapid technological advance

Widespread Systems Collapse

There is a growing collective realisation that the systems on which we have based our human lives are showing increasing signs of collapse – these systems include the environment, the economy, our social structures and our political structures.

We are increasingly recognising that we are nearing the physical limits of our planet and that we need to start taking drastic action to conserve and repair our physical environment if we are to have any hope of continued human survival on planet earth. More and more high profile environmental crises (for example: climate change, resource shortages, ecosystem degradation, species extinction) have highlighted the urgent need to care for our planet better and to redesign the way we live on it in almost every way.

Economic uncertainty has grown exponentially, partially as a result of the realisation that we are reaching the physical limits of our planet and that our current version of economic growth without end is not possible on a finite planet. Many people now realise that we need a new economic model that is not based on growth at all costs. In addition our global society has reached a point where we owe more money as debt than there is money being created through production. It is now financially impossible for us to pay back what we owe in debt, and this is before we start paying for our current societal needs. Most of our planet is in an economic death spiral as a result of too much debt.

In addition our society is experiencing rapid social change as a result of increased population, more urbanisation and ubiquitous access to technology and social networking (instant access to information and connection to ever larger networks), and as a result many of the old social structures that we have relied on in the past (including extended families, communities, countries, full-time jobs, pensions and other welfare systems) are coming apart at the seams and being replaced by far more fluid and less definite structures (both physical and ‘virtual’).

Politicians are trying to hold the old system together by creating ever increasing layers of complex bureaucracy, which is failing miserably to do what it is intended to, and making people’s lives increasingly difficult as they labour under more and more government rules and regulations (the nanny state).

The need to develop creative solutions to these problems (and many more) plays a large part in defining the skills requirements for the twenty first century. We will not solve them by doing what we have always done in the past – we need to think differently. There is an increasing recognition of the need for, and value of, diversity of thinking and creativity in order to solve these problems effectively. There is also an increasing need for holistic or systemic thinking skills (to see underlying patterns and solve causes rather than effects). There is also a need for people to be able to work together (collaborate) to solve complex problems that cannot be solved individually. There is a need for participation from all members of society in a variety of transformative processes at a local, national and global level (everyone needs to participate at some level to change the world – there is no authority ‘out there’ who will do it – we must do it). Then there is the need for people to be able to communicate their ideas effectively to others (verbally, written, digitally and through effective use of multimedia).

Finally, with the realisation that life is increasingly busy, chaotic, uncertain and constantly changing, people need to be empowered to trust themselves, to know what they value, and an awareness of self and others that can assist them in making good choices in tough situations. There is therefore a need for capacities such as resilience (to survive through uncertain and rapidly evolving times), self-awareness (to know what one values, to trust oneself, to understand one’s own strengths and weaknesses, as well as the capacity for deep thinking and personal reflection), personal responsibility (to take responsibility for our own experiences without blaming others) and self-ignition (to solve problems on one’s own rather than waiting for ‘the system’ to do it for you).

Rapid Technological Advance

In contrast to the collapse of the old systems that we have always depended on, we are simultaneously experiencing rapid and unprecedentedly exponential technological advancements in our society, which are serving as a catalyst for massive human innovation in almost every field of endeavour.

The Internet as an instant, globally-interconnected system of knowledge and instant, multidirectional system of intellectual interaction between all humans (with Internet access) at any time is an enormously exciting prospect in terms of our society’s future evolution. Our world is becoming one of knowledge abundance (everything we want or need to know is available at the touch of a button). This has huge implications for education because no longer will it be necessary to seek out experts who hold information – the information is everywhere, the skill will be in knowing how to use it. This is being called the ‘Information Age’ or the ‘Knowledge Age’.

The skills that are required in order to use ‘the global brain’ (ubiquitous, interconnected information) appropriately and effectively include critical thinking skills, synthesising skills, filtering skills, networking skills and, of course, technology skills (and technology management skills). In addition people will need to be able to convert the information they access through the global brain into practical solutions for the physical world – this requires ‘amphibian skills’ (the ability to move seamlessly between the online and physical worlds like frogs move between water and land) and practical life skills (to turn ideas into real world solutions).

Developing capacities rather than learning specific content

When we consider these significant features of our current century – the thing they have in common is a lack of clarity regarding exactly what our world is going to look like in the future. Nobody knows exactly what sort of ‘jobs’ will exist in the future, so training for specific functions is largely pointless. Even today people are finding that many specialised functions that have always been done by people before can now be done by computer algorithms (for example stock broking, setting gambling odds, management accounting). So many specialised professions are ‘going extinct’ and leaving people without a clue as to what they should do next. Likewise, our environment and our society need new solutions that existing experts have not even thought of yet, so we cannot pre-teach these solutions to children.

Clearly there is no way to write a complete list of twenty-first century jobs as new job categories are being created every day. Many of the jobs our children will end up doing have probably not been invented yet. Thus, ‘programming’ children with pre-determined information and specific job skills in a highly standardised, static, linear, specialised, content driven, authoritarian way is unlikely to result in the most desirable outcome for them. Instead of focusing on job specific skills we need to focus on developing skills that can be applied to any set of circumstances (any job) in the future. These skills include such things as being able to solve problems effectively, or being able to work in a team, or effective communication skills, amongst others.

I often explain that what we should be seeking to do for children is to create society’s stem cells – stem cells are the undifferentiated super cells within a multi-cellular organism that are capable of becoming a wide variety of specialised cells by differentiating themselves when required. In education terms, ‘stem cell’ would be somebody who has developed a range of multi-purpose skills and abilities that could be applied successfully in a wide range of contexts. So, instead of focusing on developing specific job skills, education should be aimed at supporting children to develop ‘stem cell’ characteristics that would make them versatile and resourceful. Adjectives for stem cell characteristics would include such things as: strong, healthy, inquisitive, resourceful, adaptable, unlimited, capable, resilient. These characteristics are things that children can draw on throughout their lives, no matter which part of the system they want to move to and specialise in. The good thing about being a stem cell is that you have the capacity to become any sort of specialised cell at will, so if your first career choice doesn’t work out you can move on and try something else with relative ease, drawing from the same set of skills.

Many education experts describe twenty first century skills as capacities rather than skills. For example, the capacity for resilience will enable children to flourish no matter what experiences they face. Characteristics such as leadership, accountability, ethics, personal responsibility, productivity, adaptability, self-direction, social responsibility, self-awareness, and self-ignition are all capacities that would help children to thrive in the twenty first century.

Summary List of Twenty First Century Skills

The key skills, attitudes, knowledge and capacities that children need in order to thrive in the twenty first century include such things as the following:

  • Problem solving skills (critical thinking skills, as well as systemic and non-linear thinking skills)

  • Innovating skills (creative and divergent thinking skills, the capacity to think beyond existing knowledge to evolve new ways of how to do things, creativity across all media)

  • Multidisciplinary skills (the ability to incorporate ideas from a variety of different fields and perspectives in order to come up with new ways of viewing our world and develop new systems for living in it)

  • Contextual learning skills (the ability to understand subjects in real life context)

  • Communication skills (the ability to express one’s ideas coherently to others using multiple tools: verbal, written, digital, creative media)

  • Collaboration skills (the ability to work in groups to solve complex problems and to come up with original new ideas collectively)

  • Social networking/participatory skills (the ability to engage with and harness the power of groups)

  • Technology skills (the ability to use technology effectively and appropriately – this refers more to the process of using technology effectively as a tool for life, rather than just the technical aspects of using technology, although management of technology and being able to keep up with the rapid evolution of technology is important too)

  • Amphibian skills (the ability to shift seamlessly and effectively between the online and physical worlds like frogs move between water and land)

  • Practical life skills (the ability to turn ideas into ‘real world’ solutions)

  • Social and Emotional Life skills (including leadership, accountability, ethics, personal responsibility, personal productivity, adaptability, self-direction, social responsibility)

  • Resilience (emotional strength to be able to cope with high levels of uncertainty and make the best of it)

  • Self-knowledge or self-awareness (the ability to know what one values, to trust oneself, to understand one’s own strengths and weaknesses, as well as the capacity for deep thinking and personal reflection)

  • Self-ignition (the ability to create opportunities for oneself and ‘make things happen’ without waiting for someone else to do it for you)

Looking at this list of the so-called “skills” required to successfully engage with our world in the twenty first century, these skills are not ‘mechanical’ (i.e. specific, predictable, formulaic, linear, standardised, one-size-fits-all) in any way. Most of these skills and attitudes are actually more like an approach, or a way, in which to tackle a situation. Most of these skills are already latent in children and don’t need to be learned so much as practised so that children learn to use them more effectively. They do not require a list of specific knowledge coming from ‘experts’ who have already figured out all the answers. These skills could be developed (or rather practised) in the process of learning about almost anything, as long as the focus of the education system was on the process of getting to know something and not on the end result of knowing it (i.e. the process of learning rather than what is learned).

It is worthwhile noting that all of the abovementioned skills are actually highly subjective (different for each person), experiential (they require active engagement by people as opposed to allowing them to be passive spectators receiving pre-packaged knowledge from experts), and continuously evolving (rather than static), and if developed appropriately, they will result in an unlimited variation of different and unpredictable outcomes (and jobs).

Most of these capacities can best be encouraged by allowing them to emerge in response to situations, rather than on learning them from the ‘how-to’ guide.

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