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21st-century skills – Let’s change the conversation around ‘change’

We need to get over the idea that tomorrow’s great discoveries will somehow invalidate our prior understanding of how the world works, argues Harley Richardson

Harley Richardson
by Harley Richardson
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Things are always changing But don’t be sad and blue Change can make you happy ’Cause it brings you something new…

So sings Hoot Owl in an old scene from Sesame Street that I’m very fond of. Young Muppet Jimmy can’t sleep, because he’s anxious about moving to a new neighbourhood and worried about losing touch with his friends and everything familiar to him. Hoot’s jolly song reassures him that there’s lots to look forward to in the new and unfamiliar. Jimmy switches out the light, excited about what lies ahead.

Readers may wonder why I’m writing about a song for pre-schoolers in an article for Teach Secondary, but bear with me. I bring up Hoot’s song because it joyfully conveys a healthy and positive attitude to change and the swerves that life can throw at us.

By the time children reach the upper stages of secondary school and start brushing up against the adult world, they’re likely to encounter a subtly different and altogether more disenchanting view of change. I’m talking about the notion that change is the defining feature of the modern world – one which renders our knowledge and understanding of the world up to that point all but worthless.

In education circles, this is put about by those who firmly believe schools should be reorganised around teaching children ‘21st Century Skills’ such as creativity, problem solving, and ‘learning to learn’.

Many readers will doubtless be familiar with the following chestnuts: ‘Jobs for life are a thing of the past, so transferable skills are what people need’; ‘The western canon was created by Dead White Males and is irrelevant to the lives of young people today’; ‘Problem solving and creativity are what society requires, not dead facts and knowledge’.

As it happens, I do think a good education should foster creativity and independent thinking, but I object to claims like those above, because they implicitly assume the modern world’s pace of change renders specific knowledge irrelevant as soon as it’s been learned, if not sooner.

By contrast, flexible skills unburdened by the ‘baggage’ of knowledge, are supposed to be the answer.

Running to stand still

This directly contradicts the view of knowledge that’s motivated people throughout history to fight for the right to education; that education gives us a better purchase on the world, and a fighting chance of dealing with whatever life might throw at us.

Instead, we’re told nowadays that any such purchase is illusory; that we may be standing on the shoulders of giants, but that those giants are sinking into the sand beneath their feet.

This is a deeply depressing message to pass on to young people. As students begin to think about their lives beyond school, they may be contemplating learning a trade and developing their skills, knowledge and expertise over the course of a working lifetime.

But it won’t take long before they encounter the received ‘wisdom’ that such expertise has a naturally short shelf life, and that “The future of work demands continuous upskilling and reskilling” – as Coursera’s Global Skills Report 2021 rather bluntly puts it.

Attempts to make a virtue of this apparently inescapable churn of skills, by presenting it as an opportunity for lifelong self-development and personal discovery, remain unconvincing.

Middle class professionals might get excited at the prospect of a string of careers, culminating in well-paid work as a consultant or advisor – but for many young people, ‘continuous upskilling and reskilling’ will look like an exhausting and precarious cycle of short-term jobs, redundancy and retraining, culminating in being left on the scrapheap at 50 once finally considered to be irredeemably ‘old school’.

Concrete thinking in extremis

If we examine more closely this notion that the modern pace of change renders the past irrelevant, we can see just how strange it is, and how at odds it seems to be with the attitudes you’d expect to find in the education sector.

On the surface, it might appear to be saying something profound about society’s relationship with its past, but what it boils down to is the assumption that no situation can tell us anything about any other situation. In other words, every situation is entirely novel, and must be responded to on its own terms –naively, as if we were children.

It’s an example of concrete thinking in extremis: This is ‘this’, and has nothing in common with ‘that’. Which seems ironic, given that ‘21st century skills’ are supposed to promote creative thinking and problem solving –both of which typically involve making imaginative leaps, and require abstracting out the common features of apparently unconnected phenomena.

If taken seriously, it would be a frightening way to look at life. In the real world, however, ‘this’ often has similarities with ‘that’; few situations are truly unprecedented; and our prior understanding of the world can and does provide useful footholds we can use when grappling with the supposedly unknown.

Take, for example, the ‘unprecedented’ pandemic we’re currently living through, which has seen us build upon existing knowledge of vaccines in order to reduce the impact of a new and deadly virus.

Despite what some people might say, it’s still the case that in many – if not most – professions it’s entirely possible to develop a range of skills and knowledge over the course of a single career, and that an individual’s experience and expertise still counts for a lot. New industries don’t appear fully formed out of nowhere, but rather develop organically out of existing ones, and will tend to rely heavily upon established skills and knowledge.

This is just as true of the edtech world in which I work as it is in more ‘traditional’ industries, despite the technology sector being almost synonymous with those 21st Century Skills. You’ll still find plenty of accountants, writers, designers, salespeople, trainers and project managers in tech firms. Their specific job titles might be unfamiliar, but you’ll struggle to find any role within a modern organisation that doesn’t draw upon some form of existing skills.

Intellectual roots

Thankfully, we’ve seen a growing number of people highlighting these and other issues in relation to the 21st Century Skills agenda in recent years. As a result, the government’s focus has returned to more practical and meaningful skills and knowledge, which have the potential to open up doors for young people and prove useful to them throughout their lives.

Yet this idea that ceaseless change gives existing knowledge an ever-shortening ‘half life’ still dominates education conferences, the proclamations of business leaders and reports put out by NGOs such as the World Economic Forum. Taken together, these continue to set the tone for a great deal of public discussion concerning the role of education.

It’s as if we’re still living in, well, the past – specifically the 20th century, when the idea that was to become ‘21st Century Skills’ was first articulated by thinkers such as John Dewey and Margaret Mead.

Sociologist Frank Furedi’s 2021 book 100 Years of Identity Crisis traces the development of the idea over the past century, and is well worth reading if you’re interested in understanding how change came to be, as he puts it, “Portrayed as an omnipotent and autonomous force that rendered irrelevant the customs and cultural legacy of the past.”

Given the changes the world has been through in the last few years, it behoves us all to keep in mind that no matter how dramatic or frightening they appear to be, such changes are rarely the dramatic breaks from the past we’re invited to see them as.

Things are indeed always changing, but I’d hope that teachers take a leaf from Hoot Owl’s book and reassure young people that the skills and knowledge they have now won’t go to waste.

Harley Richardson works in education technology, helps organise events for the Academy of Ideas Education Forum and blogs about learning through the ages at; follow him at @harleyrich

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