Let’s drop ’21st Century skills’ and move on to the here and now


I was at a conference in London yesterday about teaching and assessing 21st Century skills.

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

’21st Century skills’ has become a bit of a catch phrase which may have reached its sell-by date, after all we are already over a decade into the said century. More importantly, many people are saying that skills like resilience, being able to work with a team, being able to exploit innovations in method and technology, have been with us for centuries and don’t particularly belong to this one. The argument goes on to say that the basis of many of our key skills lies in the core knowledge that we have acquired from an early age. But I’m not saying I necessarily agree with this approach.

There were some useful ‘learning of skills’ analogies in the conference, one of which I thought I would share with you.

This was about how drivers in the UK get their licences. They first have to take a separate theory test, which I admit I never had to do but I did help my wife prepare for it. The aim is to answer questions about the Highway Code and then apply this knowledge by looking at video case studies. Of course the real life case study is actually doing the practical test with an examiner sitting next to you, a nerve-wracking experience for many adults. The conference delegate who raised this analogy noted that you only had to remember 3 manoeuvres to be deemed ‘competent’ in the skill of turning and positioning a car on the road, whereas you actually acquire the right expertise by manoeuvring a lot after you have passed the test.

One hopes all taxi drivers are good at this.

London cabbies are expected to learn ‘The Knowledge’. This is a vast repertoire of different and often complex routes though the capital. It takes on average 2 years to assimilate this content fully and researchers have shown that the process of doing so increases the size of parts of a cab driver’s brain responsible for navigation. However, you won’t even be able to apply this knowledge unless you are technically capable of driving a cab i.e. you possess the right skills. Arguably ‘The Knowledge’ discriminates against potential cab drivers with long-term memory difficulties, who could manage to find addresses with the help of  satellite technology and still provide a cheerful door-to-door service for clients who are in a hurry (like those who were getting to yesterday’s conference).

Which comes back to the bigger question of what we really want from learning outcomes. In fact we want combined facets of knowledge and skills. Using another analogy of raising a new building, we need ‘essential’ i.e. consensually agreed knowledge to provide us with solid foundations and strong walls built with the right skills, to keep the whole structure up for many years against all kinds of environmental effects.

Let’s drop the term ’21st Century skills’ and move on to the here and now.

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11 thoughts on “Let’s drop ’21st Century skills’ and move on to the here and now

  1. :O Someone nicked my analogy! 😉 http://wp.me/p1k9HQ-f6 I don’t mind – it makes the point well.

    [I’ve been banging on about the development of skills alongside knowledge for a while now. They are of equal importance in many areas of the curriculum. 🙂 ]

  2. Was always aware that ‘skills’ wasn’t a favourite term for some (ex)ministers, but I am shocked by what they have done to History, shifting the balance right back from skills to facts. Nick Gibb is advising on the London Curriculum now …

  3. Yes though the problem is whether to assess it or not to ensure it is taught, and if yes, then how to do it without making it a ‘jumping through hoops’ exercise for most students. If only life were easy …

    • Well! To my mind, if a skill being taught is needed as part of what that ‘subject’ is, then the level of competence that a student has in that skill needs to be measured!

      All this anti-coursework came in in the first place, because the Secretary of State didn’t believe the integrity of the professionals delivering the course.

    • I’ve been thinking some more – specifically relating to Science, which has been struggling to address this for a while now.

      Bearing in mind that I think coursework is a better reflection of how things happen ‘in the real world’, and so is a more realistic way of assessing skills than an exam;

      And bearing in mind what I said up-thread about practical experimentation being a good way of facilitating learning;

      Shouldn’t we expect students to be doing experiments quite a lot? And wouldn’t the teacher mark competence in certain areas: data collection; use of the data; conclusions drawn etc.?

      Wouldn’t a modal mark of say half a dozen experiments over the course (or broken down marks for the experiments) be enough? It could be moderated, after all.

  4. This whole area was discussed at last week’s SCORE conference about which I blogged in the post before this one. The devil is in the detail and how the majority of teachers respond to what would be expected of them.

    • Apologies. I don’t know why, but I somehow missed your last post.

      I maintain that it needs to go back to where it was – if it ain’t broke… Despite trying, I’ve never been able to make a silk purse… (to use another cliche).

      After all this scrutiny, all that’s been uncovered (if we didn’t know it before) is that often there’s no simple right or wrong answer, and that consequently, marking has some subjectivity to it. Well woopydoo! Does that really me that teachers continually make a poor assessments? That’s not been my experience.

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