In the debate over the future of education there are two schools of thought about 21st Century skills.

The first goes something like this: the world is changing crazy fast and education needs to be totally different than has it been over the centuries to adapt to our flatten, information-saturated world.

The second can be summed as with the phrase “been there, done that.”  This camp sees 21st Century skills as a fad and believes what students need in our brave new world, isn’t any different than what they’ve needed in the past.


The truth is – as it often is – somewhere in the middle.


First the facts: the world is changing crazy fast.  Today we have technology that seemed like science fiction just a few years ago (think google glass), the ability and imperative to collaborate across continents, and a slew of challenges knocking on our door (climate change, global poverty, chemical weapons…the list could go on and on).


This change does require dramatic shifts in education (for more on that read here, and here, and here).


But that doesn’t mean everything we need to teach is something brand new.  There are certainly some new things  – students need an understanding of technology, social media, and a different approach to information literacy.


The core skills that students need to succeed are not things never before heard.  At the heart of most discussions about 21st Century skills, is that idea that students need to be able to think critically and creatively, to collaborate, and to communicate effectively.

It’s not as if when the calendar turned over to 2000, suddenly these things became important.  

For example:


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Back in 2009, in an article for Education Leadership Eduwonk blogger Andrew Rotherham and University of Virginia psychology professor Daniel Willingham listed critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, information literacy, global awareness, mastery of facts as well as complex analysis as the skills students need to succeed in the future.  All things that some in education have triumphed for decades.


Similarly, Yale Divinity School professor Peter Cookson argued in the same publication that the most important competencies for the new millenium are critical reflection, empirical reasoning, collective intelligence, and metacognition.  Skills, he contends, Socrates would have recognized and valued thousands of years ago.


The change for the 21st Century is that these aren’t  “nice if you can fit them in” skills – they’re critical goals.


As Rotherham and Willingham stated in their article,  “Today we cannot afford a system in which receiving a high-quality education is akin to a game of bingo. If we are to have a more equitable and effective public education system, skills that have been the province of the few must become universal.”

We need to teach these skills more effectively and to all students.  As Cookson explained  to meet the challenges and changes of the 21st Century schools must engage students in real-world problem-solving, for example, figuring out ways to tackle the world’s water crisis, with teachers learning beside their students. He concludes, “Organizing this new learning model is the work of the 21st century.”

So here’s the paradox of 21st Century skills: the skills themselves may not be new, but the the focus on teaching them intentionally, teaching them effectively (through the real-world problem solving that Cookson suggests), and teaching them to all students is new.  That’s the shift our schools must make.