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February 5, 2010


The Fallacy of 21st Century Skills

by Peter Skillen

’21st century skills’…ah yes. It is one of those terms that people catch onto as if it is new, novel, unique – not unlike what I said in my post about novices and their adoption of new technologies.

And, again, we see the entrepreneurs (business, industry and marketeers) grab hold of this construct of ’21st century skills’ – and flog it to make their fortunes.  Senior management, educational policy leaders and the public latch onto these kinds of terms and mission statements with a fervour that disgusts me. Are we so naive and gullible?  Are we so uneducated, unwise and unaware of the principles of educational pedagogy of the past millennia? We should all be extremely insulted and we should rebel against such fallacy.

Now, do I think that there are some differences in the tools and media that encourage and support that which progressive educators have deigned to do over the years? Yes.  I do.

Here are some of those:

  • knowledge representation and visualizations made possible by the technologies (such as Jeff Han’s Perceptive Pixel Wall) enable us to see information and trends more clearly, therefore acting as a cognitive partner in our problem solving skills
  • the ubiquity and ease of personal learning networks (PLNs) afforded by social media allow for scaffolding of learning in ways that were more difficult previously
  • we now have richer, deeper ‘media with which to think’ – in ways that are similar to the invention of language which provided us with symbols with which to think differently
  • brain research is revealing the neuroplasticity of the brain and the wisdom to not think of the brain, and all resultant behaviours, quirks and ‘deficits’, as fixed and static and irreparable

These points do not indicate that we need 21st century skills!  These are rather 21st century inventions and discoveries that move us along the path towards the higher level skills many of us have espoused for years – or centuries.

(Note: Of course, I recognize that people need to learn the new technologies and their applications. This, also, has been an ongoing need throughout history as new technologies arose.  Not new.)

Thanks to Brenda Sherry for stimulating this rant!  🙂 It is cross-posted in a reply to her post.

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5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Feb 5 2010


    Thank you for writing about a topic that for me anyway, brings about the same type of thoughts.

    I like the way you say near the end of your post, “these are rather 21st century inventions and discoveries” Now I hope I’m on the right track here when I say that although I believe that 21st technology skills and inventions are important there is another 21st century skill set that is far more important. Let me illustrate:

    The RSA has a “competency model” that in my humble opinion is the way to go when we talk about 21st skills and competencies that we humans will need. They are divided into 5 broad categories:

    Relating to People
    Managing Situations
    Managing Information

    Here is the link:

    I like the way many of the 21st century tasks teachers and students are undertaking in classrooms of today fall in one of these categories.

    Thank you for starting this conversation. I hope others chime in with their thoughts here.


    • pskillen
      Feb 5 2010

      Hi Kent,

      Thank you for this observation and this link.

      It is a nice take on the kind of skills that we wish for our students and our citizens. These discussions, I believe, are really important – as you have noted – for us to parse out the relevant from the irrelevant, to identify the unique interplay of current technologies with skills of learning and citizenship.

  2. Robert Martellacci
    Feb 5 2010

    Hi Peter, You raise some interesting points. I agree the notion of 21st century learning skills is not clearly understood at times, both from an educaiton and industry perspective. We try to be mindful of the meaning of 21st century skills n what we do. Case in point, for our national contest, we used the ISTE Teacher EdTech Standards as the rubric for judging our contest. Here’s a link,

    As a parent, there’s nothing more important to me than for my children to receive a well rounded education that prepares them with the essential skills to be successful in the the 21st Century ever changing global knowledge based economy.

    All the best! Cheers, R.

  3. pskillen
    Feb 5 2010

    Of course, as I read and reflect on that which has been written, I think of things.

    Obviously, people need to learn to be much more critically aware when they are bombarded by a wealth of ‘unfiltered’ information that is produced and available a la ‘Cult of the Amateur’. This could maybe be considered a 21st century skill – except to say, that people have needed to be critically aware of the information that has come from ‘filtered’ sources such as publishers, newspapers et al.

    So perhaps we need to speak of a honing of the skills to meet 21st century environments.

  4. Feb 13 2010

    Hi Peter
    Your post brings a great perspective that we often overlook when referring to modern education. I often bring up terms like “Digital Natives” and “21st century” in my conversation with colleagues who are not using the wonderful tools available to us. But I do not know of some wonderful teachers who are hitting the targets of the 21st century using just the tools they have. I guess the idea is how we use what we have.

    Again, from the parents’ point of view, I feel it’s important that we talk about what’s changing in the modern times. In one of my posts on a parenting blog( I have tried to talk about being mindful of how the world looks now versus “our times”.

    And yes, Peter, I agree with you totally that Socrates and Einstein were great thinkers even though they weren’t in the 21st century. It’s just that our students need to learn about them through blogs and wikis and maybe Avatar-like creations! 🙂


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