21st Century Skills: Out With the Old and in With the…New?

I get it.  Education is facing significant, unprecedented challenges today because of technology that changes quicker than I can catch my breath.  Buzzwords like 21st century skills, flipped classroom, digital natives, and connected educator abound in the blogs and boardrooms of the educational world.

What I don’t get is why some educators are ready to throw the whole system under the bus.  Where is the examination of past practices that did work?  Why we are willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater?  An expression that first showed up in its English version sometime during the Industrial Revolution.  Another time when education faced unprecedented challenges.  The emerging industrialized world needed a work force that had the basic knowledge and skills to work in the factories.

Their solutions to these challenges formed the basis of our current educational system. Today, leaders ask if we should be educating our students in a system originally designed for producing factory workers.  Well, yes and no.

No because some of the practices used to teach children then were highly ineffective. Especially practices that relied heavily on sit and git, drill and kill, copying copious amounts of notes, and curtailing student choice.  Not to mention culturally biased standards and assessments. Unfortunately, some of these are still in use today, and they are the ones that need to be thrown out.

And, yes because today’s educators are not the first to experiment with project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, student engagement, collaboration, or any number of ‘new’ practices.  These have been around for a long time, minus today’s terminology.  And this system has produced countless numbers of talented people who have influenced our world in a multitude of ways.  Tommy Douglas, Nellie McClung, Alexander Graham Bell, David Suzuki,  Romeo D’Allaire, Wayne Gretzky, Anne Murray, to name just a few.

The Industrial Revolution era needed knowledgeable, skilled people who could work productively in the factories.  Today we need knowledgeable, skilled people who can work productively in the rapidly changing world of technology.  We have cleverly coined these as “21st Century Skills.”  We could just as easily call the Industrial Revolution era as needing 19th or 20th Century skills.  Skilled workers were just as important then as our 21st century skilled worker is today.  The difference is that the definition of a knowledgeable, skilled worker has changed.

The conditions inside the factories is a whole other issue that is not the focus of this post. But the basic purpose of education at that time was to produce workers with the required amount of skill needed for the factories.  The byproduct, however unintended, was intelligent, educated people who fought for safer and better working conditions.  This eventually lead to our society and our education system as we know it today.

Because of today’s rapidly changing technology, we can predict with even less certainty what tomorrow’s world will look like.  Nor what the unintended byproducts of our education system will be.  In light of that, we need to focus on picking those strategies and practices, of yesterday and today, that will encourage critical, creative, and capable thinking in our students.  We need to throw the bathwater out and keep the baby.


About Sherry Langland

Mother, teacher, consultant, learner, and maybe a budding photographer...
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