Is it time for us to begin speaking of 22nd-century skills?
So many complain of the now-trite phrase “21st-century skills” that one cannot help but wonder whether we should move forward to the next century. From possible terraforming of Mars to interstellar travel preparations—and perhaps the first Intergalactic School as a new breed of international school—perhaps we should be focussing on 22nd-century skills.
One wonders what those skills would be? Surely the World Economic Forum (WEF) will soon move from its much-touted Fourth Industrial Revolution (4iR) to 22nd-century skills. Naturally, they will focus on those jobs that don’t yet exist, further promoting the idea that somehow, in some elusive and entirely-unknown way, education will need to prepare children for non-existent (not-yet-existing) jobs. It all will feel terribly urgent, yet no one will have the prescience to identify the pathway. As if there is one pathway. Algorithmic thinkers would like there to be one pathway, since that would enable AI (artificial intelligence) to help us make that transition.
I can’t help but wonder whether the following excerpt from Paul Kirschner and Slavi Stoyanov will feel terribly familiar/contemporary:
“There is little consensus as to what these 21st-century skills are or how many there are. For example, the number and type of skills has increased from four in 2009 which they define as the critical systems necessary to ensure 21st-century readiness for every student (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2009) to, at last count, 16 in 2016 (World Economic Forum). The second reason is that almost all of these so-called 21st-century skills are repackaged skills that have been just as important in previous generations and centuries (i.e., creativity, problem solving, working together, etc.).
[…] the major problems with the enumerated skills are that many of the skills mentioned:
•have been required and exhibited since the first people in Mesopotamia (Tigris and Euphrates triangle) cultivated grains from grasses leading to communities, trade, cities, division of labour, and so on, and possibly even before. These skills include problem solving, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration.
•are not skills at all (e.g., creativity, leadership, grit, adaptability, etc.) but are rather traits/characteristics, which were always needed (see above) but which also cannot be [explicitly] taught.”
Source: Kirschner, Paul A and Stoyanov, Slavi. “Educating Youth for Nonexistent/Not Yet Existing Professions” (2018)
The WEF will surely develop an infographic that looks wonderfully smart and will be touted by any number of speakers (faux futurists) as the definitive outlook on 22nd-century skills. The World Bank will undertake a study, perhaps in lock-step with the OECD, around the shifts that need to occur in all societies in order to ensure an educational system that is fit for purpose as we approach the 22nd century. Our children will have grown up screening (nod to Kevin Kelly’s “The Inevitable”) as a normal activity, and our education system will appear terribly outmoded and woefully insufficient.
Is this how the Exponential Age of Learning will look? I hope not. Everything above is meant to make us pause and consider whether we will blindly adhere to the same script as soon as “22nd-century skills” begins to be used as a phrase. Will the powers-that-be who gather in Davos focus on the privileged world in a normative way? Will the global south again be left out of the imperative of 22nd-century skills? Will we notice? Or, rather, will we push ourselves to be better than our past selves? Will we recognise the fundamentally human task that is teaching and learning, and stop fretting about AI and its march toward dominance? We face a number of important choices in the years ahead (not many years ahead…); will we make decisions based on moral direction? Will we have learned?