9 March 2009 04:05 PM

Twenty-first Century Skills

by rbavaria

I’ve just read a report entitled Twenty-first Century Skills, Education and Competitiveness: A Resource and Policy Guide, prepared by the NEA, Ford Motor Company, Knowledge Works Foundation, and the Partnership for Twenty-first Century Skills.  It’s quite a read. (Click here to read.)


  • It challenges Americans – educators, parents, business folk, community leaders, presumably students – to re-think our ways of educating children and adults.  The report calls for a “fresh approach,” and points out the fundamental changes in the economy (although it was written just before THE recent fundamental change in the economy), in jobs, and in businesses.

  • It says the citizens and workers of today and tomorrow will need increased skills in creativity, adaptability, and innovation for the “Creative Age” in which we now live.  It calls for language proficiency (especially in world languages), flexibility, and the ability to “work in teams.

  • It points out the “two achievement gaps” we face.  One is the gap between America’s high- and low-achieving students.  The other is the gap between American and international students.  It calls for increased competence in solving complex, open-ended problems, independent thinking, and communicating across cultural and language differences.  It charges that we need to make “innovative use of knowledge, information, and opportunities.”

  • The report advocates the teaching of “core subjects” like reading, world languages, mathematics, the arts, economics, science, geography, history, and civics.  It recommends “infusing” 21st Century themes into the curriculum – global awareness, financial literacy, civic literacy, and health literacy.  It calls for “learning and innovation skills” like creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration.  It notes the importance of “information, media, and technology skills.”  And it cites “life and career skills” like initiative, self-direction, social skills, leadership, productivity, and accountability.

These are all thought-provoking, compelling ideas.  And who could argue against broadening our thinking, improving our skills, communicating more effectively, working well and productively with others, and taking responsibility for our actions?  The report calls for grand and far-reaching change to keep our country competitive and our people informed, productive, and healthy.  

  • The Idealist Me agrees with these well-stated, cogent aims.  Just as I have with many other reports I’ve read.  As a veteran educator, I’ve read many such reports, each aiming to re-make education.  Some reports have a definite business-bias, concentrating on “skills.”  Others have a more academic one, focusing on “knowledge.”  (Every time I hear someone call for “infusing” something else in our already overcrowded curriculum, I want to run from the building.  Once, at a meeting I attended, someone said “infesting the curriculum” and couldn’t figure out why everyone was snickering.)

  • Then the Pragmatist Me begins to ask questions.  Why can’t we have both skills and knowledge?  Students need to know facts – the building blocks of skills, thought, action – before they can move on to the more universal behaviors this report calls for.  Some educators say you don’t need to clutter up your brain with facts; you just need to know where to go to find information.  It’s not that simple.  Learners need to know basic facts and keep those facts in their heads.  Kids love to learn new things, so we should take advantage of that natural curiosity.  And, as I heard someone say, you can’t Google something if you don’t know it exists.  Simply put, you can’t be a functional member of a team if you don’t know anything.

  • How will we accomplish what this report calls for?  There’s little in the report that suggests ways to achieve its recommendations.  There’s much urgency in its language, calls for funding at national, state, and local levels, but little in the way of practicalities.  That doesn’t make this any less important, nor does it cause dedicated folks to give up hope, it just frustrates.

In today’s economic climate (Would Ford Motor Company be able to fund this report today?), we need to find a healthy balance between tackling universal issues like the ones in this report with the fiscal realities the world is facing.  I’d argue that people and businesses will be simplifying (“right-sizing”) their lives and goals for a while.  This might be a good time to refocus on values and attitudes like a respect for learning and the learned, critical inquiry, honesty, equality of opportunity, personal responsibility, civic responsibility, respect for self and others, and tolerance, to name a few.  These values can be learned through the study of literature, history, science, mathematics, even (or perhaps particularly) in sports, the arts, and recreation.


Yes, we need “twenty-first century skills.”  No question, no arguments.  But maybe first we need a national conversation about our attitudes toward learning, our levels of perseverance and self-discipline, our commitment to others in our communities, and our love-hate relationship with work.


“Simplify, simplify,” wrote Thoreau in Walden a century and a half ago.  I wonder what he’d make of Twenty-first Century Skills, Education and Competitiveness: A Resource and Policy Guide with its high-flown language, snappy graphics, and economic goals.  It looks as much like a marketing brochure as an education policy document.  Maybe that’s just the age we live in now, but it may also be a sign of how far we’ve drifted from inspiring and educating our students.


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