Curriculum, EdTech & Design, Opinion, Promising Practices

High Touch for High Tech

Have you noticed that nobody advocates for 21st Century Knowledge?  Well of course not.  Much of what our students will need to know 20 years from now, which is when the educational chickens really come home to roost, is not yet known and much of what we think we know now will be irrelevant or wrong within their lifetime.  So, knowledge is not the key to the future.  That is not to say it is unimportant, but only that it is not the determining factor in a strong education or a successful future, and it is not what separates the economic winners from the also rans or what creates a healthy society.

So everyone turns to skills.  Surely “know how” will be more important as “know what” becomes both more universally accessible and more volatile.  Well, skills are more durable than knowledge but they are still not stable, particularly when skills are seen as specific scripts that can be trained – such as knowing how to use computer software efficiently or even to program computer applications directly.  This stuff is changing so fast that what one really needs to understand is not the specific procedures for doing things but the principles behind those procedures so that one is better equipped to keep up as they rapidly evolve.  Fortran was essential when I was a graduate student but it doesn’t do me much good now.  So even specific skills are not sufficient to carry you into the future.

Unless, of course, we are talking about social skills.  These are changing as the world becomes more diverse and multicultural but they are still far more stable than technical skills and increasingly essential for employment success, just as they have always been critical to social engagement, citizenship, personal fulfillment and happiness – the seldom mentioned ‘other half’ of educational purposes.

21st Century Skills should include technical prowess for obvious practical reasons but the truly essential skills are not the ‘hard’ technical ones; they are the ‘soft’ human ones – communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking for example.  These have always been important to us, and they have always been buried somewhere in the nether regions of educational mission statements, but as the pace of change accelerates, diversity increases, and interconnection and interdependence intensify in our ‘shrinking’ global village, the soft human skills must be brought into the foreground and given the full attention they deserve.

And underlying skills there are attitudes, which may be an even stronger determinant of success – curiosity, confidence and courage for example – and dispositions like empathy and ethics.  These too need to be taken out of the closet and put into the middle of the classroom.

Now there are some problems in doing so.  We know how to present students with knowledge and figure out with reasonable accuracy if they have absorbed it.  We can also determine if they have understood it, although that is a bit harder.  And we are fairly good at skill development – at least technical skill development – but its much harder to evaluate.  However, when it comes to social skills and attitudes, not only are we poor at teaching them – if “teaching” is the term – but we are flat out lousy at assessing them and we have no agreed upon standards that would allow us to evaluate them even if we could assess effectively.

This is the real challenge of 21st Century Learning.  How do we inculcate in our students the soft skills and personal attitudes that will empower them to thrive in the future that is already upon us, and how do we assess, evaluate and report them?  Yes, students also need knowledge and technical skills, but if we allow ourselves to focus on these easier tasks we will fail to understand or address the real need.

Developing social skills and personal attitudes starts to sound like character development – a term that inevitably raises some hackles and concerns.  This kind of character development, however, should not be confused with moral development because to the extent that it is concerned with values they are the common core values that underlie a democratic society and are central to all moral systems – things like honesty, respect and responsibility for example.

So, IMHO we should reframe the 21st Century Skills discourse in terms of character development for a diverse and dynamic world rather than as a simple matter of technological mastery.  Now what sort of schooling would it take to accomplish that – or should we be talking about schooling at all?

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Bruce Beairsto

Retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University

Bruce Beairsto is a retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.

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