Skills that matter the most

Education Sector has opened a discussion on 21st century skills. What are they? Elena Silva tackles the question:

The heart of 21st century skills—what policymakers and educators need to focus on—is an emphasis on what students can do with knowledge rather than the individual units of knowledge they have. The ability to analyze and evaluate information, and to create new ideas and new knowledge from that information—these are the skills that matter most now. And while these aren’t new skills, they are essential today in ways they weren’t in past centuries. That’s an economic reality—most of the simplest jobs today are done by computers, which means today’s workers need to do more than that—they need to think analytically and creatively so they can make sound judgments about everyday issues and problems.

Of course, it helps to start with some knowledge before you start creating new knowledge. You can’t make bricks without straw. Come to think of it, I don’t know how to make bricks with straw. But I can google it: Straw is a binding material for the mud.

Catherine Johnson is dubious about the need for new-fangled 21st century skills.

About Joanne


  1. They will need considerable moral intelligence. They will need incredible self-discipline to get past the distractions and to focus, a strong sense of purpose to move steadfastly toward goals in an environment saturated with possibility, and they will need a vision that keeps their sexuality in the bounds needed to maintain the strong families and enduring relationships which are vital to individual happiness and the continuance of civilization.

    Good luck getting that on the agenda.

  2. Joanne….I think you got it right.

    How do you create new knowledge without possessing “old” knowledge in the first place?

    This 21st century skills business is such a red herring. What has changed is our ability to gain knowledge quickly and easily using new tools (computers, the Internet) that have vastly improved our access to information throughout the world.

    Posing new questions and seeking answers to them by analyzing and evaluating present information, applying reasoning, developing new information…all of this is not some new 21st century discovery. For centuries, it used to be called critical thinking. I agree that the teaching of this process is missing from many classrooms and has been replaced by memorization of assorted facts without reference to their context, meaning or application.

    I guess giving the process a new name…21st century skills…is something you do when you have a lot of time on your hands and are searching for something to add to your list of publications.

  3. Walter_E_Wallis says:

    I never could figure – if you punish brickmakers by denying them straw, is that not more a punishment of the customer?
    [I know how to make bricks but resist the temptation]

  4. Are reading, writing, and mathematics still 21st century skills? Just wondering.

  5. “That’s an economic reality—most of the simplest jobs today are done by computers”…this is a common fallacy. While computers have eliminated many simple jobs–sorting checks in banks, keeping ledgers for insurance companies–they have also greatly simplified and de-skilled many jobs.

    For example, a fast-food checkout clerk doesn’t even need to know how to make change: the POS system does that for him. Moving up the ladder, the job of a retail store manager in a chain involves far less analysis and decision-making than his small-business counterpart of 50 years ago: inventory decisions once made by the store manager, for instance, are now made by a computer system. Loan decisions once made by local branch staff are now made by computer-based credit scoring sytems–not that that worked out so well.

    Computer systems allow knowledge (or assumed knowlege) possessed by a relatively small number of experts to be embedded in the system and used by large numbers of people who don’t possess this knowlege.

  6. The most important skill is the skill to learn new skills. –Paul Bourke

  7. One of my favorite books is “How to Get Ideas”, by Jack Foster. The book contains a brief history of ideas about ideas that can be paraphrased as “New ideas are combinations of old ideas”.

  8. So are reading, writing, and mathematics still 21st century skills or not? If they are not, I have to yank my kids from the private school where they teach and expect students to master these 20th century skills. Also, I have to let my college students know that I don’t expect them to have these skills anymore. Writing policy? Gone. Reading assignments? Gone. The right answer to a math problem? Gone.

  9. I offered my own answer to this a couple years ago, in an article titled Things You Really Need to Learn:

  10. I agree the term “21st century skills” smacks of painting stripes on a horse and calling it a zebra, but I have some stories.

    I struggled in my high school physics class, but ended up with a minor in physics in college. The difference was that the college professors stressed knowing how to problem solve and apply the correct equations, rather than rote memorization of equations which was a major stumbling block for me in high school. My college professors allowed us to bring in a “cheat sheet” of equations, with the rationale that in a real life lab a physicist always has books around to double check equations. This emphasis on knowledge of how to apply vs. knowledge of facts is what I interpret the author to mean.

    My second story is about my terrible 6th grade teacher. They way my local middle school worked, the 6th graders were put on teams, where they had a home room teacher for math, reading, and one other subject and rotated to the other team members for geography, science, and language arts. In 5th grade I had been in an accelerated math program, but in 6th grade we went back to adding fractions. My home room teacher was absolutely terrible, and I hated going to school. However, my elementary school and my parents in combination had given me both the skills and the inclination to learn on my own. Granted, this was all the way back in the 20th century, but I made use of books, libraries, and educational CD-ROMs to cobble together a decent substitute for what I should have been getting in the classroom.

    I believe that the skills necessary for finding information are paramount to memorization of the knowledge itself. Even more important is the desire to seek out information in the first place. In focusing so much energy on preparing students to take standardized tests, I fear that it is to easy for educators to lose sight of this ultimate goal of education.

  11. Judging by our K-12 public education system, the most important 21st Century skills are how to feel good about yourself (because you can do anything, but don’t have to prove it), and how to fully support the State-mandated social norms under any circumstances.

    Only intellectual elites who hate average people read, write, and can do mathematics. In fact, those skills are the personifcation of their hatred of average people, and should be eliminated…!