Bill Lucas argues that with a growing consensus about which key capabilities matter we should name them and focus on how they can be embedded in schools
For more than two decades now the educational world has been talking about something called twenty-first century skills. These are typically things like creativity, critical thinking, digital literacy, problem-solving and adaptability. Across the world they are known as different things. Australia calls them capabilities. The OECD calls them competencies. Elsewhere in the world they go by terms such as competences, habits of mind, attributes and dispositions.
In an Internet-dominated world adaptability, digital fluency and critical thinking will be particularly important. With the advent of Artificial Intelligence high order problem-solving, creativity and emotional intelligence will have obvious uses. There is no doubt that the world is changing. But while the label ‘twenty-first century skills’ once invited us to think about how things are different and what we might like to do in response to various changes, it has now become a turn-off to many educators.
There are at least four compelling reasons why twenty-first century skills is an increasingly unhelpful phrase.
1. It’s too vague. Talking about twenty-first century skills as if we do not know what they are is silly. If we can’t reliably say what they are they seem like a wish-list rather than a summary of good evidence. You’ll not find schools talking in the abstract about twenty-first century subjects as a general description of their curriculum. Instead you see words like English, maths, science, geography, art and so on. We need the same rigour to be applied to capabilities. We now know with much greater clarity those capabilities which are particularly useful in school and in life. Two research groups exemplify this consensus, the first from an economic perspective, James Heckman and Tim Kautz, and the second an educational one from Lesley Gutman and Ingrid Schoon.
Self-esteem and self-efficacy
Resilience to adversity
Openness to experience
Tolerance of diverse opinions
Engaging productively in society
Heckman and Kautz
Resilience and coping
Gutman and Schoon
Both sets of researchers describe those capabilities which will improve outcomes for individual learners and so for wider society.
2. It’s unbelievable. Implying that the skills which are needed in 2098 will necessarily be the same as the ones which are called for in 2018, in other words that they span a whole century, invites derision. If they will be the same at the end of this century it implies that they might be the same as any set of skills a hundred years ago at the end of the first world war!
3. It’s not true. At the end of the nineteenth century educationalist Henry Kletzing published a book of desirable character traits. These included adaptability, grit, persistence, perseverance, concentration and self-control. Are we seriously suggesting that these capabilities are not still valid today? Of course not. By using the label twenty-first century we imply that learners and the world today are completely different from those who lived a hundred years ago. Sure there are obvious differences, mainly the speed of technological advances.
4. It’s become associated with an anti-knowledge agenda. Talking about twenty-first century skills in a general, almost messianic way can sound as if several hundred years of curriculum content is about to be ditched in favour of something much more useful and contemporary. It can too easily suggest that they are more important than subject knowledge and the skills associated with particular disciplines. It invites people to see them as an alternative curriculum. For some teachers these views are suspiciously close to the idea that, since Google knows everything, schools are redundant and an individual’s knowledge no longer matters. In reality capabilities are cultivated in the context of a specific subject or project or extra-curricular activity. You learn to persevere by acquiring strategies for mastering irregular verbs or practising the piano. You develop empathy for others by reading stories, studying history or playing in a team. It’s a mistake to think that capabilities exist in a vacuum. They don’t.
Across the world there is a growing number of research-based capability frameworks, a snapshot of which I reviewed recently for the Mitchell Foundation. I believe it’s time to stop talking about twenty-first century skills in general and start looking at how best an agreed set of valuable dispositions can be embedded in the formal and informal curriculum of all schools. As well as providing a compelling agenda for teachers, it’s equally important that, as we have done in Educating Ruby, we share this thinking with parents.
 Heckman, J and Kautz. (2013). Fostering and Measuring Skills: Interventions that improve character and cognition - NBER Working Paper No. 19656. National Bureau of Economic Research.
 Gutman, L, and Schoon, I (2013). The Impact of Non-Cognitive Skills on Outcomes for Young People: Literature review. London: Institute of Education, University of London.
 Kletzing, H (1898) Traits of Character. Toronto: William Briggs.