« An Apple for the Living Room | Main | The trouble with free »

21st century skills

By Graham Brown-Martin

What are 21st century skills?

The question hangs in the air where responses are invariably peppered with buzzwords such as “collaboration”, “creativity”, “technology”, “agility”, “citizenship” and many others. I’m confident that you’ll be able to add to this list and most of them would, in part, be correct.

I enjoy playing buzzword bingo in my head as I’ve listened to policy makers, corporate executives and other 20th century thinkers take a stab at guessing what these skills might be as they struggle to be down with the kids and their quarterly returns.

Video clip: What is she talking about?

In the UK we have an administration - the part responsible for education at least - that would like to turn the clock back to 1950 to a post-war time and a land of opportunity, prosperity and better living through chemistry, where people knew their station in life. The 80/20 rule where 80% of the population were ruled and guided by the other 20%. How comforting that must be.

But there’s an elephant wearing a day-glo pink tutu who’s been dancing in the room since even the last century.

I have a vision about what happens after we elect a new President or Prime Minister. After they’ve stood at the doorway, family in tow, to their newly won corridor of power for the press shots they enter to find Mr Sinister who closes the door behind them, locks it and takes them for a briefing about “how it really is”.

They get to meet the elephant and boy can she dance.

This elephant was touched on during Sir Ken Robinson’s recent LWF talk and it makes climate change seem like a supporting act. And it wasn’t the well-rehearsed and perfectly delivered arguments about creativity in learning but the very reason it’s essential to the survival of our species.

(Sorry iPad users the bit below needs Flash)


The elephant is called “population” and her supporting acts are called “resources” and “environment”. There’s also a mad man in the audience who shouts “how the hell are we going to get out of this mess!” but every body assumes he’s a drunk so ignores him.

So let’s break this down.

A recent BBC documentary fronted by David Attenborough presented some startling statistics about the Earths population and our ability to support ourselves.

Video clip: How many people can the Earth support?

It turns out that if every person on the planet consumed and left an environmental footprint at the same rate as a typical citizen of Rwanda then our lovely blue marble of a planet could support 15 billion people.

On the flipside if we consume and leave the same environmental footprint as a typical US (and many a European) citizen then the planet can support 1.7 billion people.

The rub is that we are now at 7 billion people and counting.

Which means there’s a whole bunch of people having less so that a minority can have more.

Now this is a really tricky subject because the majority of people reading this blog, myself included, aren’t too keen on the using less bit. Of course, we talk about it and separate our garbage into the right bins, take public transport when we can but this is like comfort eating in a state of denial.

Nobody knows how many people have walked this planet but some pretty clever people have taken a stab and suggested that currently 10% of all the people who have ever lived are alive today. We are quite simply the most populous generation of our species.

For those of a right wing, nationalistic or religious persuasion - depending on who’s stats you read - you should know that the average age of people in the Middle East is under 30 with a growing population and the average age in Europe is approaching 40 rising to 50+ in the next 40 years with a rapidly declining population.

Sarkozy and Berlusconi anybody?

Whilst the physical size of the planet will one day be an issue the restriction on the number of people this planet can support comes down to our natural resources. The water table in China is now precipitously low and our fossil fuels will eventually exhaust themselves exacerbated by, well, those inconvenient people that, you know, want a bit of what you got.

Optional musical interlude:

So whilst we read about the “Arab Spring” and unrest in the African continent perhaps what we’re really witnessing is that our 21st century skills aren’t too different from the ones we’ve been deploying for a few centuries now.

Regime change, intervention, espionage, bombing, sustainable somnambulism, keeping people poor / uneducated, preventing independence, shotgun diplomacy, fiscal control, looting, pillaging whilst adopting a strategy of we take you buy would seem to be the kind of 21st century skills that we’ve become good at and have perfected through our systems of cultural reproduction since even before the Victorians.

So let’s lighten up a bit and bring it back to the topic of 21st century skills and the purpose of learning.

The next few generations of kids including those in our education systems today have some formidable challenges ahead if we are to see a 4th or 5th generation of our species.

Sounds sort of “woo-woo” dramatic doesn’t it until you think about it for a while and try to answer the fundamental questions about how we will ensure sufficient water, food, energy and medicines that will support an ever-growing population.

All that science fiction stuff about city size populations living in a single tall building and deep space exploration begins to seem a little less science fiction when you consider that we will need to design incredibly efficient ways of recycling and using our naturally limited resources without entering a dystopian world.

If we’re serious about educating the global population then they are going to want what you have or at least the good bits and if this is the case we will need to plot a course for energy and environmental neutrality that will allow this to happen. The alternative is what we have at the moment. Keeping the majority of people down and hiding behind well-intentioned NGO’s to salve our conscience. Unfortunately we know how that story ends.

So the point I’m driving at is that we, as a species, have a massive challenge ahead that won’t be solved by sticking our heads in the sand and pretending it will never happen.

We need to challenge and equip our learners of today and tomorrow with the skills to solve bigger problems.

Peace-keeping and the equitable sharing of resources and culture are going to be a big part of this but we are going to need architects, engineers, scientists, designers, artists and all the other members of the team who can reengineer and reimagine almost every facet of what we know today in ways we can hardly envision. 


This will require a challenge to our societies super-structures that hardly seems possible amongst a population who already consider themselves post-modernists when in reality we still live by a feudal system.

All this at the same time as ensuring we have a society and life that’s worth living.

Perhaps the purpose of education is now not simply to reproduce culture and maintain an elite but to take that elephant dancing until she has to leave the room.

What are 21st century skills?

The ones that will ensure we survive in a world that we want to live on.

Personally I don’t think that learning Latin is one of them.

Now what do you think?

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

References (10)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.
  • Response
    We are living through the early years of a period of unprecedented change. Our existing education system is a relic of the industrial revolution and we now have the greatest opportunity and urgency to change that. I referred to this in an earlier post...
  • Related
    A population pyramid, also called an age structure diagram, is a graphical illustration that shows the distribution of various age groups in a human population (typically that of a country or region of the world), which ideally forms the shape of a pyramid when the region is healthy. It is also used in Ecology to determine the overall age distribution of a population; an indication of the reproductive capabilities and likelihood of the continuation of a species.
  • Related
    Related: Aging of Europe
    The Ageing of Europe, also known as the greying of Europe, is a social phenomenon in Europe characterized by a decrease in fertility, a decrease in mortality rate, and a higher life expectancy among native Europeans
  • Related
    The 2010 U.S. Census reported 308,745,538 residents,[1] making the United States the third most populous country in the world. It is a very urbanized population, with 82% residing in cities and suburbs as of 2008 (the worldwide urban rate is 50.5%[2]). This leaves vast expanses of the country nearly uninhabited.[3] California and Texas are the most populous states,[4] as the mean center of United States population has consistently shifted westward and southward
  • Related
    the human population almost certainly follows a bell curve as well. the point at which we peak depends upon the resources available to us. by 2020 it is predicted that the human population will be double its present size and the world will be far more industrialized at a time when our oil resources are diminishing. thus the down slope of the oil bell curve will be far more rapid than the up curve was.
  • Related
    Michael Gove is very fond of the PISA reports and seems to be basing a lot of his policies on the work of Andreas Schleicer from the OECD. However Andreas also has a lot to say about the curriculum needed for the 21st Century, including the use of new technologies.
  • Related
    Teachers Without Borders connects teachers to information and each other to create local change on a global scale.
  • Related
    Much good work has been done to identify “21st-century skills” - such as learning-to-learn, critical thinking and creative knowledge-building - some of which are new and related to digital technologies, while others have long histories stemming at least from the teachings of Socrates and Plato.
  • Related
    Every two years the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ Population Di- vision prepares the official United Nations estimates and projections of world, regional and national popu- lation size and growth, and demographic indicators. The results from the most recent set of estimates and projections were published in World Population Prospects: The 2002 Revision, a three-volume set issued over the period 2003-2004. The estimates and projections in the 2002 Revision cover the pe
  • Related
    With global population expected to surpass 7 billion people this year, the staggering impact on an overtaxed planet is becoming more and more evident. A two-pronged response is imperative: empower women to make their own decisions on childbearing and rein in our excessive consumption of resources.

Reader Comments (5)

Absolutely! We keep talking about preparing students for the 21st century by helping them learning certain skills but more than that is the fact that we must also empower them with the confidence, belief and seriousness needed to design and flourish in their own future, of their making. Too many kids let life happen to them because they believe "the system" has a master plan. This is simply not true and everyone needs to take responsibility for designing a better way.

May 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChris Harte

That's profound, Graham! Has set me thinking... Thanks!

May 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPrathap

Personally, I think that learning Latin is one of them.

Not in the sense that Latin is somehow an intrinsically wonderful language, but rather in the sense that if we lose our connection to where we've been - as you yourself point out implicitly in places in your blog-post - that we will ultimately lose any sense of where we are going - not to mention the knowledge-base we need to draw on in learning how to avoid ending up where we shouldn't!

May 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommentereHewlett

Well done - we all need the wake up call - particularly teachers, who have a vitally important role to play in educating people to demand a sustainable future for themselves and their children.

May 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGraham Hastings

In the midst of so much profound rhetoric, we are forgetting one thing. Despite technology, humans have not changed. We still think, process information, eat sleep and live the conventional way. Technology is not doing the learning for us; we still have to do the learning. So anything or system which can give us the guideposts for learning and living is what is needed and if it has to be old fashioned one, then so be it.

When we talk abut the 21ast century skills, we have to remember what knowledge and skills brought us into the 21ast century. Our kids have to go through the same journey except that we can summarize it for them and thus bring them with us into the 21st century. Without that we are going to be leaving them dangling in mid air which is precisely what is happening now.

The trick thus is in integrating knowledge not skipping it to jump into the 21ar century unprepared.
Believe it or not, integrating knowledge shrinks knowledge which is deliverable in much sho0rt time than the conventional system of fragmented teaching. Science for instance gets reduced to mere 150 concepts and skills see: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=149281. The rest of our knowledge is similarly condemnable and its learning logical in equally less time as science. Merged together with science what we know and have learned becomes even more easy to learn and use making our students versatile and analytical and problem solvers. It is worth looking into see: www.centerforintegrativelearning.org.

August 25, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterriazul haque

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>