Entries in society (5)


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?


Stephen Heppell, LWF Talk, London 2011

The purpose of learning, the challenges of the future

Stephen Heppell is a globally renowned learning consultant and visionary. In this talk he reminds us of why we learn, the purpose, objective and how we may leverage the abundant technologies of the 21st century to drive positive improvements and new practice across the whole of society.


Kareem Ettouney, Media Molecule, LWF Talk, London 2011

Learning with LittleBigPlanet

Kareem Ettouney is co-founder and art director for Media Molecule the UK studio responsible for the creation of the LittleBigPlanet series which has now reached it's 2nd version that allows players not only to collaborate and create levels to share with other gamers around the world but also entirely new games. Whilst not intended for learning purposes Kareem has been astounded by the way in which LBP has spawned an ecosystem of learning games and levels that are being enjoyed and shared throughout the world.


Ray Maguire, Sony Computer Entertainment, LWF Talk, London 2011

Learning with PlayStation

Ray Maguire, Managing Director of Sony Computer Entertainment UK describes his organisation's approach to the UK education sector calling for a co-ordinated initiative between education and industry supported by government to encourage the development of relevant skills amongst learners wishing to join the creative and digital media industries.


David Yarnton, Nintendo UK, LWF Talk, London 2011

Video games, society & learning

David Yarnton, General Manager, Nintendo UK discusses the positive impact of video games and interactive entertainment on society, reaching across age, culture and gender groups providing new ways for people to connect and entertain themselves whilst offering new potential careers for young people wishing to enter the creative and digital media industries.