What are your post-apocalypse skills?

So there you are, one of the few, disparate survivors of The Event. Caught like a rabbit in a trap, you are brought before the psychopathic, leather-clad local warlord who is to decide whether you are useful or whether he should just kill you for the fun of it. What do you say? What valuable skills might you trade for your life?

I think that the 21st century skills movement has not been anywhere near ambitious enough. It has not asked the right questions. Yes, we all know that there will be jobs in the 21st century that don’t exist yet, even though we are already in the 21st century. Obviously, all of the jobs that we can think of – accountant, plumber – already exist and so this proves that we can’t possibly name and describe the non-existent ones. In such a case, how can we prepare our students for them?

We also know that it is impossible to teach children the knowledge that they will need in the 21st century. The rate at which cat photos and fake Einstein quotes are being uploaded to the internet means that nobody could possibly memorise them all. So we have to prepare for this brave future. But what of the future after the future? Won’t somebody please think of that?

When the apocalypse comes, there will be some absolutely essential skills that all survivors will need in order to… survive. They will need to be creative, have the capacity to think critically and be able to work in teams. Clearly, the education systems of the past that produced all of the scientists, inventors and artists who contributed to a vast flowering of human knowledge and increased standards of living; these education systems will be insufficient to the task.

Instead, we must engage children in randomly making whatever they feel like and we need to get them to do role-plays and stuff like that.

Of course, there are those who dissent from this vision. Thinkers like E D Hirsch systematically mine culture for that which has endured on the assumption that knowledge that has been valuable in the past is our best guide to what might be of value in the future, both for work and for pleasure. Oh.

As for me, when the time comes and I’m hauled before that warlord, I think I’ve worked out what I’m going to go with. I won’t try and sell him on my ability to collaborate or my creativity. I won’t even mention my proficiency with 21st century technologies. Instead, I think I’ll go with the fact that I can make beer from scratch. That might work.

By Drawings: Hennequin de Bruges Weaving: Robert Poinçon's team, in Nicolas Bataille's factory. (http://all-history.org/179-1.html) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Drawings: Hennequin de Bruges Weaving: Robert Poinçon’s team, in Nicolas Bataille’s factory. (http://all-history.org/179-1.html) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


9 Comments on “What are your post-apocalypse skills?”

  1. I don’t understand Hirsch’s using *culture* as a source of knowledge that’s most valuable. Culture filters knowledge; some is taken for granted and not mentioned. Some is mistakenly marginalised. Why not use domain knowledge as a source?

    • He doesn’t use culture. He uses “that which has endured” as a measure of its validity, value, educational worth and generality. These are measures of the importance of something as an artifact of domain knowledge. Not all domain knowledge can be mastered, and rather then continually trying to reinvent that wheel, Hirsch uses the record left behind in culture as a “mine” out of which to draw this wisdom. The old procedure for calculating square roots by hand has not endured; the long division procedure has. Ergo teaching long division ought to be a central feature of elementary school arithmetic; teaching the calculation of square roots by hand … might be a fun side dish, but is dispensable. Shakespeare is indispensible as domain knowledge for English literature … E.E. “Doc” Smith … not so much (but he’s a great read if you’re into that stuff).

      • Thanks for responding Robert.

        Not convinced ‘that which has endured’ is a good measure of validity, value, educational worth and generality. I understand that ideas that have stood the test of time are likely to be of more worth than ideas that have been found wanting and abandoned. That’s essentially how domain knowledge is built up. However, the endurance criterion has some weaknesses.

        It doesn’t address the issue of recent ideas because we don’t know which of them will endure. But students still need to know about recent ideas because they are current and because they might endure.

        Nor does it address the persistence of ideas that should have been abandoned but haven’t been. This is a major issue for derived domains such as education and child development where the primary knowledge domains have moved on but the derived domain is unaware of that. The recent discovery by educators of ideas from cognitive psychology is a case in point. Current child development theory is based on ideas that were current in the 1930s but have been largely abandoned by biologists, geneticists and psychologists.

        Obviously not all knowledge in a specific domain can be mastered – there’s just too much of it. But the core underlying structure of any knowledge domain can be mapped out and can be explained to students. Most people specialising in a particular domain are aware of the deep structure, alternative theories, controversies etc that the endurance criterion wouldn’t take into account.

        Lastly, the endurance criterion doesn’t address the problem of the cultural filter that I mentioned previously. Different ideas endure (or don’t) in different cultures for a whole raft of reasons; the only way you can figure out why those differences have arisen is by having a good grasp of the deep structure of the knowledge domain as a whole, even if you can’t hope to master all the knowledge within it.

  2. Clare Sealy says:

    When asked on some ‘headteachers of the future’ course to work in teams to imagine the school of the future, I said our curriulum must feature weapon making and use, growing food and being able to handle a boat. No ICT cos there is little if any electricty. Very basic first aid including using plants for medicine. This didn’t go down well as the organisers clearly envisaged us planning some swish ICT palace.

  3. David says:

    Diane Ravitch mocked 21st century skills a few years ago, coming up with 19th century skills that might be more apropriate in the classroom. I like her list much better, though it does have a whiff of English imperialism…:

    The love of learning

    The pursuit of knowledge

    The ability to think for oneself (individualism)

    The ability to work alone (initiative)

    The ability to stand alone against the crowd (courage)

    The ability to work persistently at a difficult task until it is finished (industriousness) (self-discipline)

    The ability to think through the consequences of one’s actions on others (respect for others)

    The ability to consider the consequences of one’s actions on one’s well-being (self-respect)

    The recognition of higher ends than self-interest (honor)

    The ability to comport oneself appropriately in all situations (dignity)

    The recognition that civilized society requires certain kinds of behavior by individuals and groups (good manners) (civility)

    The ability to believe in principles larger than one’s own self-interest (idealism)

    The willingness to ask questions when puzzled (curiosity)

    The readiness to dream about other worlds, other ways of doing things (imagination)

    The ability to believe that one can improve one’s life and the lives of others (optimism)

    The ability to speak well and write grammatically, using standard English (communication)

  4. the intro to “Teaching Math in the 21st Century” offers an endoscopic look at a rather colonic description of 21st Century education arguments as they pertain to math for those brave enough to look:


  5. I’ve been to the Swedish territory of the Arctic Circle. All children in schools there have to learn how to build a wooden boat from scratch, as well as general carpentry skills (from a very young age, c. 7). The Swedish are onto something.

  6. I could help the post-apocalyptic authorities do a mail merge in Word *and* in Google Docs.

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