Can we add ‘move like a cat’ to the list of 21st century skills?

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If ever you have the misfortune to be on a night out with me, and if we are in the vicinity of a karaoke bar, then there is one inevitable outcome: I will end up singing the T-Rex classic ’20th Century Boy’ in what English comedians, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, would term the ‘club style’. It’s not pretty but it works as a metaphor for the rest of this post so bear with me.

The education department in New South Wales has just organised a conference full of the usual sort of people to talk about the future of education. As you can imagine, the future will apparently be very different from the past and this include the jobs that people will do. In order to prepare for this, we need some kind of revolution in education that involves tossing out solid stuff and replacing it with fluffy stuff.

Today, a piece was published in The Conversation that is abridged from a book produced to coincide with the conference. A number of claims are made that I would dispute, such as the idea that, “In this digital age, the need for children to learn and memorise facts is diminishing.” Instead, we apparently need to teach 21st century skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking and collaboration.

This contention is plainly wrong on a number of levels.

Firstly, our current understanding of cognitive science suggests that critical thinking skills cannot be uncoupled from knowledge. In order to think critically about something, we need to know a lot about it. The same is true for problem-solving; we generally solve problems by making use of strategies that we have learnt; that we know. When we solve novel problems for which we have no strategies, we use means-end analysis; an approach that nobody needs to be taught. Knowledge is important because it is something that we think with. We cannot think with knowledge that is sitting out there somewhere on the internet. If we diminish the need for knowledge then we will have the perverse effect of degrading students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Is this what the education department in New South Wales wants?

What of collaboration? Can this be taught? There are clearly elements of cooperating with others that children pick up from early socialisation. But these are biologically primary skills that we have evolved to learn. There is no reason to think that working with three mates on a geography project in Year 8 will do anything to help prepare students to work in quite specifically designed teams when they start employment. If there is evidence to suggest otherwise then I would be interested to read it. Again, I suspect that ability to collaborate in a particular area will depend up knowledge of that area.

Yet there is no doubt that many big businesses call for students to be inculcated with these kinds of ’21st century skills’ in order to make them better employees. So what does that mean?

Firstly, people who run banks or sell washing machines are not experts on cognitive science and so they are just as likely to be mistaken about this as anyone else.

Secondly, I have to wonder whether big business is trying to duck out of a responsibility here. Imagine if the army said, “We really need schools to teach students how to fire guns – this is an essential skill that schools are just not delivering and that will be even more important in the future.” The likely reaction would be that it is not the business of schools to teach this; that schools have a broader purpose.

And that would be right. When did we reach the point when education became solely about meeting the wishes of future employers? It is certainly not about that for me. Education is about making life richer; about opening people’s horizons to see things and have experiences that would otherwise have been denied them.

Nobody can know the future. We hear confident predictions all the time about AI or jobs that don’t exist yet, but we have to bear in mind that these are simply guesses made by pundits who have no clairvoyant powers. The best guide to what will be useful and important in the future remains that which has been useful and important in the past; that which endures. If we attempt to revolutionise education at the behest of big business then there is a chance that we will gain nothing and lose a lot.

Finally, when did we decide that the ability to collaborate or think critically were uniquely 21st century skills? Then again, perhaps I’m just saying that because I’m a 20th century boy.


26 thoughts on “Can we add ‘move like a cat’ to the list of 21st century skills?

  1. Greg,

    The ability to collaborate or think critically is just about as old as society (and thus our species) itself. Without this grass would not have been cross-bred to yield grains and communities (tribes, towns) would not have existed. In other words, they are evolutionary primary and stone-age skills. They define us as homo sapiens.


    • There is a lot of ahistoricism in the 21st Century Skills argument – it’s as though they don’t know enough history and therefore can’t use this to critically evaluate their own arguments….

      • I call this reinventing the wheel. It has been going on since the advent of child centred learning: the idea that children should behave like experts and discover what they need to know. Now we don’t seem to need knowledge but just try out skills (key frozen cod and a bit of rope in the Arctic!) – certainly a lack of historical knowledge in the proponents of this sort of teaching.

  2. I think businesses mainly put stuff like “critical thinking/21st century skills/creativity/blah” in their job ads partly to appear all modern and progressive to the applicants, but partly also to get a reputation in the wider world as “forward-thinking”. I’m sure that once they’re inside the office, those on the lower rungs aren’t exactly called on to do a great deal of creative/critical thinking.

    That conference sounds like a typical Mark Scott “initiative”.

  3. There seems to be an idiot-myth around (repeated in my current pulp-fact reading Berger’s “A More Beautiful Question”) that children in school are made to memorise disconnected facts. Didn’t happen when I was as school, doesn’t happen now. Facts are the means by which we engage with the real world and build up a store of thinking power. Just try to think about the geography of northern NSW without thinking of which rivers and towns adorn it. All you have to think about is ‘a bunch of rivers, I think, maybe, and a bunch of towns, I think, maybe’ Sure look it up on Mr Google…now that’s where one can find disconnected facts with no context, building no intellectual picture or even framework as a structure for thought, planning, consideration or even (for Berger) questioning.

    • I was to add, but forgot in the excitement of stringing words together. I debate this with my children, who think that any factiod type question can be answered meaningfully from some web page somewhere…more disconnected meaningless can-do-nothing-with facts is all they get. I urge the young ones to accompany me to the library to peruse books on the topic, where someone has done the hard work of bringing facts into coherence….an up-hill battle, I must say.

      • Michael pye says:

        You can do that online as well by guiding them to relevant websites. Your point is still valid though.

  4. Chester Draws says:

    People collaborate in business, but they do so in parallel. Each gets their task, and they bring the results in regularly. They actually do the work alone. Organising this is a real skill, that could usefully be taught. AndFailure is heavily punished.

    But school group work is non-hierarchical and quite useless in that regard. So I’ll start doing group work when it resembles real collaboration — someone is firmly in charge and that person carries the can in case of failure. It’ll teach a few useful life lessons!

  5. Sarah Guscott says:

    I teach at a school where our students are new arrivals from overseas. We do actually have to teach our students ‘how’ to work collaboratively in groups because many of them are not used to doing this in their home countries. It is a people skill or a social skill but so hard to teach when they have missed the foundation levels in developing these skills.

    • John Perry says:

      Even kids who have been here the whole time do tend to “forget” that it is a skill. I now make it a part of my planning to remind students when they work in groups that it IS in fact a skill that I will be assessing them on. I also break up the group time into smaller chunks and alternate that with regrouping and presenting their work to the others. Seems to work well.

      • Stan says:

        How much time do you spend demonstrating exemplary group work to your students? This would include demonstrating strategies for dealing with social loafing, individual self promotion, coordination of effort, and positive and negative motivation of weaker contributors.

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    • As far as I am aware, Einstein was an expert in physics and not educational psychology. One of the key findings of educational psychology is that expertise is highly domain specific. As Willingham notes, trained scientists often fail to think critically about ideas that are outside their domain of expertise.

      • John Perry says:

        “Einstein was an expert in physics and not educational psychology.”

        Take that, Albert Einstein: you’re not as smart as you think you are!

    • Michael pye says:

      “It’s convenient with that fellow Einstein, every year he retracts what he wrote the year before.”
      Letter to Paul Ehrenfest, 26 December 1915. Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Vol. 8, Doc. 173.

      Source, same as yours John.

      I found your quote, apparently it was in response to not knowing the speed of sound.
      That context changes how we interpret the quote.(As a quick response to cover ones pride).
      I also don’t know the speed of sound of the top of my head anymore, though i do know its relative magnitude in comparison to the speed of light, the speed of a car etc: This is also important inter-relational knowledge and more likely what Einstein was referring to.

      You could say that I employed critical thinking here as a skill, but its value is roooted in the fact that I possessed knowledge, both on how to access and use Wikiquote (which is not intuitively friendly) and also an understanding, gained from prior concrete examples, that quotes are usually taken out of context, and are not suitable for making logical arguments, but rather as a stylistic flourish or humorous anecdote.

      The argument here is that skills are interconnected with the context specific knowledge, but that focusing on knowledge is a more powerful teaching approach then focusing on generic strategies. I have tried both and agree with this sentiment.

      Hope this makes sense.

  7. David Zyngier says:

    Well said Greg. All this nonsense about 21C skills is a diversion from main mission of education. Too empower young people to improve their lives.

  8. Stan says:

    It is odd that elementary and high school goals seem so motivated by what employers apparently want. Most jobs require some further education so it would be more practical to ask what to universities and colleges want and leave the more specialized what does a particular employer want to these institutions.

    In Canada there is a consistent message that universities want students with better math and writing skills. Perhaps this is just the loudest voices but it would not be hard to get a wider survey. Much easier than finding out what is common across all employers.

    I’d be very surprised if someone can show a survey of tertiary educators requests that included better group work as an important item.

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