The lure of 21st century skills

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The following is a guest post from a teacher who got in touch through the contact section of this blog. It sheds some light on why young teachers feel the lure of 21st century skills and the frustration when they start to realise what the evidence actually shows. The author prefers to remain anonymous:

As a (young) teacher, it is a great feeling when recognition falls your way. I’m a middle/senior maths and science teacher at a rural school in Australia and I was certainly short of any positive recognition in my first couple of years! However, I recently had the pleasure of having my work featured in a partnership wide newsletter. Without going into too much detail; it was a photo followed by a short explanation of a project I developed. The project involved senior school students interacting with junior school students as a way of promoting engagement. The winning edge that the photo possessed was the fixed gaze, wonder, awe and amazement of the younger children as the older students explained and interacted. In this project I tied in science, technology, engineering, maths, collaboration, inquiry, problem solving, creative and critical thinking. I was kicking goals.

This is, until about 6 months ago, what I thought the goal of any teaching and learning should be. The engagement.

What I have since learned, is that if the goal of your practice is to engage students in your lesson and lead them to be amazed, it is not sustainable. Many of the senior students in this particular case, when formatively questioned by me about simple, basic facts of the project were not very knowledgeable. The whole notion about using engaging content and having engaged students as your lesson outcome or goal is risky. I have also realised that it caused an imbalance of power to a harmful point where the student has the belief that they can choose whether or not to engage with a lesson or learning task because the teacher either did or didn’t engage them. I believed that the behavior of the students was a direct cause of how relevant and engaging the teacher was.

The main issue with the high level of engagement line of thinking is that if you plan to have lasting, domain-specific outcomes from such a lesson it will likely fall short. A student will struggle to remember any domain specific facts from this method of teaching as the attempt to engage and connect with the student will override the memory.

For over 4 years of my teaching career I believed that knowledge and content was not important. It’s not what you know; it’s what you can do. It’s about skills. It’s about how you engage. It’s about how you let a student know that school can be exciting and the same experience as having fun with your mates. So let’s teach our students 21st Century Skills (21CS).

I believed that with the introduction of the internet, the entire world’s knowledge is at our fingertips, so, anyone can use Google, YouTube, Wikipedia and access research and information. Therefore, the real push is for teachers to encourage engagement and deep thinking. Teachers can become facilitators and simply provide the resources and watch the student’s creatively and critically think themselves into expertise. This would today be labelled as student centered learning where students are masters of their own learning. The student only needs the tools to successfully navigate the landscape of tutorials, YouTube videos and Google searches to chase their own desires in their quest for expertise.

But the research doesn’t add up. Although Hattie’s Visible Learning has its critics, the vastness of his research returned a student-driven approach, labelled ‘student control over learning,’ as having a 0.01 effect size. This seems contradictory to the current push I see and experience in many schools. I have attended EduTech, Google and STEM conferences and they rave about engagement, E-Learning and student driven learning. However, our current technological advancements, that have enabled the notion of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) due to a learners instant access to information, have totally ignored the current research regarding human cognitive architecture. It is unfortunate that this revolutionary push for HOTS does not line up with implications of Cognitive Load Theory, but the conflict between the revolutionary trend and the research cannot be ignored.

Education is full of false dichotomies. The idea that teaching has to be completely knowledge/content based or completely process/generic skills based is a common argument and I have spent many years arguing for the latter. Yet as I entered my masters degree, I noticed many people have had the same thoughts before me. Many teachers have gone through the same questions, ideas, triumphs and struggles that I have. Why did I feel it necessary to go through this all myself?


5 thoughts on “The lure of 21st century skills

  1. Tempe says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It’s very heartening to hear that not all teachers are enamoured with the 21st C skill stuff and see the importance of knowledge. As a parent with two kids in school gives me somehope.

  2. Stephen Norton says:

    Very good observations, matches my thinking. I wrote about this not long ago if you want to follow it up. East Asian students certainly do not feel the same need to be entertained.

    Norton, S. (2016). Mathematics engagement in an Australian Lower Secondary School.
    Journal of Curriculum Studies Available from

    And in regard to 21st century skills in
    S. Norton & B. Reid O’Connor (2016). Literature review for senior syllabus revisions: Mathematics. Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority; Queensland Government. Available at:

  3. In New Zealand, there is an organisation called”The Mind Lab’, which is a collaboration between Unitec (a polytech) and a private company whose purpose is expressed thus: “As educators we need to prepare and teach students to be flexible, to be adaptable and to be technically skilled for a world that is increasingly digital, global and specialised. A deep understanding of collaborative environments, project-based work streams, design thinking, cultural awareness and global connectedness will arm students for the world ahead.”
    One of their goals is to get10,000 NZ teachers to do their post grad certificate in applied practice (which I’ve done).
    It was very interesting- but not for the reasons I was supposed to find it interesting. When I brought up Kirchner Sweller and Clark, no one had heard of it- and I mean the teachers. Of course, what you get when you sign up for a course like this is ‘what it says on the tin’, and to mix metaphors, you don’t go to Honda and complain that they haven’t got any Holdens. It is very concerning to me though, that the profession is in thrall of the 21st century ‘agenda’ and in many ways is hostile to anything that smacks of ‘traditionalism’, which here is synonymous with colonialism.

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