The Real 21st Century Skills

I find myself in a lot of conversations on 21st Century skills — the things our students will need to know to compete in the global marketplace in the 21st century. The thing that strikes me about these conversations is how few of the people in them actually compete in the global marketplace in the 21st century.

I do. I teach highly diverse classes, both online and face-to-face in rooms full of computers. Apart from my in-classroom classes, I otherwise work entirely online, with and for people from all over the world. I often work on projects in which the participants are on three different continents.

I try not to be too bold in face-to-face conversations. It’s hard to say these things without sounding — well, you know what it would sound like. I’d never be invited down to the teachers’ lounge for lemon bars again, would I?

But here, I’d like to share with you what I think, from my experience, are the real 21st century skills for competing in the global marketplace:

    • Computer skills. Our students need computer skills. However, we should bear in mind that, while the skills for driving a car that you learned 20 years ago are still useful today, most of the things you learned about using a computer five years ago are now wrong. Instead of teaching kids lots of software (and locally, MSOffice 2003 is the most common classroom software, and how pitiful is that?) that won’t even exist when they grow up, we should be teaching constellations of skills:
      • how to use various input devices
      • how to download files safely and in the right format
      • how to read software training manuals

We should also make sure that they understand that best practices in computing change constantly and they need to plan to keep up on their skills. If we style with html and can’t convert text files, then we’re not giving them the right message.

  • Communication skills. You can hear lots of discussions about what language people need to learn, but that’s the wrong conversation. I’ve worked with speakers of 11 different languages this year. You’re not going to be able to learn all the languages you might need, and you’re not going to be able to predict which ones will be useful. Our students need very good English, and the ability to interpret the English offered to them — in writing or on Skype or whatever — by people who have some other native language. They also need respect for other people’s languages. All these things can be developed by studying other languages, and also by being respectful of the various languages spoken in our classrooms and communities. If my Spanish speakers and Chinese and Hmong speakers find themselves paired for activities, and they choose to use some mixture of languages to communicate with one another, I don’t need to be telling them to quit it.
  • Global awareness. Absolutely, we need to respect one another’s cultures, and to be reasonably clear on geography. We need to have a sense of the kinds of things that are different from one culture to another, and we need to give up jingoism. Take it from me, we also have to get good with timezones.

Critical thinking? Problem solving? Yes, of course we need those things. So did Einstein, Da Vinci, Plato, and the first woman who had to figure out how to gather food while also minding a baby. I also believe in teaching skills in basic things like research and literacy and math and science, not to mention the arts and social studies. Why pretend that somehow thinking is newly important? or that information suddenly isn’t?

Thank you for your kind attention to today’s rant. I’d love to hear your opinions on the subject.


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