One of the problems with 21st century skills

Briar Lipson
Insights Newsletter
16 June, 2017

Over the past week, TVNZ aired a series of interactive programmes exploring the future of society and work. It is an appealing idea: that in the future, life and work will look dramatically different.

In fact, so enchanting is this idea that it has been used around the world to justify changing the school curriculum: away from teaching subject knowledge and in favour of ‘21st century skills’.

The argument goes that since many of our children will one day work in jobs that we cannot even imagine, then there is little point trying to give them knowledge. This is because by the time they get into the workplace that knowledge will already be out of date. And so, in place of teaching knowledge that will become outdated, we should instead teach transferable skills such as problem solving, creativity and collaboration.

Of course we want our children to have these skills when they leave school, but there is no evidence that teaching the skills explicitly is the best way to achieve them. Indeed there is a risk that we confuse the means of education with its ends.

Research tells us that solving problems and thinking critically requires us to know facts about a subject. Facts which should be acquired throughout a child's time in school.

In the words of cognitive scientist Dan Willingham: ‘thinking well requires knowing facts…. The very processes that teachers care about most – critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving – are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory.’

To bring this to life, one suspects that Lions coach Warren Gatland would be pretty good at thinking critically and creatively when it comes to a rugby scrum. But he may well be less skillful when asked to critique Britain’s pre-Brexit trade talks. This is not because Mr Gatland lacks skills of critical thinking, or indeed creativity: it is rather because he lacks knowledge of European trade.

It is hard to think critically about something you do not know. Equally, the more you know about a subject, the more sophisticated your thinking becomes.

As elsewhere, the movement to teach 21st century skills has gained significant traction in New Zealand. We can only hope that our teachers think critically before deciding what exactly they teach.

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