Perhaps it is a product of New Zealand’s geographic isolation, which creates concern not to be left behind. But since moving here from England my education hogwash-o-meter has been reading unusually high.

While the 21st skills craze hit England, and fairly rapidly shuffled-on like a firby in a pokemon-hunt, in New Zealand there remains much excitement and unhelpful teacher-bashing in the name of educating for the future.

The argument goes something like this. The future is highly uncertain. Therefore, we must stop teaching students knowledge that might become outdated, and instead teach generic skills so they can adapt and survive.

The reality of course is that skills are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge stored in long-term memory. But knowledge is hard-work to learn, and some of it – like times tables, scales, rules of grammar and punctuation – can be a little bit boring, especially for children raised on a diet of burger rings and television.

So nowadays, thanks to the influence of the education futurologists, a teacher’s value lies not in their superior subject knowledge, or their passion and ability to impart the joys of factorising quadratics to unsuspecting teenagers. Rather, teaching today is all about developing whiz-bang 21st century skills, through a curriculum that’s personalised, relevant and engaging.

I don’t know about you, but when I was at school I found the debate over how long I could spend on the phone each evening highly relevant, and my older brothers’ friends oddly engaging. However, luckily for me, my teachers cared less for their students’ caprices, and instead got on with teaching their knowledge-rich subjects.

However nowadays, for a teacher to stay on top, it’s all aboard the 21st century skills express train! No matter that there is no evidence skills are transferable. No matter that cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham tells us “the ability to think critically …… depends on domain knowledge and practice.”

Because 21st century skills are engaging, future-focused and innovative. And innovation equals, of course, progress.

Finally, in case you’re wondering what is meant by 21st century skills, the list commonly covers all those skills in which most of you Education Central readers are, by accident of age, so evidently deficient; things like the ability to think critically, to persevere, to solve problems and relate to others.

In all frankness, you and your generation are a write-off. But horray for New Zealand’s innovative future, and all the un-evidenced hogwash it will bring.

Briar Lipson is a Research Fellow at the New Zealand Initiative.

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  1. Wow! I think you’ve missed the point of 21c skills. I can’t remember anyone saying don’t teach knowledge/ facts, just look at skills alongside facts. For example how can I put this knowledge to use? How do I know this knowledge is valid in the first place? We aren’t meant to be passive in our own education. It’s not all about memorizing some of it is about doing too, and doing means skills.

  2. Thanks for your comment – it’s an important conversation. Sadly I think much rhetoric in NZ education does down-play the importance of teaching subject knowledge. One recent example:
    Like you I don’t want students to be passive in their education. After all, we value what people can do with what they know (their skills), not what they know.
    However, just because we value skills doesn’t mean that teaching/practising them is the best way of achieving them.
    For a fuller explanation of why it’s not so helpful to suggest we should just ‘do both’ see here
    And for another (short) explanation of some of the reasons to continue teaching knowledge, see


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