STEVE MORRIS responds to Briar Lipson’s polarising article on 21st century skills.

The world economy no longer pays you for what you know; Google knows everything. The world economy pays you for what you can do with what you know.”- Andreas Schleicher, Director for the Directorate of Education and skills- OECD.

As the world has changed, so too has the demand for what we need to teach (curriculum), and how we teach it (pedagogy). This is not hogwash, nor is it a passing craze that will disappear like a “Firby in a Pokemon hunt”. It’s simply the reality of what we now face in our rapidly changing, multi-cultural, globally mobile world. To ignore or deny this is narrow-minded and naïve.

The reality is the 21st century world has gone beyond the 19th century paradigm that most schools and education systems are built on. The world drives electric cars, while education still tottles along in a Model T; a slight exaggeration I know, but my point is that although some would like to think that 21st century education promotes the concept of an ‘uncertain future’, my argument is that the future is already here and it demands a different skill set to what was required in the past.

What are teachers for?

I would suggest that great teachers improve student learning by providing a relevant and engaging curriculum that gives kids the best possible opportunities to succeed in life. This of course needs to be supported by caring for the personal growth of each individual student.

To the traditionalist this may seem like ‘hogwash’ and that students don’t need to be cared for; they just need to toughen up, bite the bullet and put up with the boredom. Subjects first, students second. Contrary to popular argument, there is a plethora of evidence available that shows that if we switch this equation, by placing students before subjects, great things start to happen. In 2009, John Hattie, professor of education at Auckland University, compared studies from all around the world of the factors that influence student achievement*. And guess what? Out of a list of 140 factors, students’ expectations of themselves topped the list, followed closely behind by teachers’ expectations of them. There are too many other researched examples to name here, so I have listed a few resources at the end of this article.

What we value in teachers

I agree in that a part of what we value in teachers should lie in their subject-matter knowledge, why would we be led to think otherwise? Domain knowledge is indeed important, and nobody is denying the importance of a teacher’s ability to bestow the virtues of the times tables and the rules of punctuation etc; these are things to learn, but only up to a point. The reality is that a teacher’s value should also be appreciated by a myriad of other factors, including how they connect this knowledge into real world applications and actions and their passion towards education in general. Teaching 21st century skills and knowledge-based learning are not dichotomous, but without application in the current world, the value of knowledge is greatly diminished. 

Knowledge- based education and its close relative, Standards- based Assessment

Supporters of knowledge -based education who are typically devout groupies to standards-based assessment, will say that things are working out just fine. All we need to do to improve educational standards, they will argue, is to focus on raising our Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores and by doing so, New Zealand can show the world that all is just dandy in our little neck of the woods. The PISA rankings are often used by politicians (and some education researchers it appears) as an excuse to drive tougher standards in schools, particularly in maths, science and reading. Here’s the kicker however: some of the school systems that rank highest on the PISA tables do less standardized testing than in countries like the USA and New Zealand who have been increasing and promoting standards-based testing in recent years. The irony it seems, is that an obsession with raising PISA scores may actually have a negative effect on the actual PISA scores themselves!

It will come as no surprise to readers, that a relatively high proportion of Māori and Pasifika students score in the lower proficiency levels in all three subjects in PISA rankings compared to New Zealand students overall, but as I’ve indicated in previous articles, we aren’t going to raise achievement levels of this particular demographic by de-emphasizing internal assessments and putting more pressure on these kids through more externally-based, standardized assessments. In fact, multiple reports from the USA show that high school GPAs (which typically reflect internal assessment measures) are a stronger predictor of university success than SAT scores (external, standardized tests)**. It therefore defies logic to think that standardized testing is the best way motivate people, improve learning and give students the opportunity to succeed!

Listen to the kids

The reality is many kids throughout New Zealand and the rest of the world, are bored and disengaged at school. In fact, a NZCER survey of 8500 Kiwi students showed that students lose interest in school as each year passes. More than 50% are bored and disengaged by the time they reach Year 10. The report highlights the need for a continued shift in curriculum and teaching methods***

Many students simply cannot see the link between what they learn at school and the ‘real world’. They will reluctantly stay at school, begrudgingly study for tests and wait for the day they can leave and get on with their lives. Simply put, the current system is failing to motivate students into learning because they cannot see ‘real world’ connections. This is not educational futurology as Ms Lipson would have us believe, this is a present-day reality. We need to find ways of helping motivate today’s learners for today’s world, and although important, knowledge-based learning will no longer suffice on its own.

There is no doubt that knowledge (facts) can be hard to learn, but nowhere near as hard as critical thinking, problem solving, strategising, cultural awareness and many other heuristic skills that are required in today’s world. These types of skills actually require you to think deeply, and you can’t find the answer by doing a Google search. The reality is, is that the world is experiencing a decline in the demand for knowledge-based skills. The truth is that the things that are easier to test and easier to teach, are also the things that are easy to digitize, automate and outsource (see Dan Pink’s book below). We know that employers more than ever before are looking for heuristic, not algorithmic thinkers.

We can either close our eyes and pretend that knowledge/standards-based education is the answer to raising student levels of achievement, or we can finally open them and realize that the key to raising student success rates is by creating an engaging, motivating and challenging curriculum, along with teachers who have the appropriate tools at their disposal to make it happen. 21st Century skills education is not just ‘zeitgeist of the times’, but a critical necessity in today’s world and beyond.


There is plenty of evidence to support 21st Century education. There are too many evidence-based examples to list here, but here are a few:

Schools/ School Systems

  • Everton Free School- England (try looking up
  • Grange Primary School- England (Richard Gerver turned this school around)
  • Cardinal Community Schools (see how superintendent Joel Pedersen turned a whole school district around by using research findings in positive psychology)
  • Big Picture Learning (
  • Envision Education (


  • Creative Schools- Sir Ken Robinson (probably needs no introduction, but is full of evidence-based examples)

Here are two books that are not education-specific but are related to the topic.

  • A Whole New Mind (a book by Daniel Pink on why right- brainers will rule the future!)
  • Big Potential (an evidence-based book by Shawn Achor on human potential)


*John Hattie. Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-analyses Relating to Achievement. London: Routledge 2009.

** Zach Schonfeld “These tests measure nothing of value”, April 16, 2014.

*** The New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) 2009 survey, released in the Seeing Yourself in Science report.


Steve Morris is Director of Morris Consulting Group ( and Cross Cultural TransitioNZ ( and is an expert in the field of human potential. He believes that the key to human performance is creating positive environments where people are engaged and motivated. Steve spent over 25 years in the education sector as a teacher, school counsellor, principal and consultant.

Steve holds a Post-Graduate Certificate in Leadership Studies, a Master of Arts in curriculum and teaching, a Post-Graduate Diploma in Business and Administration, a Bachelor of Education, a Diploma of Teaching, a National Certificate in Adult Education and Training and a Cert. IV Training and Assessment. (AUS)

He is also a licensed Cross-Cultural Consultant through the Inter Change Institute, Boston USA and is a member of the New Zealand Association of Positive Psychology.

Want more of the latest sector news, information, opinion and discussion straight to your inbox? Subscribe to our free weekly newsletters now:


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here