The concept of 21st-century skills has divided many educators into two camps: those who believe skills like problem solving offer the key to success in the future and those who argue that traditional knowledge remains fundamental.

Last year English academic Briar Lipson slammed “the 21st-century skills craze”, branding it “un-evidenced hogwash” in an Education Central article.

Lipson, a research fellow at policy think tank The New Zealand Initiative, says that in England, the idea of 21st-century skills was dropped rapidly, “like a Furby in a pokémon hunt”.

Too many Kiwi educators, she says, are in thrall to the idea that educating for the future means swapping out knowledge for generic skills. Under this model, teachers are no longer valued for their subject knowledge.

“The reality, of course, is that skills are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge stored in long-term memory… there is no evidence that skills are transferable.”

A critical necessity?

Former school principal and education consultant Steve Morris disagrees.
Twenty-first-century skills are “not a ‘zeitgeist of the times’,” he told
Education Central, “but a critical necessity” in today’s globally mobile world.

“The world drives electric cars, while education still tootles along in a Model T… the future is already here and it demands a different skill set from what was required in the past.”
Good teachers are still relevant but “by placing students before subjects, great things start to happen”.

Many Kiwi students are “bored and disengaged” and cannot see the link between what they learn at school and the ‘real world’, he says.

The key to raising student success rates, Morris says, is by creating an “engaging, motivating and challenging curriculum, along with teachers who have the appropriate tools at their disposal to make it happen”.

Skills like critical thinking and cultural awareness actually require students to think deeply. Meanwhile, the things that are easier to test and teach are also easier to digitise, automate and outsource.

“Employers more than ever before are looking for heuristic, not algorithmic thinkers.”
Binary view “unhelpful” Other educationalists argue that a binary view of skills and knowledge is unhelpful and even dangerous.

Catherine Kelsey, assistant principal with responsibility for Curriculum and Pedagogy at Hastings Girls’ High, says the debate suggests there is a new formula to teaching.

Changes in education are needed to deliver a curriculum that prepares children for the modern world. Yet good teaching has always encompassed these skills. Meanwhile the workforce has “always needed people who can think, who can self-manage and work in teams”.

Educators must not “get suckered” by seductive labels and those who claim to provide “a magic answer”.

“What extent is business/economy driving education and why are educators buying into this? Soft skills are important, but you can’t think if you don’t know anything – good teachers know that.”

It is “critical” that New Zealand moves beyond a binary debate of knowledge versus skills, and instead recognises that both are “essential” to education, says Dr Nina Hood.

Hood, a former teacher who now lectures at the University of Auckland on the role of digital technologies in education, says skills and knowledge represent different sides of the same coin.

One cannot exist without the other. “It is for this reason that we struggle to write an essay on a topic that we do not know well enough.”

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