To work, the 21st century skills movement will require
keen attention to curriculum, teacher quality, and assessment.
Andrew J. Rotherham and Daniel Willingham
Agrowing number of business leaders, politicians, and educators are united around the idea that students need “21st century skills” to be successful today. It’s exciting to believe that we live in times
that are so revolutionary that they demand new and
different abilities. But in fact, the skills students need
in the 21st century are not new.
Critical thinking and problem solving, for example,
have been components of human progress throughout
history, from the development of early tools, to agricultural advancements, to the invention of vaccines, to
land and sea exploration. Such skills as information
literacy and global awareness are not new, at least not
among the elites in different societies. The need for
mastery of different kinds of knowledge, ranging from
facts to complex analysis? Not new either. In The
Republic, Plato wrote about four distinct levels of intellect. Perhaps at the time, these were considered “3rd
century BCE skills”?
What’s actually new is the extent to which changes
in our economy and the world mean that collective
and individual success depends on having such skills.
Many U.S. students are taught these skills—those who
are fortunate enough to attend highly effective schools
or at least encounter great teachers—but it’s a matter
of chance rather than the deliberate design of our
school system. Today we cannot afford a system in
which receiving a high-quality education is akin to a
game of bingo. If we are to have a more equitable and
effective public education system, skills that have been
the province of the few must become universal.
This distinction between “skills that are novel” and
“skills that must be taught more intentionally and
effectively” ought to lead policymakers to different
education reforms than those they are now considering. If these skills were indeed new, then perhaps we
would need a radical overhaul of how we think about
content and curriculum. But if the issue is, instead,
that schools must be more deliberate about teaching
critical thinking, collaboration, and problem solving to
all students, then the remedies are more obvious,
although still intensely challenging.
What Will It Take?
The history of U.S. education reform should greatly
concern everyone who wants schools to do a better
job of teaching students to think. Many reform efforts,
from reducing class size to improving reading instruction, have devolved into fads or been implemented
with weak fidelity to their core intent. The 21st
century skills movement faces the same risk.
To complicate the challenge, some of the rhetoric
we have heard surrounding this movement suggests
that with so much new knowledge being created,
content no longer matters; that ways of knowing information are now much more important than information itself. Such notions contradict what we know
about teaching and learning and raise concerns that
the 21st century skills movement will end up being a
weak intervention for the very students—low-income
students and students of color—who most need
powerful schools as a matter of social equity.
The debate is not about content versus skills. There