Why we need to stop talking about 21st Century skills (and start making the change)

Here’s a sobering thought: millennium babies are now doing their A-levels. I think it’s time we agreed that we’ve arrived in the 21st century. The question is, now that we’re here, what next?

Back in the day…

Way back in 2011 (I think I’m allowed to say that, such is the pace of change), I stood in front of a packed audience of senior educational leaders and delivered a keynote at an Apple Summit. 

It was the days of the iPad 2, Apple’s first truly versatile learning device. The buzz around the room was palpable: this was the dawning of a new age in education and we were there to see it unfold. 

It felt exciting, a little dangerous, as if we were partnering with companies like Apple and Google to disrupt the status quo and finally give kids what they needed to be successful in the new century.

I admit it, I was naive. And a year later, when we had become the first state 6th form in the UK to go 1:1 with the iPad, I was touring the country with Apple resellers telling senior leaders about everything that went wrong that year. I wrote a blog article on our mistakes which was viewed more than 10,000 times. It’s funny how bad news travels fast.

There were some huge successes, but this was in the days before MDM and Apple Classroom. Getting them set up was a nightmare, and my longsuffering IT technician Paul shot me a few looks when his team were wall to wall with white boxes manually configuring each device. It was a painful process but we were determined to make it work.

Working out the big picture

We learnt a lot, and I think we are still learning. Mobile devices and their supporting technologies have enormous potential, I’m still convinced of that (I’m writing this post on my phone whilst waiting for a train), but I’m not yet sure whether we’re any closer to working out the big picture, the ways in which we can build schools and school systems from the ground up to accommodate new ways of thinking, working, and learning. 

Ed tech is only one part of the overall puzzle.

The challenge we face comes not from the schools themselves, whether this be a hesitance in leaders or a reluctance by teachers to innovate. After all, the majority of new teachers into the profession have used digital tools from an early age themselves so there’s no longer the barrier to entry that I had even 6 or 7 years ago. 

It’s not from the children either: using phones and tablets is second nature to them. It’s rather the point at which we all aim, the final set of exams that determine the next step in the student’s journey. 

And while we have a university system which privileges a fixed set of a certain type of exam, we are bound by terminal examination which focuses on knowledge rather than skills, recall over problem-solving, handwriting over using the dozens of digital tools students use every day.

There is nothing inherently wrong in recall. It’s a valuable skill. But there are so many equally important skills that exams don’t test. Collaboration. Problem-solving. Creative, divergent thinking. Questioning and refusing to accept the norm. Skills young people have to have if they are to be successful into the future. 

Many of these skills will be picked up organically anyway. But far better if they can practice them in the safe space of the school.

The danger of pitching to middle management

The problem we have is how to effect change in a world that struggles to take any risks when it comes to educating our young. 

In his latest book Originals, Adam Grant suggests that pitching new ideas at middle managers is always doomed to failure. This is because this group of people have the most to lose if the innovation fails. Far better to either get the CEO on board or a critical mass of peers: the CEO because they have built sufficient status to weather a few blows, and peers because at the bottom the only way is up.

I am firmly convinced that our politicians have exactly the traits of middle managers: they have their careers to lose if they back the wrong horse and so are focused always on short-termism, on doing just enough to be re-elected. 

This keeps us locked in an exams system that suffocates us, limiting our ability to try out new ideas and push the boundaries of education in its broadest sense. 

The frustration I think that many of us are feeling comes from this knowledge that, ultimately, we have to get kids through their exams. We can only innovate so much.

The benefits of incrementalism

The only way to tackle this is by changing incrementally, focusing our attention on what we already do, and figuring out how we can use space, tools and new pedagogies to do it better. 

If we examine every single thing we do in schools (our academic ‘value chain’ to use business speak), and focus in on how innovation can enhance each link, we will begin to see a change. 

If we form peer groups to work through these together, supporting one another, then at least we know we are not alone. That’s the beauty of networks like LinkedIn and Facebook – we can join supportive communities who think like we do and who all want the same thing.

I’ve written in previous articles on this incremental change: how we should look at how to improve reporting to parents using continuous real time feedback rather than once a term summative reports, or increase the reach of our very best teachers through screencasting, webinars and even VR. 

By beginning with the individual interactions in this chain rather than with the tools themselves, we will be able to demonstrate their success without damaging the foundations of our system.

As we approach the end of the second decade of the 21st century, let’s take a moment to reflect on how far we’ve come, before figuring out just how much further we have to go. 

We are the trailblazers, the first movers: but we will, at least for the foreseeable future, need to work within a system that by its very nature limits us. Step by step we’ll get there.

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  1. Pingback: Why all school leaders need to be digital leaders - re.Education

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