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 Vol 5|No 5|October |2009
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What's new? 21st Century Skills

By Jamie McKenzie
About Author


Media literacy skills have been important for decades as the news media transitioned into entertainment and a few international corporations consolidated control over information. While media literacy was important in the 1960s, it was sorely neglected. It may be even more crucial today but remains unattended by many school programs.

Deja vu all over again

Reading documents outlining skills young people will need in this new century can be an exercise in deja vu all over again. Perhaps it is human nature to want to treat one's own times as hugely different from all that have come before, but there is wisdom in Santayana's oft quoted saying that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Some of the skills listed were important even for Socrates.

For those of us who began teaching in the 1960s - a time of unparalleled educational idealism and bravado - there have been successive waves of futurists, visionaries and critics since then who have made their living proclaiming that the pace of change of those times required a bold new approach to schooling and a skill set that was fundamentally different from that required by so called "industrial age schooling."

In the 1950s, the Russian launch of Sputnik threw American society into a serious state of distress as dozens of books emerged accusing the schools of failing to teach science, reading and just about anything. The government responded with dozens of projects aimed at stimulating a more creative approach to learning in the schools.

In the 1960s schools experimented with inquiry learning, the New Math, the New Social Studies and schools without walls - the Open Classroom. After a few years, this wave of experimentation stumbled and inspired a "Back to the Basics" movement that flavored much of the 1970s.

In the 1980s American schools were roundly criticized for failing to educate children for changing times in the report A Nation at Risk. Many educators embraced Tom Peters' best selling book In Search of Excellence and his claim that the times required different kinds of workers and thinkers.

In the previous century, some American schools in some communities did quite well for some students on teaching creative problem-solving, invention and thinking. NAEP tests from those decades documented the success schools attained with select students in select communities. Sadly, during those same years, many students in many cities and disadvantaged districts were poorly served and either failed to reach the lofty goals or dropped out of school.

Having worked in advantaged school districts like Princeton during the 1980s, I witnessed the social disparity too often true of schools in those times and testified in a major case against the New Jersey school funding in a famous case, Abbott vs. Burke.

With all the talk of educational reform during the past decade, there has been little attention devoted to addressing the social inequities that contribute mightily to the difficulties of American schools. The focus has been narrow and misguided, expecting that high stakes testing and accountability will close the gaps caused by poverty, hunger, neglect and homelessness.

The reform effort should focus on capacity building - at home and at school, recognizing that many Americans are hard pressed to earn a living and stretched so thin that it is difficult to provide the foundation at home for success in school.

In 1987, buying into the notion that our times were hugely different and the pace of change remarkable, I wrote . . .

This book is about making change in schools. We are entering an age in which we will need to follow the example of characters like Jack (of the bean stalk) and Alice in Wonderland. The Age of Information threatens to leave us with sacred cows or short change, unless we learn to plant beans and climb beans stalks. Life may begin to resemble Alice's mad tea party, unless we learn to solve the riddles of a changing world. We must learn to make change in our schools as if our future depended on it. Because it does.
Making Change in Education: Preparing Your Schools for the Future, Jamie McKenzie
J. L. Wilkerson, Westbury, NY, 1987.

In those years, many educators, myself included, argued that schools must nurture a special set of skills attuned to the Information Age and the fast pace of change.

In 1988 I published an article, "Revising the Educational Agenda: Basic Skills for 2010," in School Leader (May/June, 1988). That list of skills looked quite a bit like the new lists published for this new century.

As I wrote in a May 2008 review of Daniel Pink's book, A Whole New Mind . . .

Looking back at those words now, I cannot help but wonder how many decades we will keep claiming that the current or approaching decade is vastly different from the ones before? I wonder also if we have not encouraged the growth of a change industry that hypes the rate of change beyond its reality, stirring up the pot to create waves providing the illusion of surf.

What is so different now?

In 1993, Corwin Press published my book, Power Learning, and there are passages in that book that apply directly to the needs of our current decade, but there are some new and pressing issues that this article will address, some of which are mentioned in popular skills listings but some of which are neglected. The passage from 1993 is included at the end of this article with important skills, capabilities and traits mentioned then and still needed today highlighted in dark blue and bold print to show the continuity of this effort. While many groups claim that this decade is dramatically different from previous decades, that claim is poorly substantiated. Many of the creative thinking, communication and problem-solving skills mentioned by these groups have been listed as goals for decades by good educators.

Documents calling for New Century Skills

Many countries and some groups are issuing curriculum documents that speak of a Knowledge Economy, a Digital World and the need for schools to radically revise learning to equip students with skills that will make them successful in a rapidly changing world. Ironically, many of these same nations have indulged in reform efforts that have placed extreme emphasis upon basic skills testing and teacher accountability in ways that would run counter to lofty and creative goals. There is a fundamental difference between proclaiming lofty goals and achieving them.

When you scan the following documents you will note many sections stressing the importance of original thought, imagination and invention.

  • AASL Standards for the 21st-Century Learner (link)
  • ISTE National Educational Technology Standards (link)
  • Framework for 21st Century Learning (link)

It is illuminating to notice the member organizations backing a document's call for change. For example, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (publisher of the Framework for 21st Century Learning) is largely comprised of companies with a financial interest in seeing a digital future. While I am a loyal and pleased customer of some of those companies, I would not entrust them with determining what my children should be learning.

Educational Groups
Adobe Systems, Inc. American Association
of School Librarians
Atomic Learning ASCD Lenovo
Blackboard, Inc. National Education Association LEGO Group
Cable in the Classroom Learning Point
Cisco Systems Inc.
Corporation for Public
Dell, Inc. K12
EF Education JA Worldwide®
McGraw-Hill Intel Corporation
Education Networks of
Hewlett Packard
Educational Testing
Gale, Cengage Learning
Ford Motor Company
Measured Progress
Pearson Microsoft Corporation
PolyVision Oracle Education Foundation
Quarasan! Scholastic Education
Sesame Workshop Sun Microsystems, Inc.
THINKronize Verizon
Wireless Generation

Many of these companies view this century through a high tech lens, and they are eager to sell us a wide range of products that might equip us for a "digital world." Their profits depend upon our acceptance of a high tech premise - that high tech is desirable, healthy and inevitable, yet there are aspects of such a future that are not so healthy - aspects that should be questioned. In fact, many people would balk at calling this a "digital world" in the first place. Note the article, "What Digital Age?" at

When envisioning desirable futures and identifying the skills citizens will need, one should leaven such dreaming with a good dose of attention to fundamental human values. Sometimes those new trends and gadgets heralded as progress may dilute the quality of life, undermine intimacy and weaken the social fabric. In many cases, new technologies and products are a mixed blessing, bringing a blend of benefits and losses. Note the article, "One Liners, Bloggery and Tomfoolery" at

Uncritical acceptance of "the new new thing" is a form of submission - a surrender to marketing appeals that are oblivious to important social issues. In the case of laptop classrooms, for example, where each student has a laptop, some studies have identified social isolation as one of the possible outcomes. Note the work of Ewa McGrail at Georgia State University, "Laptop Technology and Pedagogy in the English Language Arts Classroom," JOURNAL OF TECHNOLOGY AND TEACHER EDUCATION, 2007. 59-85.

For more than a decade now, some schools have jumped on the laptop bandwagon without paying much attention to the strategies and factors that might turn such a program into a benefit. The acquisition of laptops is less important than the acquisition of those classroom management skills that would preclude the social isolation that may result if teachers lack such skills. To that end, FNO published "Getting Attention in the Laptop Classroom" at

For those of us who lived through educational shifts during the past four decades and witnessed societal and technological developments during that same time, the challenges presented by this current decade do differ in some important respects, some of which are not adequately considered by the documents outlining so-called 21st Century Skills.

What is exciting, promising and new about these times?

New technologies and cultural shifts often present a mix of risks and potential benefits. The cheerleaders for change usually emphasize the benefits while remaining silent about the risks. There is some tendency to hype the changes - oversell them without admitting or addressing their downsides or the dark sides.

Networking Globally - Those of us who are involved with social networking in some way through the wonders of the Web - whether it be through FaceBook, Twitter, FlickR, MySpace or some online collaborative associated with our profession interests - may point to friendships with those who live as far away as Finland, Australia and Japan. Some of these may be extraordinarily beneficial, as in the case of photographers, for example, who can learn all kinds of valuable techniques from these friends on a site like FlickR. We are no longer limited to a few photographers in our neighborhood or our town.

At the same time this kind of global networking can be beneficial, it can also be addictive and potentially harmful, as individuals shift their definitions of friendship to include just about anyone while spending hours glued to screens rather than face to face with family members. As Twitter allows us to know just about every move made by a list of contacts, it might drown some in a flood of trivia that distracts them from knowing about those close by. The New York Times recently reported that Twitter has not been as attractive to teens as for other, older groups, hypothesizing that teens are so well connected through text messaging with friends in their town that Twitter is superfluous. Source: "Who’s Driving Twitter’s Popularity? Not Teens" by Claire Cain Miller (August 25, 2009 )

Deeply Enriched Media - Thanks to Web sites offering photography, videos, music, historical artifacts and a plethora of other media, we have a rich menu from which to select. While reading a novel (on paper) about a cellist who is playing Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, the reader can turn to YouTube and enjoy a performance by Anne Gastinel. This changes reading, enriching the printed word immeasurably.

Accompanying this potentially enriching profusion of resources is a threat mentioned later in this article - the poverty of abundance. Some commentators have also warned that the availability of free copies (often stolen goods) on the Web may undermine the availability of professionally developed music, writing and photography as a reduction in revenue may drive many artists and publishers out of business. Note review of Andrew Keen's book, "The Cult of the Amateur: How today's Internet is killing our culture" at We have huge amounts of resources available, but we may drown in this abundance and have difficulty finding quality.

Reduction of Isolation - For those who are physically far removed from the great urban centers of the world, whether it be Paris, New York, Sydney or Shanghai, the new technologies allow connections with people and resources that were unthinkable and unattainable just a few decades back. Provincial perspectives may persist, but there is no longer much excuse for folks to be cut off from the outside world and more global perspectives. While the potential for enlightenment is great, there is nothing automatic about this outcome, as culture can percolate with the intensity of American Idol or The Apprentice while attitudes can sweep across international boundaries like a virus. Being connected is not the same as being enlightened, well informed or well read.

Which skills are demanding and crucial?

  • Managing the poverty of abundance
  • Maintaining intimacy
  • Finding truth
  • Identifying the authentic
  • Creating community
  • Achieving social justice
Managing the poverty of abundance - Ironically, as mentioned earlier in this article, the existence of huge collections of articles, images and databases can actually stand in the way of enlightenment and understanding. The average person may have difficulty finding "the right stuff." Diagnosed with breast or prostate cancer, the patient finds millions of articles with Google, all providing advice and information, some of which is helpful and reliable, but much of which is tainted with conflicts of interest and marketing efforts. Whether buying a car, selecting a cancer treatment or deciding where to settle and buy a home, the sheer volume of information can prove confounding. Managing this flood or information is daunting, but it is much less so if young people and citizens are properly equipped with information literacy and search skills outlined in "Managing the Poverty of Abundance" at

Maintaining intimacy - While we are more connected in some respects than ever before, some of this connectedness is superficial and virtual. The culture drifts toward superficial connections as some find themselves with more than a thousand "friends" - many of whom they have never met face-to-face. The definition of "friend" has shifted toward "acquaintance." "Meaningful discussion between parents and their children," for example, averages just 38.5 minutes per week in the USA according to data from The Nielsen Company (2006). New technologies may have negative effects on some forms of human interaction, as when a family owns four TV sets and no one sits down to dinner at a table together, preferring to eat on the run or sit with a microwaved dinner in front of a favorite TV program or Web site. Data from The Nielsen Company tracking family TV viewing habits over the past decades is now shifting to consider what they call "The Three Screens" as entertainment moves from the TV screen and computer screens to mobile devices like 3G cell phones.

Finding truth - Each person may have a different take on truth, but the current information landscape makes the search a bit complicated. Forty years ago, the search was hampered by lack of access to information as well as distortions that have always crept into information because of bias and the desire to influence behavior, but those challenges have been compounded in some respects with the explosion of new sources. On a typical Google search, the Web sites that appear in the first ten "hits" are likely to receive the most attention, so even though a cancer patient sees that hundreds of thousands of articles are available, few of those gain the searcher's attention or active reading. Those who know how to manipulate placement on Google end up with the most attention, the most reading and the most influence over public behavior. If you hope to have an impact on cancer treatment, educational technology, questioning or No Child Left Behind, you must make sure your Web site shows up in the top 10-20 sites in a Google search. This, then, raises the importance of students and citizens having good search skills, so they can pass beyond the first level of Google sorting and sifting to find sites that may be more reliable. Using Advanced Search, for example, allows the searcher to designate a domain such as .gov or .edu to bypass all commercial Web sites. This provides no guarantee of truth, but it does offer a dramatically different list of sites than a simple Google search.

Identifying the authentic - Once face-to-face with a particular resource or site, how does one "suss out" its reliability and authenticity? In a cut-and-paste culture, there can be a rush to judgment, a leap toward acceptance - a premature AHA! Looking for evidence that Captain Cook was a great navigator, the earnest student finds a Web site that states "Many believe that James Cook was the greatest ocean explorer ever to have lived, and that he mapped more of the world than any other person. It cannot be denied that he combined great qualities of seamanship, leadership and navigational skill." How tempting to copy and paste this claim into a report, feeling like one's research is now done! The site offers no evidence to support its claim, but it certainly sounds convincing. After all, the student thinks, "It cannot be denied." In times when Wikipedia often appears in the top ten of any Google search, the issue of reliability becomes extremely important. When it comes to people in history and controversial topics, the generation of information by anonymous contributors raises serious issues. Even Wikipedia has introduced rules that reduce the amateurism of articles on famous people to protect against distortions. Students and citizens must learn to look at every article and every Web site with a critical and somewhat skeptical point of view.
    • Who produced this information?
    • Can I trust them?
    • Do they have a bias?
    • Are they trained and skilled in this kind of research or information?
    • Do they employ any rhetorical devices like "it cannot be denied" that should set off an alarm?
    • Do they overstate their case?
Creating Community - Given the cultural drift away from intimacy, the ability to create caring and authentic relations face-to-face and online becomes an essential skill of this century. On a social networking site such as FlickR, for example, many photographers become friends or "contacts" with other photographers and comment with some frequency on each others' shots. Having watched these comments for six months and participated in the exchanges, I have noticed that many folks will simply state "gorgeous" while others may comment on the composition, lighting and mood in some detail. It is a community, but the layers and levels of communication vary dramatically. One can be an earnest, generous communicator or one may breeze by with superficial comments.

Achieving Social Justice - Few of the documents outlining skills for this century mention the need to build a good society, but there are some wonderful exceptions. As we emerge from a horrendous economic decline caused by greed, corruption, stupidity, incompetence and fraud, the consequences of ignoring such social issues should be evident, but the most glaring social issues are hidden from view as the media is primarily interested in Michael Jackson's death, Paris Hilton's drinking or some political leader's scandal. If it were not for Katrina's devastation, few Americans would have realized how much poverty was located in a city famous for jazz, Mardi Gras, Bourbon Street, riverboats and gambling. The press zoomed in for a few weeks, but a few years after the hurricane, little attention is devoted to the ongoing poverty that lingers despite the many promises of politicians. So it goes with many American social problems - including the school performance of poor children. Congress is quick to jump on teachers as a solution to a problem that has many of its roots in the social failures of the society - the huge number of underpaid working poor families and illegal immigrants whose children enter school far behind affluent kids because Congress will not fully fund programs like Head Start that could help close the gaps and give poor kids a real chance.

What is missing?

Some of the skills listings pay attention to social issues and citizenship. In a section with the heading, Life and Career Skills, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills does mention listening as well as attitudes and behaviors important for successful work within a team, and some other listings also make reference to ethical use of technologies and information. But most are quite silent when it comes to the list below:

  • Learning to go unplugged
  • Learning to listen
  • Learning to care
  • Learning to care for
  • Learning to conserve
  • Learning to reflect deeply

Learning to go unplugged - Adults and the young are both bombarded with marketing messages that suggest that the good life is defined by connectedness - by being digital, plugged in and connected. There is little pressure for solitude, reflection or deep thought. The messages consistently push a lifestyle that has 24/7 as a theme. A few years back, Siemens ran an ad campaign with the heading "Spacious Corner Office Redefined" showing a gorgeous executive working with a laptop in bright sunlight on the porch of her summer home. She was surrounded by gadgets, and the text ran, "Business is no longer confined by four walls. Today, people need to access information- anytime, anywhere." A balanced life mixes multi-sensory experiences with the digital, sometimes turning off the mobile phone, the headphones and the computer for a walk through the rainforest or a jog around the lake. Commentators like Sven Birkerts suggest that deep reflection can only occur when some of the noise is filtered away:
"Resonance -- there is no wisdom without it. Resonance is a natural phenomenon, the shadow of import alongside the body of fact, and it cannot flourish except in deep time."
(The Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birkerts, Page 75)

The New York Times ran an intriguing story about folks seeking second homes with less access to technology than they have in their primary residence - "Your Second Home | Less Technology - Unplugged" (By Steve Bailey - Published: September 11, 2008).
A Google search for "going unplugged" turns up some good stories of folks struggling with digital spider webs. A suburban commentator on NPR describes one town's attempt to have a day unplugged in "The Discreet Charm of Going 'Unplugged'" by Ana Hebra Flaster (June 14, 2005).

Learning to listen - It is difficult to develop a sense of compassion or empathy unless one knows how to ask good questions and heed the answers. Peter Senge has outlined the difference between dialogue (open-minded exploration) and argument. Popular culture heralds self expression but rarely pays attention to the thoughtful exchange of ideas. As the society moves toward messaging as opposed to discourse, the implications for the community are alarming. Schools should have as an important past of their mission the cultivation of skills that contribute to the well being and decency of the society as well as the productivity and efficiency of the economy.

Learning to care - One irony of the highly connected society is the danger of disengagement and detachment from the troubles, issues and cares of the world. A consumer society pushes the notion that joy and well being are defined by the devices we own, the cars we drive and the pleasures we buy in the form of concert tickets, cruises and visits to entertainment complexes or shopping malls. Unfortunately, the old expression "Out of sight is out of mind," holds especially true today as the media pays little attention to battlefield realities, poverty and depressing news stories.

Learning to care for - A self-serving culture struggles with the responsibility to care for those who are facing difficult times or life stages - whether they be members of one's own family or members of the extended community. It is tempting to institutionalize the care giving, consider it just one more product available from an economy eager to please. Current child-raising practices all too often place the young at the center of attention as parents dote and indulge. While some schools make community service a centerpiece of their programs, many students escape the experience as they pass through school.

Learning to conserve - An economy built on growth promotes consumption rather than conservation. Despite the many arguments for fuel efficient automobiles, the public keeps buying gas guzzlers unless the price of gas soars to painful levels. As with many of the skills listed in this section, it is a matter of inclination and attitude as much as skill. One may know how to cut back on automobile trips, use public transport and walk, but the impact will be minimal unless those skills are practiced in more than a token manner.

Learning to reflect deeply - At times it seems like this is the Age of Glib - a decade that prizes dazzling surfaces over deep thought. In June of 1998, I wrote, "With the shift toward electronic media and information, the challenge of knowing and comprehending is complicated by a movement toward superficial and plastic coverage. Deep thinking, deep reading and deep commentary are replaced in many quarters by Sound Bites, Mind Bites, Eye Candy and Mind Candy." - "The Mind Candy Kafe: Replacing Truth with Placebo" A cut-and-paste culture prevails with the expectation that most questions in life can be answered by turning to Google - the Answer Man of this century. The young are given too few opportunities in some schools to ponder, to wonder, to consider and to invent new ideas and understandings. There is too much topical research, scooping, smushing and gathering - the collection of ideas and opinions from others rather than the construction of positions, fabrication of solutions or the development of ideas.

Deciding What Matters

Schools should pay careful attention to the skills listings mentioned in this article along with the curriculum standards published by many state, provincial and national governments, but the task of identifying what matters is a school decision. The wise school will take the best from each of the lists, combine, synthesize and then augment. None of the documents touches on all the skills that matter. A school with a strong commitment to community building, caring and social justice will make sure students are encouraged to grow in those areas along with the intellectual performance areas stressed by many of the reports. Such schools will also strike a balance between what is now and what is classically sound - will make sure students savor times unplugged along with those that are wired and amplified.

Skills Needed in 1993 (and still needed in 2010!)

I. The Passing of Smokestack Education

Back when factories provided the foundation for American success, schools delivered a curriculum to prepare most young people for spots on the assembly lines, a curriculum which stressed compliance, memorization and scripts. A small percentage of the population was groomed for leadership by means of a tracking system which sorted and sifted students into levels of potential early in their school careers.

Today the factory system of the 1950s and 1960s has moved off shore (Henkoff, 1992). Ours is an information-based and service economy which prizes flexibility, imagination and innovation. Japan's success with total quality management has driven a movement to involve front line workers in continuous improvement. What factory jobs remain increasingly depend upon "informating," a term coined by Shoshanna Zuboff to describe the powerful use of data to adjust production and service as opposed to automating which reduces procedures into relatively rigid computer programs (Zuboff, 1988).

The National Alliance of Business calls for workers with "the fourth 'R,' workforce readiness, which includes reasoning, analytical, creative, and problem-solving skills, and behaviors such as reliability, responsibility and responsiveness to new work requirements ." (NAB, 1987, p. 1)

II. The Advent of Power Learning

Power learning encourages students to be infotectives. What is an infotective? . . . a student thinker capable of asking great questions about data (with analysis) in order to convert the data into information (data organized so as to reveal patterns and relationships) and eventually into insight (information which may suggest action or strategy of some kind). An infotective solves information puzzles and riddles using all kinds of clues and new technologies. The problem-solving which often follows the detective work then requires synthesis (invention) and evaluation (careful choices from lists of options). An infotective is a skilled thinker, researcher and inventor.

Infotective is a term designed for education in an Age of Information. In the smokestack school, teachers imparted meanings for students to digest, memorize and regurgitate. In Information Age schools, students make the meaning. They puzzle their way through piles of fragments - sorting, sifting, weighing and arranging them until a picture emerges.

New technologies enable even young students to test the power of relationships between variables in order to explore cause-and-effect and to attempt forecasting. These new technologies support hypothesis-testing, theory testing and model building by intermediate and middle school students as well as the older ones. They allow systems thinking to creep down into elementary classrooms.

A turbulent, rapidly changing world confronts us with a great deal of non-sense, a swirling ocean of data bombarding the average citizen at a remarkable pace with an unrelenting intensity. Some of this data has been organized and manipulated in order to twist and control our thinking, as with political advertising, sound-bites and infomercials. Toffler calls this manipulation infotactics. We need to raise a generation of infotectives who are capable of navigating through the oceans of data, even when the surface is heavy with fog, making sense out of non-sense in order to build a healthier and stronger world community.

Power learning satisfies demands for a strong workforce and a healthy, well adjusted citizenry. Power learning addresses most of the skills identified as critical in studies such as Workforce Basics: the Skills Employers Need - basic skills, learning to learn, negotiating, self-esteem and career-planning, communicating, leadership and creative problem-solving (ASTD, 1988).

But power learning should also take children past workforce and economic concerns to strengthen the social fabric, bolster the quality of life and make productive citizenship a priority. We will expect students to act as "everyday heroes," by which Catford and Ray mean that they will commit themselves to heroic, creative action, applying their new skills to improve life, to build a better community and world (Catford, 1991).

Power learning engages students in the use of new technologies along with what Catford and Ray identify as the four main tools of a hero: creative powers, careful observation, effective questioning and an open mind.

These paragraphs are from Chapter One of Power Learning by Jamie McKenzie (Corwin Press, 1993)


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