‘This House believes 21st Century skills aren’t being taught – and they should be’

Dec 03, 2015

Miles Berry

I found myself invited to Online Educa Berlin to speak with Allan Päll against the above motion. Which we defeated! Here’s what I said.

What is education for?

I’d like to begin by moving back from the motion, to think about what education is for. To do that, we need some understanding of what education is. I’ve been ‘in’ education for over forty years now, but even so, I checked. It’s

“The culture or development of personal knowledge or understanding, growth of character, moral and social qualities, etc., as contrasted with the imparting of skill.”

There’s definitely a place for imparting skills but that’s training not education. Andthere is a difference. My Roehampton students study education, but they’re trained to teach. England’s new computing curriculum educates pupils about the principles of computer science, whereas we used to train them to use Office software. Or think about sex. No. Not like that. We, rightly,  include sex education on the curriculum in schools but we don’t typically include training.

In England, our education act says what education is for:

  • firstly to promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils and of society, and
  • to prepare pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life.

What else could education possibly be for than that? You’ve just got to love laws that require you to do what you’d want to do anyhow.

There remains a question about how best to prepare pupils for these ‘opportunities, responsibilities and experiences’. The nub of our motion this evening is about whether this should be done through some sort of training in 21st century skills or by passing on the knowledge, understanding and wisdom of our generation to the next

On skills.

I’ve no problem with skills per se.  In teaching, ‘behaviour management’ is a skill. Coding is a skill. So is searching for things on Google.

I have some problem though with the notion that there are  ‘21st century’ skills, but Allan did a fine job already of demolishing that notion.

I’ve also some problem with the notion that skills transfer. Skills are about accomplishing something. There’s a context to skills, and I think we diminish specific skills by attempting to generalise them:

  • It’s not ‘critical thinking’: it’s thinking critically about something
  • It’s not ‘creativity’: it’s creating something
  • It’s not ‘communication’: it’s communicating something, through some medium.

The something here matters. It’s really not possible to teach ‘skills’ in an abstract fashion without context, and the context is king. Whatever the specific domain, knowledge of that domain is necessary for expert skill.

My main problem is that we’ve only a little time in school, we’ve other things to teach, and our students have other things to learn: things like knowledge, understanding and wisdom. W_ithout these,_ skills are unlikely to be of much practical benefit.

Knowledge, understanding and wisdom

Nodding in the direction of Steven Downes, I’d say learning is about connecting things – neurons, ideas and people. The computer scientists get this: Google’s Page Rank algorithm relies not so much on the content of a page as the links between the pages.

The thing is, the new stuff has to be connected to something. Otherwise, it’s just isolated factoids: we can’t make sense of it; we can’t use new knowledge unless it’s integrated into our existing schema. Put simply [, background knowledge is the schema that allows you to make sense of new knowledge. More simply: ] it takes knowledge to gain knowledge.

This applies to each of us as individuals, but it’s also how civilisation grows – human achievement is a cumulative thing. New knowledge doesn’t normally contradict what’s gone before, it builds on it. If Newton saw further than others had, it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants. What hope would there be for the next generation if they had to discover everything afresh for themselves?

A consequence of our building on what’s gone before, is that the pace of cultural, scientific and technological change accelerates exponentially. But even allowing for this acceleration, It’s knowledge, understanding and wisdom which stand the test of time, less so skills. Expect new inventions and discoveries over the next 85 years, and new practical skills to go with them, but don’t expect the foundational shared knowledge of our civilisation to become irrelevant – indeed it’s on this very foundation that new knowledge will be built.

It’s not 21st century skills that young people need: it’s 21st century knowledge, understanding and wisdom.

England’s computing curriculum

Time, I think, for a quick case study.

The most successful education systems, and the top universities seem to organise curriculum around, well, knowledge-based subjects. England’s new national curriculum is quite explicitly a knowledge-based one. It sets out to provide pupils with ‘an introduction to the essential knowledge they need to be educated citizens and to introduce them to the best that has been thought and said.’

One of the most radical things we’ve done, in a curriculum many see as rather reactionary, is to replace the old ICT with a new subject, computing. This includes an introduction to the principles of computer science for all, from age five up. It’s been my privilege to be part of the team designing and implementing this new subject.

Under the old curriculum, we offered a good grounding in technology skills – finding things online, making a presentation, typing up stories, articles and reports, sometimes even making a spreadsheet (Often about planning a party, it seemed. Do people really use spreadsheets to plan parties? Are these fun parties?). It was fine. Pupils moved on to work or the next phase of education with some competence and confidence, and broadly speaking were ‘digitally literate’. Our audit of new students at Roehampton suggested that, across a broad portfolio of tech skills, nearly two thirds regarded themselves as competent, proficient or expert.

That said, it was all too often a bit, well, dull. There’s a limit (or at least there should be) to the number of times you can find something out on the internet and make a presentation about it. Generally, it did precious little to provide any real knowledge or understanding of computation, information theory or digital technology. In the same audit, less than 15% of my new students rated their understanding of digital technology as competent, proficient or expert.

So we started again. We built on the idea of computing as having three elements: computer science, IT and digital literacy: the foundations, applications and implications of the discipline. We took a leaf out of William Morris’s book: ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’, and built a curriculum from things that would be useful, and things that were interesting.

We took a view that the best way to prepare pupils for a future in which digital technology looked likely to remain quite important was through providing a firm computer science foundation – things like logic, algorithms, abstraction, networks and programming. Yes, coding would be important: not as a vocational skill for the IT industry, but as the lab work of computing – the medium through which the ideas of CS are creatively expressed.

Computing became part of our curriculum fifteen months ago. It’s early days, but early indications are very positive. Teachers’ professional development has been a challenge. But this hasn’t been about pedagogical or technical skills – teachers know how to teach and know how to use technology. It’s just that they didn’t know much computer science. But they are, by and large, willing to learn, and many are quite enjoying the fresh challenge!


I don’t want to leave you with the idea that I think ‘knowledge’ is the only thing that matters in education. Of course it isn’t.

Character matters. I’m talking here about traits and attitudes. Things  such as curiosity, creativity and courage.

I’ve a four year old daughter. She’s a curious character. She still has that sense of wonder in the world about her, that sense of ‘wow’ when she sees or hears something new, and still, a willingness to explore, experiment and play. She’s at a great little primary school, and I shouldn’t worry, but I do worry, that her schooling might get in the way of her curiosity, when it ought to be nurturing this. As Plowden had it in 1967

“One of the main educational tasks of the primary school is to build on and strengthen children’s intrinsic interest in learning and lead them to learn for themselves”

But knowledge matters here – it’s as Sophie learns more that, I hope, she’ll want to learn even more. With literacy, motivation and good wifi, she can teach herself almost anything. And does.

Creativity matters: we learn not just through listening, reading and exploring but also through making. I don’t think there’s some generic ‘creativity’ skill here, but I’d like my daughter to be creative in her music, in her computing, in her maths and so on. She’s been making things for a while now, but as her knowledge grows I’m looking forward to her exploring and drawing on that in her creative work.

Finally, courage. She’s a fearless explorer, with tons of self confidence: I want her school to encourage that. More importantly, I want her to have the courage to tell the truth, to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves, to do the right thing even if it’s not the popular thing.


So what should we be doing to best prepare young people for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life?

Passing on knowledge. Nurturing character. Sounds a bit old-fashioned, but honestly, what better preparation for the rest of the 21st century?