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It’s New! It’s New!

There is much talk (chatter) about 21st century skills – even OECD is trying to define what those skills for “jobs that have not yet been created, using technologies that have not yet been invented, to solve problems that cannot be foreseen”. This statement is silly. It is my main critique with the emotional-feel-good message of Ken Robinson’s focus on creativity. First, we need to get over the view that our generation is astonishingly unique. Hasn’t every generation faced new technologies to solve problems not foreseen? The present moment arrogance that invades much of school reform thinking is frustrating. And, I might as well add, the pendulum-thinking mindset that is evident in Robinson’s view is damaging in the long term. If a view of educational reform is defined by the current reality that it is reacting against, rather than a holistic model of what it will produce in the future, then we’re playing a game of short-term gains, planting in our revolution the seeds for the next revolution that will push back against gains that we make now.

Last week, I delivered a presentation on the topic of “skills that educators need today”. I’m convinced that these key skills are not unique to our era (Dave Cormier gets at this concept as well). A competent educator in any era will be proficient with these skills. Settling on a 6-item list, I detailed the following as key skills for educators in the 21st century (and 20th, 19th, 18th…):

1. Technical competence. An educator needs to know how to use the technology of an era – whether it’s a chalkboard, a personal chalk tablet (I had one of these in Mexico, quite a versatile learning tool), an overhead projector, a computer, a Smart board, an iPad, or any other technology. Tools are not neutral – they create adjacent possibles, they reflect ideologies of a designer, they permit control mechanisms for the school or teacher, and they determine the action potential available to the learner/teacher. Using any tool well requires a blend of technical competence and awareness of pedagogical opportunities. It’s tough to teach learners how to edit wikipedia without first understanding how to use a web browser.

2. Experimentation. Every teacher/educator should see herself as a researcher. The dynamics of a classroom vary dramatically based on the knowledge of learners, culture, content, language, and socio-economic status. No template or model exists that can capture all of these variables. Educators should constantly be experimenting with new technologies and pedagogies, refining their learning approach to constantly changing contexts.

3. Autonomy. The most important goal for any educator is to develop learner autonomy. Learners need to experience the value of personal control, choice, and action. In our open online courses, the biggest challenge we encounter is the expectation that teachers should perform certain tasks (organize content, structure learning activity, define accessible domain of knowledge) and learners should perform others (recite, repeat, respond to). Much like every educator is a researcher, every student needs to be a teacher – exploring, engaging, defining her/his own learning.

4. Creation. Learners need to create. Creations can take the form of digital artifacts (blogs, podcasts, SecondLife build, video, concept map) or of physical artifacts (a model, a carving, a lego structure). Creation does two things: 1. Ideas morph when they are implemented. An idea in a textbook is different from an idea in a lab or in a workplace setting. Different levels of understanding are generated when we create and apply. 2. Learner-produced creations re-centre learning activity in a course. In most courses, the educator defines the scope of the course. Each learner-created artifact can recentre and enlarge discussion activities to reflect the needs, interests, and knowledge of learners. Each creation is node around which new learning can occur. (I addressed this somewhat in this slideshare presentation).

5. Play. Experimentation (as listed above) is an intentional activity. Play, in contrast, is random exploration without a goal or target, making it uniquely suited to serendipity. Play – whether formal such as PS3/XBox/WoW or informal such as simple exploration with loose boundaries (my favorite being Calvin Ball) – is flexible, personal, and engaging. We don’t play enough.

6. Developing capacity for complexity. Complexity is the DNA of society. Whenever multiple agents interact, outcomes are uncertain. Failure to account for complexity in organizational design, teacher preparation, and business planning is a short path to frustration. Yes, it would be nice if the world was complicated – like a puzzle where every piece has a right place. But it’s not. It’s complex – like a weather system where changes in one aspect of the system cascades and influences the entire system, often in unpredictable ways. Unfortunately, complexity is not built into the educational system. We seek “general right answers” rather than “contextual right answers”. Which is why educators often seek models (such as learning styles or 21st century skills) that give the illusion of control of a complex concept, but in the end prove less than useful. Most answers don’t exist in advance of engaging with the phenomenon. Answers and questions are not like lego-blocks that need to be clicked together. Instead, answers are more like a painting or canvas in response to a problem landscape (hope that makes sense – it does in my head).


  1. Chris Lott wrote:

    In part, I agree with you… is there really anything NEW since we left the first age of orality? And, as you (and Dave) know, I also go back to Montaigne and Gracian and others for those eternal truths that people continually cast as something newly discovered (or minted).

    But the devil is in the details isn’t it? And maybe an important defining line isn’t always between being COMPLETELY new and old but between being relevant or irrelevant to MOST (or more) people, or more or less important.

    For instance, while pattern-matching and filtering have been skills since cave people were scanning the fields for food while trying to avoid becoming food, they are assuming an importance that is, I think, truly something that qualifies as new.

    Similarly, while participation and presentation skills of various kinds have been important since those same cave people were trying to woo their hairy mates, there is not only a new field of places where those things happen, but new ways in which they happen– where were all the places where knowing how to interact and communicate in a vastly dispersed asynchronous manner were important to so many? Attempting to master communication in this way, including developing a resilient position, in these greatly changed circumstances qualifies as pretty new, I think.

    Finally, there is some truth in Jaron Lanier’s griping when it comes to what individuality means “today,” and I find it hard not to believe that the threats and opportunities in today’s environment aren’t changed enough to qualify what we talk about when we talk about “autonomy” as something that’s different enough to be considered something new.

    New in the ways that matter, at least.

    Monday, November 8, 2010 at 10:28 am | Permalink
  2. Jon K. wrote:

    George – much like critical thinking never goes out of style, I like these ideas. I think there should be something, perhaps in the creation aspect of these teaching skills, that should address the deeper meaning. What it means to publish online, in addition to the technological ability to publish a blog post, comment, etc. Creation of artifacts are great for learning, but get better when the creator reflects on their own work and begins to examine it.

    Monday, November 8, 2010 at 10:32 am | Permalink
  3. gsiemens wrote:

    Hi Chris – interesting concluding point (and one that I think I agree with) “new in ways that matter”. Is it the context that’s new (which in turn creates a different weighting of skills that are important)? Or is it actually the skills? i.e. If we could take someone from the 16th century and 28th century and transport them to today, would either be disadvantaged in terms of their ability to cope?

    Monday, November 8, 2010 at 10:33 am | Permalink
  4. gsiemens wrote:

    @Jon – perhaps my view of the creation process is too broad, but I see reflection as embedded in the creation process. When I create a lego tower, and it collapses, my subsequent creations *should* be influenced by this experience.

    Monday, November 8, 2010 at 10:36 am | Permalink
  5. Howard wrote:

    Thanks George;
    This (from #6)is very well said;
    ‘We seek “general right answers” rather than “contextual right answers”. . .(to) give the illusion of control’
    In practice, context is important and too often overlooked by conceptual spaces like the evidence-based movement.
    I disagree slightly over #1, following the thinking of the many authors who have made the case for technology driven structural changes that are happening in society.
    I agree that the basic skill set is the same as always, but I have interpreted people like Ken Robinson as pointing out that education in the past general did a poor job on many of these skills and that is intolerable.

    Monday, November 8, 2010 at 11:01 am | Permalink
  6. gsiemens wrote:

    @Howard – I’m currently on a bit of a negative slant on Robinson…I’ve yet to encounter a good critique of his work/ideas. All references seem to be “I totally agree”. If everyone is walking one directly, I have an innate desire to go the other way. Maybe that is clouding how I interpret his lectures.

    Monday, November 8, 2010 at 11:03 am | Permalink
  7. Chris Lott wrote:

    @George … if we want to work on these skills in a way beyond the merely philsophical, then it seems a distinction without a difference. Philosophically speaking, I have a hard time coming up with any skill that is completely new. But new enough? There are plenty of them… and others which were more common but arguably becoming less so and thus new again (which I think is a major part of Lanier’s contention that I agree with when it comes to autonomy and creativity, to which I would add intentional attention)…

    Monday, November 8, 2010 at 11:39 am | Permalink
  8. A really interesting blog and raises some key points for teachers and educators.

    I particularly agree with the notion that teachers and educators should see themselves as researchers, particularly in a world when technology is ever changing. Moreover, I feel it takes time to develop teaching strategies and the incorporation of technology particularly with different classes and age groups. Teachers should therefore be encouraged to persist with their development and use of technology in the classroom.

    I feel from my experience a challenge for teachers or something which is difficult to achieve instantly is to give students a sense of autonomy and direct their learning themselves. I feel teachers will need to be supported in their classroom practice.

    I also feel it is important to share ideas and practices, particularly with the use of technologies, so we can all develop our use of such an interesting part of learning.

    Monday, November 8, 2010 at 1:13 pm | Permalink
  9. Morgan Reid wrote:

    Essential and challenging topic, George. I’m glad you’re engaging with it.

    I agree that we should not interpret “21st Century” skills as simply “new” skills. Reflecting your mention of “contextual right answers,” the question could be phrased as “what are the skills appropriate to the 21st century context?” So what is the 21st century context? In the short term, we can expect skills to reflect more tribal (roughly = “local”) tendencies, with a focus on biological health and both localized and networked mutualism. We will focus more on fostering interdependencies that are linked to ecosystem carrying capacities, local energy and resource networks, “privately-shared,” physical, low-technology systems, and to food, environmental, health, social, and educational needs. Despite the primal pleasure in foraging and gathering we simulate on the internet, we will increasingly seek opportunities to make personal contributions to the physical and social well-being of our tribal groups. (tribe = your interdependents). So 21st century skills are likely to be more material, biological, low-tech, and human-scale. One area of increasing interest, of course, is food: Growing food, food sharing, preservation and preparation, knowledge of food systems, food sources, food qualities. So how about a more high-tech 21st century skill? I’ll suggest one example: the skill to avoid contaminants in food and water. Too apocalyptic-sounding? Not what we mean by “skill?” Hmmm. I’m listening.

    Monday, November 8, 2010 at 2:17 pm | Permalink
  10. Geoff Cain wrote:

    Those are important skills – especially if you are sitting in front of a computer. I think we shouldn’t take the older ones for granted: critical thinking, empathy, focus or attention, and communication skills. This is especially true with #3. I work in a community college in a community that has little technical infrastructure. There is a lot of guidance and hand-holding that happens because in this area, technology can represent a radical and sometimes over-whelming change; however, we can teach these students to learn together and to create a network of learning. In teaching these students, modeling empathy and communication skills has been critical.
    CCK08 por Vida!

    Monday, November 8, 2010 at 2:51 pm | Permalink
  11. Frances Bell wrote:

    I like this post George – how thought-provoking it is revealed by speed and depth of comments. One aspect I am toying with is that, for example, 3 and 6 are things we want to encourage in learners, but is educators having those characteristics enough for students to acquire them? Although teachers can model behaviours that they want to encourage in their students, is modelling the only relevant skill for educators to impact on their students’ behaviours. John Holt’s powerful critique of education – How Children Fail – made a big impression on me when I did teacher training, see . He identifies how children’s capacity for asking tough questions tends to diminish the more education they receive.
    So what can educators’ do? This is where Holt’s ideas link to some of what Robinson says. We can at least not discourage autonomy and developing the capacity for complexity. Just today I was doing an exercise on relational views of power with a class of Masters students studying IT and Systems In Organisations, using an example from classroom teaching where the teacher’s action can shift the power balance.
    I think that teachers can come clean about the power dynamics of the classroom. They do have authority and responsibility (for example for assessment) but true learning will never be happening unless all players, educators and students, are seen as valid sources of knowledge. So I would add humility and the acknowledgement of ignorance to the teacher’s skills set. Also, the capacity to convey to learners that they have permission to disagree with you.I recollect the saying that was attributed to Benjamin Franklin “It’s a wise man that knows the extent of his own ignorance”.

    Monday, November 8, 2010 at 4:07 pm | Permalink
  12. Nick Kearney wrote:

    I wonder why you have an issue with Robinson. I assume you are referring to the TED talk. Rather than taking issue with Robinson’s message, I would question the TED talk format. They are thought pieces; interesting starting points, at their best, but no more than that. Bite size chunks. Robinson’s talk is a wonderful wake-up call, but it reminds me of the “Far Side” cartoon where a cow lifts its head and says “Wait a minute guys, this is grass!!! We’ve been eating grass!!!” In the same way as a cartoon, it raises a flicker of attention, (and the glow of agreement with a comfortable thesis) but to go further, as you suggest, it needs fleshing out.
    I would take issue with the idea that the change you advocate can avoid the pendulum effect. Perhaps it would be better to try to redirect the pendulum, rather than try to stop its swing. That would probably involve reframing education, and framing has to do with the language you use. I would suggest that if we still talk of teachers and “educators” (which for many is no more than another word for teacher) substantial change will not be achieved. We will continue to understand the learning process as necessarily directed by “others”, and we will therefore, unfortunately perhaps, continue to try to direct it.
    I am interested by your work with Stephen Downes. It serves to make clear what was always likely, and what I, and I would hazard many others, felt was true; that there is a percentage of people who , given useful knowledgeable others – other learners and those who have learned previously (some call them experts) in the field – and resources, will learn. We could call them the Mark Twain percentile, the ones who never needed school. Your work is really interesting, not because the model is generally useful (though it may prove to be) but because it proves this point: that learning can be, indeed should be, self-directed.
    However, education and learning are two very different things. Education is a political enterprise, it is paid for and supported by society for a range of different reasons, often valuable and often conflicting, and despite “universal suffrage”, “representative democracy” , “model”, and other terms that help us sleep at night, education is about power. The skills you outline constitute a radical agenda. I wonder to what extent teachers anywhere have the freedom to implement it. Other than, of course, as enthusiastic, colourful, respectable and, ultimately, ignorable individuals. Notwithstanding the extensive and transformative influence individual “teachers” have, daily, throughout the world, on individual “learners”.
    So, while change needs a philosophical basis (and maybe it is just that we are still at the stage of thrashing that basis out),I would ask, with Chris, how do we get beyond the merely philosophical?

    Monday, November 8, 2010 at 6:00 pm | Permalink
  13. ailsa wrote:

    Its the order of things that i have a problem with. Philosophically i really need to place autonomy first. If education stands a show of creating more, rather than less freedom, then this is a higher aspiration than the technologies made use of to get there. This is not to deny their import as there is much that would not otherwise occur. I wonder in what way the technology cannot be included inside of developing capacities for competency.

    Monday, November 8, 2010 at 9:21 pm | Permalink
  14. Julie Carle wrote:

    Bob and Sue’s reflections on this post and how they would revise the content to suit their Avaneeds. It’s a short video also available on

    Tuesday, November 9, 2010 at 4:21 am | Permalink
  15. David Truss wrote:

    When you said,
    “I detailed the following as key skills for educators in the 21st century (and 20th, 19th, 18th…)”
    I think you could also have said the 22nd and 23rd century as well!

    I wonder how many ‘rules’ and ‘expectations’ are created because of present moment arrogance? Are filters our equivalent of book burnings? Are our subject blocks created by a parochial curriculum? Are typing skills equivalent to quill pen skills of the past? How is our arrogance counter-revolutionary?

    Finally, IMHO I think two things fit within and across your 6 items (not as separate items), but are worthy of mentioning.
    Metacognition: Teachers need to think about and reflect on thinking.
    Collaboration: This too is a skill and teachers tend to spend more time talking about it and teaching it rather than actually doing it themselves… (at least until they have developed a good PLN!)

    Tuesday, November 9, 2010 at 4:24 am | Permalink
  16. @creativeedu wrote:

    I highlighted your post in my Daily Digest of Education related blogs today as I thought other teachers would find it of interest. You can see it here:

    Wednesday, November 10, 2010 at 3:07 am | Permalink
  17. Matt wrote:

    I went to a typical Texas school in the 80s/90s, and finished college by the mid 1990s. My current job is definitely one that had “not yet been created, using technologies that have not yet been invented, to solve problems that cannot be foreseen.” But oddly enough, my education still prepared me for that. Of course, I look down your list of 6 skills for educators and that pretty much sums up how I was educated in the 1990s. But many current reformers would tell me there was no way I could have been prepared, because schools are so bad. Maybe the problem that too many people are just cowards that like to cast stones at this large, abstract concept called “schools” (or “universities”) – a concept that can’t fight back, will always have some bad components, and always need change to some degree. Instead of reform, we should be talking about spreading the good ideas (because – surprise, surprise – they do exist out there) and eliminating the bad ideas. That doesn’t grab as many headlines as “reform” does, but probably works out better in the long run.

    Wednesday, November 10, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Permalink
  18. Morgan Reid wrote:

    Essential and challenging topic, George. I’m glad you’re engaging with it.

    I agree that we should not interpret “21st Century” skills as simply “new” skills. Reflecting your mention of “contextual right answers,” the question could be phrased as “what are the skills appropriate to the 21st century context?” So what is the 21st century context?

    I’m going to invite you along a bit of a stroll here, if you’re willing. The 21st Century context is increasingly social and biological, and not necessarily in pleasant ways. I’d suggest that nn the short term, we can expect skills to reflect more tribal (roughly = “community”) tendencies, with focus on biological health and on localized and networked mutualism. We will be pressed to work more on fostering interdependencies. We will need to manage our interdependencies with ecosystem carrying capacities, local energy and resources, privately-shared, physical, low-technology systems, along with food, environmental, health, social, and educational needs. Although we are lulled by the primal pleasure from the foraging and gathering we simulate on the internet, we will increasingly need to trade locally, and therefore need to learn how to make contributions to the physical and social well-being of our tribal groups. (tribe = your interdependents). So, 21st century skills are going to be more material, biological, low-tech, and human-scale. One area of increasing interest, of course, is food: Growing food, food sharing, preservation and preparation, knowledge of food systems, food sources, food qualities. Not entirely surprising. Just surprisingly urgent.

    But what about high-tech 21st century skills? I’ll suggest that we will increasingly need the skills to read our technological and biological environments, in order to access biological productivity (sustainable resources) and in order to avoid contaminants in unofficially-traded food and water. Citizenship will inhere in the struggle to supply our tribes while avoiding violent conflict. Education will need to support the essential balance between scientific competence and social worth, at the scale of the individual and tribal group, and at the intertribal level in conflicts over resources. It’s where we (humans) are weakest now.

    Social science education needs to matter more to the real world (See Bent Flyvbjerg, now at Oxford) to reflect a defensible ethical position. Science education needs to be increasingly grounded in community priorities, as reflected in the increasingly popular Community Service Learning and Community-based Research approaches. The skills here are those that help answer the question: “What will we have tomorrow?” and “How do we share?” Compared with any new approach to education, Siemens’ connectivism, combined with Communities of Practice offers a great deal toward the kinds of literacies that will be required to teach and learn in the increasingly physical 21st century.

    Friday, November 12, 2010 at 12:29 pm | Permalink