Three reasons why we must stop talking about 21st-century skills in education

By Maxine Cleminson

After several years studying Development Education and Global Learning at UCL, one thing I definitely came away with was an intense dislike for the term “21st-century skills”. 

For over 40 years, discussions on education policy and practice have frequently focused on the need for students to acquire 21st-century skills. This shift can be attributed to the advancement of technology and the forces of globalization that have changed the economic activity of people worldwide since the 1960s and 1970s.  Increasingly, there has been a move away from manufacturing and heavy industry to service- and technology-based economic activity.  Today’s job market is on an international scale and undergoes rapid changes as technology and markets evolve, and the workforce is expected to keep up with these shifts.  The additional knowledge, skills, and attributes required in the modern workplace are often referred to as “21st-century skills”.

However, there is no clear and comprehensive list of these “skills” despite ongoing calls for schools to implement them. We are one fifth of the way through the 21st century already – how many more decades will we be talking about the need for 21st-century skills without seemingly getting on with it? Educators are understandably weary of the term. In this post I will outline the reasons why we should stop talking about 21st-century skills, and I will conclude by presenting an alternative.

1. 21st-century skills are marketing fluff

Rightly or wrongly, in our modern society the success of education policy and practice is standardized and measured with educators being held accountable for students’ acquisition of skills and knowledge. However, if we don’t even know exactly what 21st-century skills are, how can we explicitly teach them for measured success? For a start, some of the things touted as 21st-century skills don’t even seem to be skills! By definition, a skill is an activity. Something that you can DO, usually through a combination of natural aptitude, learning, and practice, such as reading or singing or problem-solving. However, a quick Google search for “21st-century skills” produced this list of so-called skills:

  • critical thinking
  • media literacy
  • social skills
  • communication
  • collaboration
  • creativity
  • problem solving
  • leadership
  • information literacy

Very few of these listed “skills” are actually skills by themselves. Take leadership for example. Being a good leader requires a whole range of other skills – listening, speaking, decision-making, reading, writing, etc. However, it also requires other things that are not “skills”. A unique blend of knowledge, mindset, habits, and character traits are also essential ingredients in making someone a good leader. Knowledge and habits, like skills, can be taught and the success of that teaching can be measured by traditional assessment means. However, while mindsets and character traits can be nurtured they are not easy to measure or assess, so lumping them in under an umbrella term of 21st-century skills simply adds to the confusion of what that term means.

Providing opportunities and encouragement for students to develop and practice positive mindsets and character traits, such as grit, determination, patience, respect, open-mindedness, honesty, creativity, and curiosity is a hugely important element of education. But it always has been, and isn’t unique to the 21st century.

It isn’t some new set of “skills” required specifically for the next 80 years. One can only conclude that education policymakers’ focus on “21st-century skills” is therefore just marketing fluff to appeal to the agendas of politicians and employers keen to remain competitive in our rapidly changing globalized economy.

2. Knowledge is more important than 21st-century skills

One of the ways 21st-century skills are marketed that troubles so many educators, myself included, is the idea that these skills supersede, or can even replace, knowledge. A frequent refrain is that students today need skills more than knowledge because once they have the requisite computer skills they can Google or find a YouTube documentary on anything they need to know. However, this massively oversimplifies learning and completely overlooks a key way that our brains work.

Knowledge is necessary to acquire more knowledge and skills; something that any elementary teacher who helps young learners developing their reading skills will attest. Comprehending new information is far more complex than simply having the skill to read words on a page through phonic decoding. For a child to successfully learn the skill of reading, they must have knowledge of the spoken language, knowledge of vocabulary, and some background knowledge of the subject helps, too. Without this, they would be unable to infer meaning from the text on the page even if they had the skill of decoding phonics to “read” the words.

Widad.sirkhotte, via Wikimedia Commons

So I am going out on a limb here: Knowledge is needed more than skills. The rote memorization of knowledge is what many people probably think of when they criticize the need for knowledge – learning to recite the dates of battles in history class without any useful application of that knowledge does seem rather pointless after all. But without knowledge, all the clamoring for 21st-century skills is pointless. Without knowledge, what can one think critically about? What problem can you solve without having knowledge about it? Education must be knowledge-rich in a way that allows and encourages students to see that the things they know are interrelated, transferrable, and applicable in other contexts. Many of the “21st-century skills” do not need to be taught separately in this holistic education scenario as they will be developed naturally.

One only has to look at some of the greatest minds of our 21st-century so far (don’t forget we are already one fifth of the way through it!) to see this in action. The joint Nobel Prize winners for Chemistry in 2020, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, are both products of a 20th-century, knowledge-rich education system, yet they exemplify the skills deemed necessary for the 21st-century. Could they have determined the characteristics of RNA genetic material or pioneered the CRISPR technology that has allowed the gene-editing of RNA (which we can thank for the Pfizer and Moderna covid-19 vaccines) without such an education? Professor Doudna grew up in a knowledge-rich environment, surrounded by books that piqued her curiosity, and it was this knowledge that was the foundation for the “21st-century skills” she acquired by engaging with and applying that knowledge.

Obviously, this limb that I have gone out on does not fully address the issues connected to knowledge-rich curricula which probably need an entirely different blog to discuss. Suffice to say that I am not arguing for a prescriptive list of core knowledge as a checklist for every child as suggested by ED Hirsch such as has been realized in the US in the form of the Common Core State Standards. Furthermore, one of the biggest issues with knowledge-rich curricula is that they are entirely dependent on access to resources. It’s no surprise that access to books at home has a bigger impact on a child’s educational attainment than parental income, nationality, or parents’ level of education. Therefore, an education system dependent only on the acquisition of prescribed lists of knowledge is inevitably elitist, with resource-rich private schools having a massive head start.

Disregarding these massive issues for a moment, the point I am making is that knowledge is vitally important and is the cornerstone for many of the skills considered necessary for the 21st century. My preferred pedagogical approach is an inquiry- or project-based learning model whereby students are guided to seek knowledge to solve real world problems, and nurture their skills in the process.

3. 21st-century skills can have conflicting ideological destinations

While politicians, education policy-makers, and employers all look to “21st-century skills” as the panacea to meet the challenges of operating in a globalized and rapidly changing economy, not everyone views them this way. As mentioned already, the concept of 21st-century skills is not clearly defined and, in some circles, they are seen as a solution in a completely different way.

The ideology behind most people’s understanding of 21st-century skills is neoliberal. In other words, the key aim of developing 21st-century skills is to create human capital – employees (and consumers) whose skill sets match the needs of the economy and the large corporations that dominate it.  The focus on employability in most definitions of 21st-century skills clearly supports this. Yet for some academics, educators, and organizations, achieving social justice is another key aim of developing 21st-century skills. They recognize that we live in an interconnected world besieged by problems that are global in nature (climate change, poverty, pandemics, etc.). They seek to solve these problems by developing 21st-century skills in young people.

The problem is that a critical and transformative conceptualization of 21st-century skills sits in opposition to some of the goals of the global marketplace. For example, consider the issue of climate change in greater detail. Often when students are taught about climate change the focus is on promoting individual action: recycling, reducing one’s carbon footprint, becoming vegan, etc. However, evidence shows that you could abandon your car, become a vegan, refuse to use plastics, and never fly anywhere, and you will still have a larger carbon footprint than is sustainable simply because you live in a fossil-fuel dependent society. If we encourage young people to use the 21st-century skills of critical thinking to examine these issues might they not conclude that industry needs tighter regulations and that governments ought to implement carbon pricing, increase taxation on fossil fuel use, and provide subsidies for ‘green’ technology instead? Yet that seems to be in direct opposition to the neoliberal goals of government and employers that want 21st-century skills for free-market industry. It’s a quandary for sure.

Photo by Markus Spiske on

Therefore, another complication that arises from use of the term 21st-century skills is that the ideological destination is unclear and, depending on who is teaching them, could actually be considered to be in conflict.

In my opinion, the term “21st-century skills” is:

  1. poorly defined yet overused by policy-makers and institutions (particularly in Higher Education) to market their education initiatives to politicians and employers looking to compete on the global economic stage,
  2. used to suggest that skills supersede knowledge despite the evidence that an holistic and knowledge-rich education is the only way to develop some of the crucial skills required, and
  3. used for different ideological aims by different stakeholders, adding to the confusion.

An alternative

I suggest that what is needed instead is some clarity of purpose. With an end goal in mind it is much easier to accurately define what is needed from education. Marketing a vague list of skills that appeal to employers is not enough, particularly as we are already one fifth of the way through the 21st century for which these skills are supposedly needed!

Instead of fixating on “21st-century skills”, we should be talking about education for social justice and sustainable development. Sustainable development was defined in 1987 in the Brundtland Commission Report as, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Yes, we need to educate young people to be able to participate in the globalized economy, to obtain gainful employment, and to enjoy a good standard of living. However, we also need to make sure that the globalized economic activity of today does not destroy the Earth for future generations. The sweet spot in the middle is what we must be striving for.

Focusing solely on “21st-century skills” is not enough. We need to utilize Global Citizenship Education (GCED) and Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) principles across the curriculum, ideally delivered through inquiry- or project-based learning. This will help students to connect the dots in their knowledge and to see the bigger picture. It will also help them develop skills, mindsets, and values that will not only serve humanity in the 21st century, but beyond it as well.

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Further reading

Ananiadou, K. & Claro, M. (2009). 21st Century Skills and Competences for New Millennium Learners in OECD Countries, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 41, OECD Publishing.

Besley, T., & Peters, M. (2007). Chapter Seven: Understanding the Neoliberal Paradigm of Education Policy. Counterpoints, 303, pp.131-154.

Bourn, D. (2011). Global Skills: From Economic Competitiveness to Cultural Understanding and Critical Pedagogy. Critical Literacy: Theories and Practices, 6(1), 3–20.

Bourn, D. (2015). The Theory and Practice of Development Education: A pedagogy for global social justice. Abingdon: Routledge.

Bourn, D. (2018). Understanding global skills for 21st century professions. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Peters, M.A. & Humes, W. (2003). Education in the Knowledge Economy. Policy Futures in Education, 1(1), pp.1-19.

Steger, M. (2014). Market globalism. In: M. B. Steger, P. Battersby & J. M. Siracusa , eds., The SAGE handbook of globalization, London: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2, pp. 23-38. doi: 10.4135/9781473906020.n2

Stromquist, N.P., & Monkman, K. (Eds.) (2014), Globalization and Education : Integration and Contestation across Cultures, R&L Education, Lanham.

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