Annoyance at the Ubiquitous and Protean Notion of ’21st Century Skills’

By Steve Eskow
Editor, Hybrid vs. Virtual Issues

A cranky, minority opinion on the Dave Cormier (“Twenty-six Centuries of Skills” 9.23.10) and Aaron Eyler (“Ignore the Test” 9-21.10) essays, and perhaps a cranky expression of annoyance at the ubiquitous and protean notion of “21st century skills,” which increasingly seems like an empty bottle that each user fills with his own educational cliches.

Here is the first paragraph of the Cormier article:

In the past several years I’ve been very fond of saying that moving into the 21 century has very much been a return to our roots. We are finding words like ‘tribe’ and ‘community’ ringing through the din of post-war individualism and we are turning to each other with words of trust and collaboration. Some of us are starting to see the established (and, pre-internet, necessary) forms of identifying reliability, competence, insight and creativity as outdated and difficult to work with. We are looking to the whole identity of a person, to the ways in which they have built the work and network they have as method of vetting the people we wish to work and innovate with. We are less interested in degrees, in ‘certificates’, as, for many of us in technology or education, these degrees do not actually mean very much. These are not new things… they are very old things… very old words, coming back to us.

“Our roots”? Not mine! What is “post-war individualism”? Are we really turning to each other with words of of trust and collaboration? Have reliability, competence, insight and creativity changed their meanings post-internet? Are we now really looking to “the whole identity of a person”?

Are we really less interested in degrees?

And so on . . .

Is this kind of gentle and empty generalizing now acceptable in Freshman English?

Are these 21st Century thoughts?

19 Responses

  1. Cormier is writing in a specific context and from an extensive background of work in both traditional and non-traditional education. It is easy to extract one paragraph and present it without that context as overly sweeping generalization. It is a freshman mistake to do so.

    • Steve, does the reader have to know and appreciate Cormier’s “extensive background” in order to understand his writing?

      What is “post-war individualism”?

      Which war is Cormier talking about?

      An “extensive background “can’t justify a flimsy foreground.

  2. Hi there,

    I appreciate your criticism. I think you’re quite right that I could have been more clear about what i meant by postwar individualism. I do happen to think that words like ‘tribe’ and ‘community’ are starting to be used, but I’ve written about that more formally elsewhere.

    Building on Stephen’s response… I blog informally. The free thinking informal essay is something that i find a very useful form for exploring ideas. The responses i get, and the thinking that results from that then move on towards more formal, deeper thinking work. It may show, i suppose, that one of my literary heroes was Montaigne, who really made the essay, and was wont to go off on exploratory journeys in his writing.

    I think both the free thinking essay, and the academic, sourced paper both have a place in freshmen classrooms.

    As do argumentative rhetorical questions :)

    • Hi Dave,

      Thanks for your good-natured comments.

      Let me pick at one of your points to support mine.

      You say that the words “tribe” and “community” are “starting to be used.”

      The issues inherent in these words go back to the 19th century. Ferdinand Tonnies wrote his classic COMMUNITY AND SOCIETY iGemeinschaft und Gesellschaft ) in 1887.

      I spent a career in the “community” college movement, an educational movement of the 20th century built wholly around the theory and practice of “community.”

      There is the “community informatics” movement worldwide, and a “Journal of Community Informatics.”

      If anything, the term “community” is exhausted from overuse, and becomes a container for any meaning reformers want to celebrate.

      Given, then, the antiquity of the term and the variety of meanings it has acquired over the years, what does it mean to say the term is “starting to be used”?

      (And: what is “post-war individualism”?)

  3. One more quick note.

    The ‘our’ roots is meant to speak to ‘oral histories’ pre-book. Which i feel safe to be inclusive with… maybe not.

  4. Crankiness is allowed. We are talking about ideas. 21st century learning is but one of those. There are many perspectives that we can learn from in forming our own perspectives.

  5. I really like “an empty bottle that each user fills with his own educational cliches” and will use it in the future when discussing “21st century skills.” An excellent simile!

    Because the transition to a new century is just an accident of human creation (other cultures have different calendars), we shouldn’t really be hanging the communication age on that nail. It began a century ago with the telephone and the radio and has been accelerating ever since.

    The biggest bump in communication, IMO, came when it went mobile for really large numbers of people. Now, mobile communication has had mobile information access added to it including GPS.

    While people, young people especially, have had to learn about these technologies and how to use them effectively, that’s been no different from learning to use a new kitchen appliance.

    If we have to label clear thinking as 21st century skills to get it into our school curriculum, then so be it. However, I’d much rather not use some ginned up phrase with potential myriad interpretations to describe something that’s been repeatedly promoted for education over centuries: thinking well, thinking critically, thinking skeptically, thinking creatively.

    The simple fact: we must have more emphasis on thinking than on passing standardized, high-stakes tests.

    Increasing communication and access to information means increasing misleading communication and increasing incorrect information. People gain money and power by putting out these things. Because of the greater bandwidth, good thinking skills have become more important than in previous eras.

    I urge you all to support more emphasis on thinking and less on such details as content and teaching venues, as important as those may be. To do so, we’ll have to abandon our ways of measuring student success and find new ways. We’ll also have to find teachers devoted to good, clear thinking and not to dumping piles of facts into the perceived receptacles of student brains. We’re seeking stronger student brains, not fatter ones.

    • Harry, perhaps debating whether “good thinking skills” are more important today than they were yesterday is an empty debate.

      Is there a teacher anywhere of any pedagogic persuasion who doesn’t agree that “good thinking skills” are important?

      The differences and debates aren’t about the ends of education, but the means: the roads we take to get there, the vehicles we take for the journey.

      • That sentence should of course read:

        “Is there a teacher anywhere …who doesn’t agree that “good thinking skills” are important?”

        [Steve — I added this correction to your earlier post. -Jim 9.25.10, 07:10am]

      • You are right about your third paragraph for those who actually do discuss such things seriously. I would argue that the second paragraph says nothing because it assumes that all teachers care about teaching good thinking skills (not necessarily so) and that they understand what that means (unlikely).

        Most science teachers will tell you that they’re teaching the nature of science and scientific thinking skills. At least in K-12 education, few understand these things themselves.

        I did not intend to open a debate on the past and future necessity of thin\king well. However, I do believe that a higher proportion of the workforce requires better thinking on the job than before.

        Perhaps, your comments fit well in a college environment. I don’t think that K-12 education measures up quite so well.

  6. Sorry for the grammatical nonsense in the 2nd paragraph. Here’s a better version:

    Because the transition to a new century is just an accident of human creation (other cultures have different calendars), we shouldn’t really be hanging the communication age on that nail. It began a century ago with the telephone and the radio and has been accelerating ever since.

    [Harry, I replaced the 2nd paragraph in the original post with this version. -Jim 9.25.10, 0712am]

  7. For me, Montaigne is a constructivist. His essays are reflections of his take on the world, reality, society, issues — whatever.

    We often attach the word “freedom” to his essays and assume that it means license to disregard formal rhetorical principles or scientific reasoning. Perhaps this is why many academics have a low regard for “essays” in the hierarchy of discourse.

    Actually, Montaigne was a stickler for accuracy in communication, judging by his tendency to continually revise his published works (for him, “work in progress” is applicable to all works) and the quality of his essays.

    His essays weren’t stream of consciousness jaunts, but they sometimes gave that impression because of Montaigne’s tendency to bring a wide range of perspectives to an equally wide range of subjects. This openness to different points of view is by design, and it’s the heart of his approach in his essays.

    In a discussion such as this, he would welcome opposing views and even change his position midstream. Again, his aim was to explore the diversity of views that surround any subject, not to arrive at or defend an arbitrary correct view.

    If Montaigne were with us today, he would mercilessly question and goad our carefully constructed paradigms and theories, ultimately trusting his own judgment (rather than an external authority or filter) regarding their value. He wouldn’t do this out of spite but as a means to exercise his healthy and vigorous internal crap detector. -Jim S

  8. not sure how productive all this is… but I’ll make one last comment. You keep asking ‘what makes cormier’s ideas 21st century ideas?’ I never claimed that any of my ideas were 21st century ideas. The post was meant to imply that none of these ideas were new. That all of the things we are talking about are the same things we’ve always talked about.

    “These are not new things… they are very old things… very old words, coming back to us.”

    not new. old. my point. you missed it. I’ll leave you to your crankiness.

  9. In an email to me (Jim S) on 9.25.10, 9:03 am, Steve Eskow wrote:

    Jim, Cormier’s references to Montaigne, and your Montaigne comments, suggest that you might want to publish the following small chunk of Montaigne’s “On the Education of Children” under the heading of “16th Century Skills.” Steve

    Here are the sections, paragraphs 10-11 in the essay:

    ‘Tis the custom of pedagogues to be eternally thundering in their pupil’s ears, as they were pouring into a funnel, while the business of the pupil is only to repeat what the others have said: now I would have a tutor to correct this error, and, that at the very first, he should, according to the capacity he has to deal with, put it to the test, permitting his pupil himself to taste things, and of himself to discern and choose them, sometimes opening the way to him, and sometimes leaving him to open it for himself; that is, I would not have him alone to invent and speak, but that he should also hear his pupil speak in turn. Socrates, and since him Arcesilaus, made first their scholars speak, and then they spoke to them. “Obest plerumque iis, qui discere volunt, auctoritas eorum, qui docent.” It is good to make him, like a young horse, trot before him that he may judge of his going and how much he is to abate of his own speed, to accommodate himself to the vigor and capacity of the other. For want of which due proportion we spoil all; which also to know how to adjust, and to keep within an exact and due measure, is one of the hardest things I know, and ’tis the effect of a high and well-tempered soul to know how to condescend to such puerile motions and to govern and direct them. I walk firmer and more secure up hill than down.

    Such as, according to our common way of teaching, undertake, with one and the same lesson, and the same measure of direction, to instruct several boys of differing and unequal capacities, are infinitely mistaken; and ’tis no wonder, if in a whole multitude of scholars, there are not found above two or three who bring away any good account of their time and discipline. Let the master not only examine him about the grammatical construction of the bare words of his lesson, but about the sense and substance of them, and let him judge of the profit he has made, not by the testimony of his memory, but by that of his life. Let him make him put what he has learned into a hundred several forms, and accommodate it to so many several subjects, to see if he yet rightly comprehends it, and has made it his own, taking instruction of his progress by the pedagogic institutions of Plato. ‘Tis a sign of crudity and indigestion to disgorge what we eat in the same condition it was swallowed; the stomach has not performed its office unless it have altered the form and condition of what was committed to it to concoct. Our minds work only upon trust, when bound and compelled to follow the appetite of another’s fancy, enslaved and captivated under the authority of another’s instruction; we have been so subjected to the trammel, that we have no free, nor natural pace of our own; our own vigor and liberty are extinct and gone: “Nunquam tutelae suae fiunt.”

    • Great quotation, thanks! Maybe Rabelais might be relevant too: Chapters XIII-XV of Gargantua. Urquhart’s beautiful translation is available in various formats at

      Both Montaigne and Rabelais were discussing XVIth century skills education should foster in opposition to the former scholastic tradition, and by calling upon classical Greek and Latin models. So it’s quite fit that we should call upon them in discussing XXIth century skills, in opposition to XXth century education.

      And yet… Rabelais and Montaigne were able to debunk the scholastic education tradition because they had been trained in it too. Aren’t we perhaps doing something similar with 20th c. education?

  10. Claude: “And yet… Rabelais and Montaigne were able to debunk the scholastic education tradition because they had been trained in it too. Aren’t we perhaps doing something similar with 20th c. education?” (URL)

    Good point, Claude. Before one can reform A, s/he must be well-versed in A. Otherwise, B might end up as just another version of A.

    For change to be effective, the agent or advocate must be thoroughly familiar with the old (A) and the new (B).

    What exactly is the old way? The new way? How are they different? Is adding bits of the new to the old simply perpetuating the old? That is, can you really create a 21st century learning environment by pouring 21st century technology into 19th century classrooms?

    Terms, definitions, labels, perceptions are critical — and the heart of the problem is that we’re all not on the same page. -Jim S

  11. […] Downes taking a swipe at a high-handed and empty-headed criticism, by Steve Escow, of a post by Dave Cormier on the importance of 21st century skills (whatever we might think of the […]

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