Why We MUST Teach Our Kids 21st Century Skills

Our young people need to learn how to think about projects, how to work on those projects and overcome frustrations and set backs, and how to implement and communicate solutions.

"Good morning, new employee, here's your desk and your business cards. We have a meeting tomorrow - could I please get all these latin verbs conjugated by then?" said no boss ever. Yet our kids sweat and toil over learning structures and conjugations of a language no one has spoken in centuries.

I'm as much about learning for learning's sake as the next HuffPo reader, but I think it's time we look at the Victorian model of schools that we are still using. Warning, I'm going to hyperbolise and make generalisations here, but trust me, it's for a good cause.

25-35 kids per class learning at the same rate - check.

Telling kids what they need to know and having them repeat it back to us - check.

Hours and hours of memorisation so they can know things like how many degrees you have to add to the Celsius scale to get the Kelvin scale - check.

Then when we turn the kids loose on the world, they get to work and they find out that no matter how well prepared they are - the goal posts have shifted. Work means learning new skills all the time. It's the person who can do something with what they know, rather than just knowing facts, is the one who is going to solve the problems. It's not just what you know but how you communicate it and/or amplify it. Oh, and don't forget, whatever you knew last year may well be irrelevant next year.

Obviously I'm not saying scrap schools. Everyone needs a good level of general culture, and society needs some common shared understanding of the world. And I tip my hat and bow deeply to schools and teachers as they work so hard to mould the next generation into empathetic and functional adults. But what I'm saying is, let's think about the skills our kids are going to need to practically make it in the world.


Kids need to know that there is not just one right answer. The corollary to flexibility is the ability to take risks. If you are continually being assessed on material that you should have memorised, there's no room for taking risks. And as schools are assessed on test results, there is no incentive for them to encourage their kids to take risks. The system is set up to maximise grades, but not to encourage kids to try to find their own solutions to problems. The system simply doesn't encourage creative or intellectual daring.


This is closely related to flexibility. If you are going to take risks and try to work out new ways to solve problems, some of those are going to fail. Young people need to be able to see those efforts that didn't quite work out as an opportunity to iterate and improve. No one builds the next big thing on their first try.

Focus on solving problems

One of my bosses used to call it output not input. It doesn't matter how hard you work on something if you don't solve the problem in the end. Beautiful reports don't solve the problem; rolling up your sleeves and working through lots of little issues, corralling a team, executing in detail pulls all the effort into a real solution.


In fairness, schools do work hard on this. Or, at least, they work hard on the written and spoken communications from person to person or to a group. But there is another part of communication that is critical. As the tools of production become more and more automated, we need to be able to communicate with machines. We need to learn their language and we need to be able to harness their power to solve problems, and to amplify our messages. Not every kid needs to be a great coder, but the kids who understand their tools and can make them work for them are going to be at an advantage.

Our young people need to learn how to think about projects, how to work on those projects and overcome frustrations and set backs, and how to implement and communicate solutions. It may be a while before the education system changes - it is deeply conservative and has agendas which go far beyond just teaching the subject matters. But whether inside the school or outside, I'll be making sure that my kids and those that I work with have an opportunity to tinker, build, iterate, solve, and engage with a community around the solutions they create. Not only is our economy built on this kind of innovation, but as humans, we all want to create.