Transcendent Skills

The World Economic Forum recently published its list of the skills every 21st Century student needs (What are the 21st Century Skills Every Student Needs?).  A few years ago, Tony Wagner published his Seven Survival Skills for the 21st Century.  I could go on…

So many people have waved around their submission to the “what do kids need to know?” sweepstakes. Or rather, calling the question what it is, “what do we teach kids given that the nature of jobs and the value of knowledge seem to upend themselves every few days?” And we aren’t wrong to wonder — the turmoil in both higher-ed and the job market has a lot of people scratching their heads. But I’d like to consider that the list of what we should teach kids has never changed.

Let’s compare Wagner’s list with that of the World Economic Forum:


    • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
    • Collaboration
    • Agility and Adaptability
    • Initiative and Entrepreneurship
    • Accessing and analyzing Information
    • Effective oral and written communication
    • Curiosity and imagination

World Economic Forum

    • Complex Problem Solving
    • Critical Thinking
    • Creativity
    • Communication
    • Collaboration
    • Curiosity
    • Initiative
    • Persistence/Grit
    • Leadership
    • Adaptability
    • Social and Cultural Awareness

Roughly seventeen of the eighteen skills listed overlap. The only non-overlapping skill is “Social and Cultural Awareness.” However, I have a hard time believing that Wagner wouldn’t accept that skill as important.

And it isn’t just these two lists that emphasize these skills or some variation on them. All the traits in the lists above basically capture the ethos of liberal arts education, not to mention that these traits show up in the story of just about individual or any group that’s done something remarkable. If we could somehow agree on a group of extraordinary historical figures, I’m willing to bet that some, if not all, of these skills would connect them in their success.

The next question is fairly obvious: was there or will there ever be a time when these eighteen skills are not essential, valued or applicable? We could cross-examine each skill, weigh it against monumental changes in technology and politics, but we’d arrive at what we already know: all these skills transcend time and place. People with these skills rise above the specificity of time and place to lead extraordinary lives.  

But we know the hard part isn’t the what, it’s the how.

Clearly the issue is that the educational system necessary to teach these skills doesn’t exist. The shortsighted, large scale, factory-like system we use today won’t start manufacturing the answer out of nowhere. No, we need disruption. And to that end, methods like personalized learning, mixed-age classrooms, and Socratic dialogue all show promise. But if we want to make the right changes in education, we must encourage driven educators to launch new school models quickly, and with as few administrative snags as possible. This idea is our lodestar at Tiny Schools.

Just recently, I spent some time reading into deep machine learning, which essentially allows computers (machines) to teach themselves by recognizing patterns in massive amounts of data. After “reading” the data, machines generate their own algorithms to predict outcomes or even to create new ideas. You give a machine all the books that exist on boats, and it can teach itself to make a better boat– that sort of thing.

Could a machine eventually confirm once-and-for-all what skills transcend time? Maybe the machine would spoil our hopes for timelessness and prove that specific knowledge has always determined success, the right skills always adapting for world change and innovation. But if a computer powered by machine learning could determine some list of ideal qualities that every student needs, perhaps that same technology could accompany every student in their education, observing how that student learns and applying a personalized program that encourages them to acquire these skills on their own. 

But all this wondering assumes that we all agree on what happiness looks like, and that a computer could ever recognize it.

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