21st Century Skills vs. Content


I must admit, the marketing tactic worked on me… who doesn’t love a bit of controversy? If you spoke to me prior to attending this debate I would have confirmed with confidence that skills are more important--- in terms of achieving the “purpose” of education, aka educating our students for a future that doesn’t exist. 

What I realised, however, is that while I do value content, I had become somewhat disillusioned with this term, viewing it as synonymous with “compliance” or “checklist”... two words that hold very little regard in my personal education philosophy. As such, I first needed to reframe and challenge my definition of content and instead, replace it with the word “knowledge”. In doing so, I was able to recognise the value of an idea presented by the first speaker, that education should be a mix of skills and content, because it is “in the application of content that learning occurs”. 

Her presentation focussed on remapping the outcomes to allow for “inquiry based learning”. She even presented a lovely diagram that highlighted the learning process as deviating from a linear approach, allowing students to return to previous learnings, and attend both compulsory and non-compulsory knowledge and skill building workshops. As I sat listening to the overview of inquiry based learning I chuckled to myself and thought “you say inquiry based learning, I say artmaking practice”. In fact, so much could be learned from the Visual Arts curriculum in promoting inquiry based learning, I suppose it’s a good thing there has been such an increased interest in STEAM… I mean STEM. ha! 

Obviously, I do not wish to discredit this approach to learning, however, it has become apparent that such approaches are prevalent in primary school settings and even into Stage 4… but then what? If it is so valuable why does it get phased out as students continue their schooling? 

What I do appreciate about the approach is its latitude, and this connected with an idea presented by the second speaker, and one which really resonated with me. He said, we need to rethink the purpose of education as being “education for education’s sake”. What an extremely powerful statement, and not just because I saw some faces contort in a look of utter terror. This statement led me to recall the writings and research of John Dewey, who promoted the importance of “play” in learning, and Dan Pink, who wrote about striving to achieve “intrinsic motivation”. That is, the activity itself being its own reward, and as such, learning itself becoming rewarding. Yet again, the question of practicality asserts itself and I pose the question “how might I enable the development of intrinsic motivation?”

This question is not one assigned to defeat but instead curiosity. So often I hear about, or read, school mission statements that claim to develop “global citizens”, “curious and creative individuals”, “lifelong learners”, all of which require students to acquire knowledge, apply knowledge via skills, and to be intrinsically motivated. I have experienced these environments first hand and they are admirable goals, however, I cannot help but challenge how effectively these outcomes are being achieved when methods of assessment fail to authenticate such an environment. 

Thus, when I asked how one might engage in “education for education’s sake” within an overcrowded curriculum that appears to be fundamentally anchored in standardised testing and measurement protocols? The response I received was to “avoid overcrowding the curriculum with assessment and measurement, and to trust the teacher”. Not necessarily an answer to the proposed question, however, it does highlight an overarching problem that continues to undermine progress--- the role of macro forces. 

Alas, I cannot change these macro forces (not yet), but I can consider the way I attempt to engage my students in the learning process. As such, credit to knowledge (content) and application (skills) is necessary, and the modelling of “learning for learning’s sake” is imperative.  


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