Are Kids Learning 21st Century Skills?

It’s been almost a month since “homeschooling” took on a whole new meaning.

Students are out of school in 185 countries and according to UNESCO that’s approximately 9 out of 10 schoolchildren worldwide. Today’s parents are now getting a closer look at exactly what their children are actually learning. For many it’s been an eye-opening experience.

We’ve known for years that there is a crisis in our educational system. It was built and designed for the industrial era, not the AI era. The focus of the past century has been on standardization and testing. This manufacturing-style approach to industrial education may have been relevant in the 20th century, but it feels incredibly outdated and obsolete in the digitally-driven 21st century.

So, what’s the problem?

Well, it’s not necessarily money. Over the past half-century, spending per student on U.S. K–12 education has nearly tripled and today the U.S. spends over $700 billion on public education.  As of the most recent data, the US spent $12,800 per student on public education, which is the second-highest amount spent per student of any country in the world. Unfortunately, while the U.S. may spend more money per student on primary and secondary schools than other major developed nation, it still lags behind most other industrialized countries in key measurements of academic achievement. Pew Research found the U.S. ranked 38th in math and 24th in science when compared against 71 other countries. It wasn’t too long ago in 1990 that the U.S.’s education system ranked 6th in the world. Something isn’t working.

What if this wasn’t about the money but rather how the money was being spent. What if this not about more education, but the right education?

To be sure, education is top of mind for every parents right now. How will extended school closures affect their kids’ learning. Are kids getting enough work from their teachers? What will happen with all of this screen time? How are kids faring emotionally and will they become overwhelmed? How prepared are schools for digital schooling? What if none of these Zoom assignments really matter? If we are being candid, no one seems truly happy with the current state of our kids’ education during this crisis.

What if we can use this time to take a step back and ask the question, “What should our kids actually be learning today?” There is no doubt this pandemic will come to define Generation Alpha. However, technology will also define Generation Alpha. We are at the dawn of the AI era, and the mantra is “Anything that can be automated, will be.” The pandemic will just accelerate change and make the future happen faster. This is why we need our kids to be learning 21st century skills.

Do Schools Kill Creativity?

In January 2016, the World Economic Forum (WEF) released a report entitled, “New Vision for Education: Fostering Social and Emotional Learning Through Technology.” It has become the foundation for much of the discussion around 21st century skills, with many people, companies and organization taking their own variation on the theme. I believe much of this was inspired by the most watched TED talk of all time by Sir Ken Robinson called, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?“.

The three main areas of 21st century skills highlighted by the WEF are as follows:

  • 21st Century Foundational Literacies: Defined as how students apply core skills to everyday tasks, these include literacy, numeracy, scientific literacy, information and communication technology (ICT) literacy, financial literacy and cultural and civic literacy. I would add a few more areas like environmental literacy, health and wellness literacy, and not just scientific but “STEAM” literacy – science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.
  • 21st Century Competencies: Defined as how students approach complex challenges, I consider these 21st Century Learning Skills. These skills include creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking / problem solving.
  • 21st Century Character Qualities: Perhaps the most important skill is what I call 21st Century Life Skills. This is how students approach their changing environment. This can be a much longer list, but the WEF starts it out with curiosity, initiative, persistence / grit, adaptability, leadership, and social and cultural awareness.

21st Century Skills According To The World Economic Forum

I’ll dive deeper into these 21st century skills in future newsletters, but the takeaway for now is clear. Now more than ever, Generation Alpha needs to learn 21st century skills. There is a huge gap in our educational system and many of these 21st century skills are not being prioritized. Parents are increasingly looking for the tools to help them teach their kids these skills. Educators are as well.

Given that these are the skills that will determine tomorrow’s leaders today, we must do everything we can to ensure our kids get the best possible start – and it starts with learning 21st century skills.

This presents an incredible opportunity for innovative educators and business leaders to reimagine learning and provide parents the tools they want and that will give kids the skills they need.

Forever young,


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