What are 21st Century Skills?

My latest issue of Brain, Child arrived.  As usual, it’s given me some meaty parenting issues to chew on.  Most notably, the feature article, entitled “Armageddon Mama.” This article raises the question of what the future will be like and whether we’re raising our kids in a way that will prepare them for it.

Usually, this sort of question leads educators to talk about how we need more technology in our schools.  Or how we need “group math.”  Or maybe how it’s not important to know how to write legibly or spell anything anymore because we’ve all got spell check and word processing programs.

That’s not what author Tracy Manor means in her article.  What she means is stuff like brewing beer, sewing, hunting, gardening, building furniture and general handicrafts.  Right now (if you’re not also a Brain, Child subscriber) then you’re probably thinking to yourself, huh?  However, with some predictors painting a picture of climate change turmoil, political instability and economic collapse (the kind the government can’t bail us out of), this article suggests that there may be a use for these skills when and if things ever get really bad.  You need to know how to do something productive, with your hands, that your neighbors can’t do and will barter with you to do for them.

I’m not sure if I buy that the future is so bleak.  I do know that even if the future is that bleak, then I don’t want to shelter my kids, helicopter parent them or otherwise give in to anxiety.  When people talk about our upcoming doom, I’m aware that people have said this sort of thing about the future since the days of the Romans.  Sometimes they were right, but often they were wrong.  I can’t bring myself to teach my kids hunting (if they’re not interested, anyway) solely based on a remote possibility that we might one day need to kill the pesky raccoons that get into the garbage just to survive.

On the other hand, I know I don’t buy into most of the 21st century skills that schools are peddling either.  When I was a teacher, parents and other educators sometimes wanted me to stop giving essay assignments and let kids learn PowerPoint presentations instead.  No thanks.  I’ve seen the sort of nonsense that middle schoolers put in PowerPoint presentations.  I have yet to be convinced that there’s any learning involved in it.  I’m not a Luddite (as evidenced, I hope, in part by the fact that I blog).  I know that technology will be different in the future.  It would be great if I could prepare them, but I’m realistic.  The speed at which these things advance is mind-boggling.  Teaching my kids to use any particular technology or program, like the PowerPoint “skills” those parents wanted me to teach, is probably nigh on useless anyway.  I don’t keep them from technology, but it’s not a central part of my thinking about their education.

Whatever 21st century skills are – computers or shop class – I think my goal is to raise kids who can think for themselves.  I want them to really know and understand the things they learn about.  Years ago, I read a definition of understanding as being knowledge that you could reconstruct from scratch if you were stranded on a desert island.  I want my kids to know math, basic science, language, critical thinking and interpersonal dynamics (yes, I consider “people skills” a real skill) in that deep way, without relying on books or computers to help them.  As the Brain, Child article points out, schools don’t do a very good job with either the high tech skills or the old-fashioned ones.  I would toss in that they don’t do a good job with the thinking skills either, making them thoroughly useless.

So it guess it comes down to what nearly everything I read about education and parenting comes down to for me.  The future is uncertain, so I’m glad we homeschool.  And I guess if, in addition to being able to recreate math from scratch, the kids could also grow a tomato it wouldn’t hurt.  Also, it’s good we know a homeschool beekeeper because my sweet tooth will be hurting after the apocalypse.

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