'Forget 21st century skills: being able to read and write effectively will be key whatever century we're in'

What is so 21st-century about thinking critically, solving problems, communicating and collaborating effectively? Most schools have taught these skills for a long time.

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The term “21st-century skills” divides opinion – there are those who love it and those who cannot abide it. As an ed tech enthusiast, you may expect me to be in the former category. But I am not. Here’s why.

1. The term “21st-century skills” is often used to describe any digital learning or use of technology. I don’t think this does any favours for those of us trying to deliver a broad, challenging and comprehensive computing curriculum, who use technology to have an impact on children’s outcomes.

2. The term itself is vague – what are 21st-century skills anyway? Some googling will throw up collaboration, communication, critical thinking, problem-solving and digital literacy, but there’s no agreed definition. There’s a lot of talk about it preparing students for work in the digital age and jobs that don’t exist. So many people and organisations defining it on their terms is problematic because, at the very least, we need to be clear about what we’re talking about.

3. Even if we agree on the above skills as the definition, what is so 21st-century about thinking critically, solving problems, communicating and collaborating effectively? Most schools have taught these skills for a long time. They are not exclusively tied to technology and haven’t been applicable only since the clock struck midnight on 31 December 1999.

4.“Digital literacy” is one of the three main strands of the computing programme of study, which includes objectives such as:

  • Be discerning in evaluating digital content; recognise acceptable and unacceptable behaviour; identify a range of ways to report concerns about content and contact at key stage 2.
  • Understand ways to use technology safely, respectfully, responsibly and securely, including protecting online identity and privacy.
  • It is clearly defined and made up of things students need to know. So digital literacy is an element of the computing programme, not just a vague part of the 21st-century skills compendium that equates to being able to use an iPad. Again, this term is often used broadly, which isn’t helpful.

5. Yes, the world is changing. Yes, the way we use technology is changing and we shouldn’t ignore it, but I’m fairly sure being able to read and write effectively, for example, will always be key – whatever century we’re in. Articles that push 21st-century skills as being more important than this are, I think, missing the point. Basics first.

I love tech and computing – and I’ve seen the impact this can have. But I’m not going to lump it into a vague set of skills, pit it against other parts of the curriculum and pretend it now trumps everything else: it doesn’t.

Claire Lotriet is a kindergarten teacher in London. She tweets @OhLottie and blogs at clairelotriet.com

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