Why are we still talking about 21st-century skills?

The arguments about using new approaches to boost creativity ignore the successes of the past, writes Mark Enser

Mark Enser

Creativity: Do schools really need to teach 21st-century skills, asks teacher Mark Enser

I started teaching in the early years of this millennium when a frequent theme of Inset days was the need to prepare pupils for this new 21st century by teaching them “21st-century skills”. 

Here we now sit, over a fifth of the way through the century, and the call is much the same. 

According to the critics, we are teaching a 19th-century curriculum and letting down our pupils who will be unequipped to deal with the pressures of the world they find themselves in.


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This 19th-century curriculum is usually characterised as one in which pupils are taught distinct subjects and expected to commit information to memory, and it is contrasted with the groovy skills of the 21st century: critical thinking, communicating, collaborating and creativity. 

You can see how this idea has taken off. It feels right. Down with the old, in with the new. You can drag out tropes like “factory education” and “useless knowledge”. And what kind of child-hater would oppose the idea of young people being creative thinkers? Who doesn’t want to be on the side of change and revolution? 

But the more I think about this idea, the more critically I think about this idea, the less it seems to hold up. 

Creativity and an 'outdated' education

Firstly, I was a product of that old, out-of-date, model of curriculum in which I went to different classrooms to be taught seemingly useless knowledge in different subjects. And yet here I am, somehow demonstrating the 21st-century skill of communication. 

Amazingly, a traditional, old-fashioned education didn’t seem to stop novelists, essayists, politicians and broadcasters from plying their trade and communicating their ideas. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that people have needed to communicate before the 21st century and will need to communicate long after it. 

My outdated education has also not stopped me from being creative or from collaborating. As a child, I would sit around with my friends and play Dungeons and Dragons. We would tell creative stories in a collaborative way.

As a dungeon master, I would write a creative scenario in which there were problems to overcome and then the players would suggest ways of solving these problems together, often in ways I could never have foreseen (you want to do what with the rope, the anvil and the face of the orc chief? Gross). 

No one needed to teach me generic skills in creativity or collaboration to allow this to happen, and yet somehow it happened. It doesn’t seem to be something that is particular to the 21st century but instead something that is particularly human. We find creative solutions to new problems as they arise and we collaborate to overcome them. 

Subject-specific knowledge

The second issue I find with the idea of throwing out a traditional model of education based on knowing lots of subject-specific things in favour of teaching generic skills is that if we want pupils to be good at those generic skills, they need that knowledge that comes from lots of subjects. 

If pupils are going to think critically about the news they encounter, it helps if they know enough about the world to be able to think critically about it and enough about the media to think critically about it. Both of these things involve subject-specific knowledge.

If you want to hear someone communicate effectively, listen to someone talk about something they are knowledgeable about. There is little point in collaborating on a project if no one is bringing any new insights to the problem and those insights come from the knowledge we hold. 

The same is true of creativity. If we want people to be creative (and who wouldn’t?) then we want to give them the opportunities to explore and practice lots of very specific creative pursuits – art, music, drama, dance, the written word– so that they can express their creative ideas.

We also want them to have a broad knowledge of the creative expressions of others: what has been thought, said, danced, composed and painted in the past. We want to take them beyond their existing experiences and the music, books and art they encounter without us, and show them what else is out there. No amount of generic creativity education is going to replace the power of this. 

This is not to say that I can’t see a need for reform. I would love us to spend more time in schools ensuring that we have people who are creative, collaborative critical thinkers who communicate their ideas.

I just think that we do this by thinking carefully about the curriculum and ensuring that we give them access to the powerful knowledge that leads to these outcomes, not in trying to teach the outcomes themselves.

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His book, Powerful Geography, is out now. He tweets @EnserMark

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