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21st Century Skills

I was in a meeting recently with a client that runs STEM- and STEAM-based programs for middle- and high-school students. One of the purposes of these programs is to prepare students for the careers of the future, and therefore the conversation turned to the topic of 21st century skills. Although the precise definition of this term varies, the Partnership for 21st Century Learning defines them as “the skills and knowledge students need to succeed in work, life, and citizenship.” The designation of these skills as 21st century skills, rather than essential human skills has always struck me as odd, given their ubiquity and applicability to most human endeavors. I do not know, for example, that the ability to collaborate is any more relevant now than it was when our early ancestors were trying to hunt creatures many times their size.

In any event, the client ultimately decided that the skills they want to inculcate in their students are the skills that will prepare them for careers that will be resistant to automation. We long ago passed the point at which manual tasks – many of which required hard-won and exacting skill – could be performed more efficiently by machines than people. In the ensuing years, many jobs that required considerable education have become automated – statistical and mathematical calculations that used to occupy rooms full of college graduates can now be performed by computers in moments. This trend is likely to continue with the automation of “white collar” careers such as accounting, law, and even medicine.

So what careers are left for people? Perhaps those that require certain types of creative and critical thinking, thinking that is practiced in the arts and related fields such as design. Technology provides the tools to undertake ever more projects, but it requires human intuition and discernment to know which projects are worth pursuing, and design thinking to organize the efforts of oneself and others towards project completion. While the internet places a tremendous amount of information at our fingertips, it requires contextual knowledge and critical thinking to differentiate good information from bad. To the extent an education in the arts fosters these skills it constitutes another argument for arts education.

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