Back to the Future?


photo credit: AMERICANVIRUS via photopin cc

This morning I read a thought-provoking blog post by John Bernia, “The Landscape has Changed, the Skills are the Same.”

In his post, Bernia argues that what many refer to as “21st Century Skills” are really no different than the skills that successful people in the past have needed:

If Doc Brown and Marty McFly were here to fly you “Back to the Future,” and we arrived in 1955, the skills and habits of successful people would be identical to those which are now cited as 21st century skills. Leaders and innovators of the mid-20th century had to solve problems, communicate and work with others.

Bernia concludes that: “The skills are not new. The landscape, tools, pace and communication medium are.” He calls upon educators to change our strategies by embracing  “the new landscape and tools” and remembering “that the skills that learners will need to succeed in the future are no different today than they were 58 years ago.”

His post really got me thinking about the essential skills and habits of mind that our students will need for their success and how they compare with those of the past. Are the skills really the same?

If our current landscape is characterized by rapid change as well as access to powerful digital tools that make possible communication and collaboration across vast global networks, then doesn’t it also require a different set of competencies to navigate it successfully?

To be sure, people in the 20th Century needed to be able communicate effectively and work with others to solve problems. When tools for creating and publishing ideas are readily available to a wide range of people across the globe, how does this change the equation? I am not sure I have the answer to this question, but I’ve got to think that a changing landscape does call for a deeper understanding of the world around us, the ability to connect and interact in meaningful ways across different contexts, acumen to actively pursue new knowledge and critically evaluate the information available.

So what do you think? Are 21st Century skills really that different from those required for success in the 20th Century? How does our understanding of the similarities/differences influence our work in preparing students for their future?

6 thoughts on “Back to the Future?

  1. Thanks for bringing Bernia’s blog to my attention. I addressed this topic some months ago as guest blogger for Eye on Education in a blog I recently reposted: Shaping the Legacy of the 21st Century Educator at I tend to agree with Bernia. The skills that everyone claims as 21st century have been longtime requirements for success but the tools have changed. In the 20th century, the shift was a physical one–technologic automation got us moving: in the early part of the century beyond our communities and in the latter part of the century to the out reaches of our solar system. 21st century technology has moved us virtually–across the globe into worlds and ideas we read about in the last century. Like you, I’m not sure how we prepare students for a place we haven’t yet been. Therein may lie a clue as to the most important of the 21st Century skills: curiosity for the new and openness for the yet unproven.

  2. I think leaders in the 20th century needed what we now call 21st century skills. The difference now is that everyone needs those skills to survive, not just leaders. In the past you could survive without the 4C’s but I do not think that is true for people entering the workforce today.

    • Your point is well taken, Matt. I agree that the changing landscape does require that everyone, not just the leaders and innovators, effectively communicate, collaborate, think critically and creatively meet challenges.
      Thank you for your comments. I appreciate you helping to shape and refine my thinking.

    • As I reflect upon those who are my heritage, I find the 4Cs prominent in their survival. As immigrants to a new land who became successful businessmen and landowners (farmers!): they were creative and innovative problem solvers who worked with their neighbors to collaborate and problem solve, often amidst the stings of of prejudice, weather and economics far more challenging than what we see today. The 4 Cs have always been necessary for success; in the more recent past, our social system has worked to mitigate the need for everyone to be proficient in these areas. Life has become easier; technology has lifted a physical load and in that ease some have grown comfortable, diminishing the need to foster foundational skills of socialization and curiosity. Just thinking aloud….

  3. I appreciate the careful distinction you make between the last century and the current one — shifting from physical to virtual. I agree with you that “curiosity for the new and openness for the yet unproven” are essential as we move forward.
    As always, thank you for your thoughtful comments and for helping me to clarify my thinking.

  4. To open, I want to thank you for reading my post and for taking the time to write a thoughtful response of your own.

    Globalization is, to me, the biggest difference between the two centuries. In the 20th century, the percentage of Americans conducting business with companies or people in other parts of the world was far smaller than it is today. Deeper knowledge of other cultures, or the ability to speak more than English could be seen as skills that are “new” to meet the demands of a very interdependent economy.

    More cultural awareness and sensitivity is a good thing, could it be that the world is becoming a better place?

    Again, thanks for reading and responding, I’m glad you are in my PLN.

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