No, They Are Not Skills?

Fruit Splash 3

In a recent column, EdSurge asked a small panel of people who might be considered “creative” the rather interesting question, “Is creativity a skill?”. They went on to also ask whether creativity can be taught or learned.

Almost everyone answered yes in one way or another, but this, from a journalism teacher, came closest to the way I would respond.

Creativity is a mindset. It is a way of looking at life. If you look at life the standard way, then there is no creativity involved. It is copying.

Creativity means thinking outside the box; thinking in ways that requires you believe in yourself enough to take a risk. It is not a skill; it is a mindset.

Anyone remember “21st century skills”? Although the use of that phrase has thankfully died down in the past few years,1 creativity was generally considered one of four skills to be included. What was called the “4-Cs” in the overly-large school district that used to employ me: creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking.2

So, we could expand the question to ask if any or all of those items are really skills? Or are they also mindsets.

If you look at very young children and how they process the world, it’s clear that most already come equipped with those abilities. From the earliest age, kids use a lot of critical thinking and creativity to cope the world. They experiment with just about everything to make sense of everything that is new to them.

However, parents, teachers, and other adults, work very hard to reign in that inclination and provide some structure that fits the societal norms. Certainly much of that really is for their own good, but those restrictions also begin the process of stunting the 4-C skills kids were born with.

That process expands greatly when children get to school, a place where creative experimentation is usually discouraged and channeled into those approved topics contained in the curriculum. Likewise, collaboration and communication, something young children are actually very good at (even if we don’t always understand it), is now restricted to only adult-approved formats.

All of which is why I don’t think any of those 4-Cs are skills. And they can’t be “taught”. At least not in the way we normally use that verb.

Teaching these so-called skills almost always involves imposing on kids our interpretation of what it means to be creative, or the correct way to communicate, or how to think critically, or what “real” collaboration looks like.

So, what happens if instead we used classrooms to help kids explore and develop their own creative abilities, in their own way?

It probably would look much different from the current structure we call “school”.


The picture is one of my attempts at creativity by playing with shutter speed on my camera. I’ll leave it to the viewer to judge the results.

1. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve stopped following people who continue to use silly cliches like that.

2. Sometimes that list was awkwardly expanded to include curiosity, which is even less of a skill than the other four.

Missing Skills

I wonder if the panel working on our Portrait of a Graduate (see the previous post) has read this.

At the end of 2012, Forbes presented a list of The 10 Skills That Will Get You Hired In 2013. Since Forbes magazine says they are “The Capitalist’s Tool”, and education exists to support the American economy, we need to pay attention to their advice, right?

Anyway, cynical ramblings aside, I know we are past 2013 but things didn’t change that much in the past twelve months, so here are the skills a major business publication says our graduates should have to make them employable.

No. 1 Critical Thinking (found in 9 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 2 Complex Problem Solving (found in 9 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 3 Judgment and Decision-Making (found in 9 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 4 Active Listening (found in 9 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 5 Computers and Electronics (found in 8 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs) – according to Forbes this includes knowledge of circuit boards, processors, electronic equipment and computer hardware including applications and programs.

No. 6 Mathematics (found in 6 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 7 Operations and Systems Analysis (found in 5 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 8 Monitoring (found in 5 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs) – the monitoring and assessing performance of yourself, other individuals or organizations to make improvement or take corrective action.

No. 9 Programming (found in 3 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 10 Sales and Marketing (found in 2 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

Education reformers and school administrators like to talk about many of these skills, often under the umbrella of “21st century something”. However, the fact of the matter is that most students will never be asked to develop or use these abilities during their time in a K12 classroom.

Remember, what gets tested, gets taught, and of these ten, only a whiff of number 6 will appear on most standardized tests.

Learning 16th Century Skills

Although the language of education changes over time, some educliches just seem to endure far past the point of holding any real meaning. And one my favorites* seem to be making a big comeback around here: 21st century skills.

Recently our department here in the overly-large school district was given the areas on which we are to focus in the coming year (and maybe beyond, depending on how long the current big boss is in his position), and listed in several places is that phrase. Associated with it is our task: “Identifying strategies for teacher to use to integrate communications, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity skills into the curriculum”.

Beyond the constant use of a vaguely defined phrase that is at least 12 years past it’s expiration date, there are two major problems with this particular element of our discussion.

First, none of those skills are unique to the 21st century. A successful person at any point in human history was skillful at communicating, working with others, critically assessing the world, and finding creative ways to deal with new situations. They also made use of whatever technologies were available at the time to do all that. We want our kids to do the same throughout their lives with the most effective tools they have at hand.

An even larger issue is that last part about integrating all those skills “into the curriculum”.

Our curriculum, as in most K12 institutions in this country, is still very much a teacher-directed, fact-driven relic of the previous century. Or maybe even from the 19th. Everything is laid out in the “program of studies” and “pacing guides”, scripts that set the content and direction of learning from day one through day 180.

However, there’s a big disconnect. Those so-called “21st century” skills (aka the “4 C’s”) are best learned by doing. By interacting with ideas and solving problems that don’t necessarily have one simple answer. By finding and assessing information, and then creating new ways to use and communicate it.

If we are really serious about students learning these “new” skills, the current curriculum is largely worthless. It is chock full of easily googleable trivia and the primary skill being taught is how to play the testing game, to analyze packaged questions and select the “right” answers.

We need to totally rethink the definition of what is essential for students to know and be able to do when they graduate and that will not come from trying to graft a collection of cliches to the antiquated process we now call school.


* If by “favorite” you mean I want to scream whenever someone uses it.

21st Century is Done

For anyone else who is sick of educational “leaders” mindlessly spouting off about “21st century” something, send a link to this piece from The Huffington Post to all of them.

I’m tempted to send just the opening paragraph to our new superintendent and assorted assistant supers prior to the district’s leadership conference next August.

It’s not rational, but I’ll admit that whenever I hear “21st century classroom” or “21st century skills” — I tense up. Why? Because we are starting the 13th year of this “future” century. It’s empty phraseology designed to sound like we are preparing for the future when we are already living in that future; and no one believes that what passes for a typical classroom today will be the classroom experience even 10 years from now, let alone for the next 87 years. We can’t know what the classroom will look or feel like. We do know, however, that most school districts are organized to deliver education that inhibits rather than encourages innovation. That needs to change.

Real change. Not more of the empty phraseology lurking behind the common-corization, race-to-the-topping of American education. 

More Thoughts on Communications

In a comment on yesterday’s rant about my new big boss’ slightly retro communications style, Doug told me to cut the guy some slack. At least his newsletter wasn’t printed.

Later, in a post on his own site, Doug expanded on his point that he has many different options, each with their own purpose and weaknesses.

Yet these “21st Century” tools have their limitations. Twitter assumes your message needs no more nuance or detail than what 140 characters can convey – and that your entire staff will “follow” you. The Facebook fan page is fine if your school doesn’t block Facebook, you really don’t want any feedback, and that your entire staff will “friend” you. Blogs, podcasts, or infographics are great communication tools provided they are supplemented by and additional communication method that allows readers to know they have been updated. I rather doubt all my staff regularly have or check RSS feed readers.

I don’t disagree with any of this, or the idea that “Just because it’s old, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.”.

However, the fact that the boss and the rest of our district leadership seem to automatically fall back on static, one-way communications tools is somewhat disingenuous. As I noted in my post, these are the same people who tell the community how students need to learn “21st century skills”. They need to practice their preaching.  

On the other side of things, I’m also frustrated by many of my colleagues in the department and elsewhere who, as Doug noted don’t use RSS or other aggregation tools. Many people I speak to don’t even have a basic understanding of the concept.

This is not new technology. Blogs, audio and video sharing, social sharing, along with RSS have become the basic building blocks of modern communications and I think an understanding of them should be considered part of basic adult literacy. Certainly they are alternatives to be considered, along with email and pdf, when discussing how to better connect with a community.

BTW, I did suggest to the boss that he write a blog instead of a weekly newsletter and he agreed to consider the idea. I call that progress.