The Challenges of 21st Century Skills, Learning and the Place of Technology

Some Observations following the Critical Review and Analysis of the Issue of “Skills, Technology and Learning” by Jensen et al

“In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned ?nd themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists…”
Eric Hoffer


Jensen et al (2011)1 seek to provide a detailed and critical review of the nature of twenty first century skills and the relationship between these skills, technology and learning. This short paper offers a review and response to Jensen et al and outlines the implications of their work for the Ontario school system.

The core message of all working on the relationship between skills, learning and technology is that the challenge is not one of technology, but one of focus and pedagogy: What are the skills which educational systems should enable and how should teaching and learning be designed and experienced so as to promote effective learning of these skills?

Jensen et al provide some key insights and observations as well as a cursory overview of developments elsewhere in the world. There are real insights in this paper and the paper should provide a basis of informed dialogue in Ontario. In this commentary, some key challenges are identified.

The Nature of Twenty First Century Skills

There is no substantial difference between the requirements of the twenty first century and the twentieth century. Each required creativity, communication, critical thinking and an ability to collaborate. Suggesting in some way that these are “new” is misleading, as several observers have noted. The quick adoption of the framework for twenty first century skills can have undesired consequences, such as an over-emphasis on science, maths and technology and an underplaying of the place of arts, drama, dance, music and non-technical subjects in the curriculum. Also, a rush to project-based learning versus more traditional forms of teaching and instruction is also seen by some as a “problem” of the twenty first century skills “movement”. Thirdly, technology is seen as a critical component of the twenty first century skills agenda, despite evidence of its modest use in schools.

School systems and post-secondary educational institutions have recently minimized time allocated to the arts (especially music, drawing, dance, drama) in favour of maths, science and technology – often in response to financial challenges and the assumed needs of employers. The Robinson Report (1999).

Our Futures – Creativity, Culture and Education2, published in Britain, and related presentations by Sir Ken Robinson3, all indicate that creativity and cultural education linked to critical thinking and the constructs and skills of design should be seen as being as important as maths and science at all stages of learning, both in terms of the personal value of formal learning and in terms of the economic benefit of such work.

Jenson et al takes a passive view of these skills, yet this is a central challenge: What is it that students should be learning?


The figure above represents the generalized presentation of 21st Century Skills. The issue is: “In what ways should these skills be developed?” A related question is: “What is the relationship between these skills and the curriculum of schools and post-secondary institutions?” In particular, the relationship between these skills and such subjects as history, social studies, language arts, mathematics and so on are vital questions for teacher education, teaching and the process of learning.

The key criticisms of twenty first century skills are substantial. But they relate directly to the process of teaching and learning. Amongst them are:

  1. It is not possible to separate skills from the learning and understanding of a body of knowledge. More positively, learning history or mathematics or physics can require creativity, critical thinking, collaborative working and communication. These skills do not exist in a vacuum.
  2. There are real limits to what teachers can do, given both the demands upon them (curriculum content demands at a time of scarce resources, large class sizes and the demands of special needs students) and their own cognitive limitations. Teachers already believe in the importance of twenty first century skills, but there is some evidence to suggest that they rarely leverage them in their work in classrooms4.
  3. Experience is not the same as mastery – repeated experience of similar skills can lead to adoption of a certain level of practice, but this is not the same as mastering a skill. For example, the science associated with Climate Change requires substantial use of the skills of critical thinking and analysis as well as a deep understanding of some key aspects of science, statistics and research methodologies. A class project on Climate Change undertaken over a semester of study is not the basis of mastering either the topic or the underlying skill sets.
  4. Assessment of these skills can often be problematic – they are not currently assessed in terms of international standards, such as PISA (though this may change) and many assessments of standards undertaken at the State/Provincial or Local level focus on knowledge mastery (e.g. knowledge of mathematics) rather than these skills.

There are other criticisms. The point needs to be made at the beginning of this review is that what is taught and how this is understood in terms of established bodies of knowledge is a central challenge – technology is a tactical asset, not a strategy. Thus the first strategic question is what are we really trying to achieve here? This appears to be “taken for granted” in Jensen et al – it is 21st Century skills.

The Design of Instruction and Student Engagement

If an educational system at a Local or Provincial level is focused and aligned on what should be the focus for instruction, the second strategic question – and this Jensen et al do begin to examine – is “how should it be taught?”

The critical challenge for any teacher is to engage the student in the task of learning. The Meteri Group, who have undertaken a great many studies in both Canada and the US on exactly this question, have identified five levels of student engagement:

Intrinsically Engaged Learners

  • Student sees the activity as personally meaningful.
  • The student’s level of interest is sufficiently high that he persists in the face of difficulty.
  • The student finds the task sufficiently challenging that he believes he will accomplish something of worth by doing it.
  • The student’s emphasis is on optimum performance and on “getting it right”.

Tactically Engaged Learners

  • The official reason for the work is not the reason the student does the work, she substitutes her own goals for the goals of the work.
  • The substituted goals are instrumental – grades, class rank, college acceptance, and parental approval.
  • The focus is on what it takes to get the desired personal outcome rather than on the nature of the task itself – satisfactions are extrinsic.
  • If the task doesn’t promise to meet the extrinsic goal, the student will abandon it.

Compliant Students

  • The work has no meaning to the student and is not connected to what does have meaning.
  • There are no substitute goals for the student.
  • The student seeks to avoid either confrontation or approbation.
  • The emphasis is on minimums and exit requirements: “What do I have to do to get this over with and get out?”

Withdrawn Students

  • The student is disengaged from current classroom activities and goals. The student is thinking about other things or is emotionally withdrawn from the action.
  • The student rejects both the official goals and the official means of achieving the goals.
  • The student feels unable to do what is being asked, or is uncertain about what is being asked.


  • The student is disengaged from current classroom activities and goals.
  • The student is actively engaged in another agenda.
  • The student creates her own means and her own goals.
  • The student’s rebellion is usually seen as acting-out and is often encouraging others to rebel.

They have then explored teaching and classroom strategies which seek to increase the number of students in the first two categories while at the same time reducing the number in the last two. What is key to achieving this is not technology (though this can be of assistance), but the skills and abilities of the teacher and, in particular, their ability to forge both an emotional and intellectual connection to the learner. The work is about “hearts and minds”. It is surprising that this is not a stronger focus in the work by Jensen et al, especially given that it is a preoccupation of teachers as well as policy makers. While they do scan this issue (see pages 15-16), they do so “lightly”.

The challenge for school systems is finding the “hooks” and “handles” that create a connection between learners and the work of learning. Some have referred to this as “authentic learning” – learning through applied work5 .

Jensen et al indicate that there are few studies which demonstrate a strong, sustained link between technology supported learning and improved student engagement. They are correct. This is a further anxiety in any assessment of return on capital employed.

The Technology Challenge for School Systems and Parents

1. Return on Capital and Equity of Access – A Starting Point

There are, as Jensen et al observe, major 1:1 lap top projects operating in the US and Canada. All have very similar results: while skills in accessing knowledge and using technology may improve modestly, doing so has little impact on standard learning outcomes (see Jensen et al at page 14). They also find that, even though professional development resources are substantial, adoption of technology by teachers as a core part of their daily work with learners also improves only modestly. They also show some modest improvements in student engagement, but little overall impact on the mastery of knowledge. Jensen et al also note that the impact of technology on the core skills for the 21st century – creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication – is not impressive (see pages 13-16).

This gives rise to major policy issues – for example, whether the return on capital employed (technology for school systems as a significant cost) is sufficient to justify the investment. It is, from the data available, at best, a moot question.

This question of return on investment becomes more problematic – and this is where Jensen et al provide a valuable service (see especially pages 9-11) – if social equity is a policy expectation of the educational system. Students are not all digital natives, do not have equitable access to broadband (based on both geography and social conditions) and do not necessarily have affordable access to digital devices. Further, not all students want to be digital natives.

Jensen et al quietly draw attention to the challenge these observations give rise to. They suggest (page 11):

“Therefore, the role of ICT in the classrooms, in the context of 21st century skills, technology and learning, is arguably about providing access and scaffolding to students, and thereby creating educationally equitable and socially just teaching and learning environments.” (my emphasis)

– which should be the public policy of all school systems.

2. Personalized Learning

The opportunity, the vendors of technology products and services would have us believe6 , is that technology will permit us to personalize learning: each student being able to use devices to pursue their chosen studies at their own pace, anywhere and at any time. Jensen et al, in their concluding paragraph indicate that this is a challenge (see page 19):

“…the 21st century skills and learning made possible by new technologies represent a fundamental challenge to the individuated yet homogenizing systems for assessing and measuring learning that are currently in place.”

– and for the nature of teaching and learning.

All jurisdictions are struggling with this tension between what the individual can/may be able to do in terms of learning with the aid of technology and what the school system requires students of a certain age to achieve so as to progress through the system. Shifting gradually over time to a different education system is problematic – it is rather like asking Britain’s drivers to drive on the “other” side of the road, but to make the change gradually (except for buses, who will drive down the centre of the road). While some call for radical changes in the school system – Sir Ken Robinson for example7 – others question whether the system needs to change or whether we need to refocus the curriculum and the process of teaching.

Personalized learning is not a pedagogic theory nor a coherent set of teaching approaches, but an idea that is struggling for an identity. As Michael Fullan8 (2009) suggests, the concept is most commonly associated in the United States with differentiated instruction. David Hargreaves (2006)9 , a principal architect of the idea, refers to ?personalizing learning rather than ?personalized learning, in order to emphasize that it is a process not a product. Given that language is the fundamental medium for the social construction of meaning, the term is currently under construction and being (re)defined in many quarters. To give it a new flavour from differentiated instruction and assessment for learning, the terminology is often positioned as uniquely in step with the 21st century (Leadbeater, 2008)10 . As the International Network for Educational Transformation (iNet) indicates, ?Personalised learning is the challenge to meet more of the needs of more students more fully than has been achieved in the past … It is concerned with a transformation of education and schooling that is fit for citizens in the 21st century (iNet 2010a) 11.

Personalization of learning and emerging technology are engaged in a policy handshake that must be examined. There are, for example, questions of teacher and student efficacy in a K–12 education system when personalization is coupled primarily with the discourses on emerging technologies and their benefits. Especially if the focus is on individualized learning (between student, technology and content), in the relative absence of collective learning, socio-constructivism and relationship building with peers, teachers and the community.

We should also not be distracted from other critical issues by a focus on personalization empowered by emerging technologies. Issues engendered by the pervasive digital connectivity of young people and society are critical if we hope to achieve a healthy balance in our society. There is a growing call for studies on the physiological effect of digital technologies and new media on children’s brain development—a neuroscience of children and media (Anderson 2007)12. Based on this concern, we should consider the personal cost to 8–18 year olds who average 10 hours and 45 minutes a day per day exposed to media (Kaiser Foundation 2010)13 . And concentrate on the Canadian Paediatric Society’s recent policy recommendation of no screen time for children under two years of age and a maximum of two hours for children older than two (Canadian Paediatric Society 2009)14.

Finally, we should be mindful of ? saving stillness in a digital age where a kind of solitude that refreshes and restores a person is valued. Stillness is a particular concern that distinguished Professor Sherry Turkle, Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Initiative on Technology and Self, argues is essential to identity formation and healthy adolescent development in the 21st century. As Turkle speculates ? If we identify our need for stillness as something that is part of our human purposes, we will find ways to bring it back into our lives. If we only get excited about what technology makes easy, we will say that this is a kind of…18th century completely passé thing and that it is not essential. Part of K-12 education now should be to give students a place for this kind of stillness, because I don’t think that the rest of their lives is making it easy for them (Dretzin 2009)15.

The key challenge is to make teaching and learning mindful (MacDonald & Shirley, 2009)16 and to enable learners to become more mindful as a result of their learning. This requires the development of intentionality and a commitment to owning decisions and actions, as well as the development of skills.


Jensen et al have provided an insightful overview and starting point for a critical look at some educational issues associated with the so-called 21st century skills, technology and learning. There review suggests that these questions are important:

  1. Is the return on capital deployed in ICT in schools as measured by learning outcomes, student engagement and skills development sufficient to justify continued substantial capital expenditure or is it time for a fresh start?
  2. From a social equity and educational policy perspective, would it not be better to see schools as “providing access and scaffolding to students, and thereby creating educationally equitable and socially just teaching and learning environments”?
  3. Rather than being “seduced” by the promise of 21st century skills + technology, would it not be better to spend more time focusing on improving student engagement and enhancing learning outcomes, letting technology play as appropriate to needs as seen by students and teachers working collaboratively? To focus on student engagement and enhaced outcomes requires a refocusing on curriculum and pedagogy – technology is a tactical tool, not a strategic lever.
  4. There is a need for caution in responding to the desire of vendors with respect to personalized learning. How do we find stillness and mindfulness for learners and teachers in a school day?
  5. What is to be done about teacher preparedness for change? Though not addressed specifically, the implication of Jensen et al (and many other studies) is that school systems, in genera,l and teachers, in particular, have a long adoption curve for change and innovation. What can be done to accelerate the rate of adoption of demonstrably effective tools, processes and activities?

Education is a notoriously difficult area in which to innovate (Murgatroyd, 2010)17 and set policy direction, as Jensen et al’s review of developments in other jurisdictions indicates (see pages 34-39)18. There are some bold experiments not captured in this document – for example, the developments in the UK which enable schools to operate as academies independent of school boards and the opportunity for citizens to establish non-profit charter schools – but the point is clear – “the future isn’t what it used to be”.

  1. Jenson, J., Taylor, N. and Fisher, S. (2011) Critical Review and Analysis of the Issue – “Skills, Technology and Learning” Final Report. Unpublished manuscript.
  2. Robinson, Sir Ken et al (2008) All Our Futures – Creativity, Culture and Education. London: National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education
  3. See, for example, his presentations to the Royal Society for Arts and Manufacturing at (accessed February 18th 2011).
  4. See, for example, Kozma, R.B. (2003) Technology and Classroom Practices – An International Study. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 26(1) pages 1-14. This indicates that little data existed in 2003 on the link between the understanding of 21st century skills by teachers (which was strong) and their use of this understanding in their classroom practice. Similar studies have replicated this finding.
  5. See Clifford, P., Friesen, S. and Jardine, D.W. (2003) Back to the Basics of Teaching and Learning – Thinking the World Together. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum & Associates; Friesen, S. (2009) What Did You Learn in School Today? Teaching Effectiveness – A Framework and a Rubric. Toronto: Canadian Education Association.
  6. See, for example, a series of White Papers from Pearson documenting their approach to personalized learning: (Accessed 18th Feb 2011).
  7. Listen to him speak or read the transcript of his Royal Society lecture at (accessed 20th Feb 2011).
  8. See Fullan, M. 2009. Michael Fullan’s Answer to “What is Personalized Learning?” Microsoft Education Partner Network. Retrieved August 19, 2010, at personalized-learning-quot/revision/3.aspx (Accessed 20th Feb 2011)
  9. Hargreaves, D. (2006) Personalising Learning 6: The Final Gateway: School Design and Organisation. London: Specialist Schools and Academies Trust.
  10. Leadbeater, C. (2008) What’s Next? 21 Ideas for 21st Century Learning. London: The Innovation Unit.
  11. iNet—International Networking for Educational Transformation (2010) What We Do: Our Priorities: Personalising Learning. Taunton, Somerset: Specialist Schools and Academies Trust. Retrieved August 30, 2010, at www.ssat- (Accessed Feb 17th 2011).
  12. Anderson, C.A. (2007) A Neuroscience of Children and Media? Journal of Children and Media 1, no. 1: 77–85.
  13. Kaiser Family Foundation (2010) Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8–18 Year Olds. Menlo Park, CA: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation
  14. Canadian Paediatric Society (2009) Impact of Media Use on Children and Youth. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Paediatric Society. (Accessed 18th Feb 2011).
  15. Dretzin, R. (Producer). (2009) September 22. ?Interview with Sherry Turkle. Frontline [Television Broadcast]. Public Broadcasting Station at (Accessed 17th Feb 2011).
  16. MacDonald, E. and Shirley, D. (2009) The Mindful Teacher. New York: Teachers College Press.
  17. Murgatroyd, S. (2010) Wicked Problems and the Work of the School. European Journal of Education, Volume 45(2), Part 1 pages 259-279.
  18. Alberta will introduce a new School Act in March, 2011 intended to enable the adoption of 21st Century Skills and more closely align the requirements imposed upon schools by the Province with the need for flexibility and nimbleness at the level of the school. Similar changes are also being made in New Brunswick. Finland, in reviewing its school system, is also looking to “rebalance” the curriculum, while Singapore continues its innovations around the policy of “teach less, learn more”.

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