21st Century Skills

October 15, 2009 //

By John Esterle

Mark Wilding, Executive Director of The PassageWorks Institute (a TWI grantee) has written an insightful post on “21st Century Education from the Inside Out” that makes the case for moving beyond polarized debates within education (e.g. skills vs. content, discipline vs. an open heart; ends vs. means) if all of our kids are going to be able to participate in schools that “are safe and intellectually challenging environments — so that they have the cognitive, physical, emotional, and social skills to be successful and ethical citizens in the 21st century.”

Mark touches on a couple of themes present in my recent posts (how emotion affects learning and thinking; the importance of working with people who think differently than you) while raising others that I’ll no doubt write about in the future: the need to practice what we preach when it comes to how we think and talk and act together; the importance of expanding our definition of what it means to be literate; and the need for new kinds of coalitions and collaborations if we are to foster new educational and civic cultures.

Also, when he writes, “This brings up another cosmic education question. Are so-called learning and life skills ‘ends’ in themselves or are they means to an academic end?” I couldn’t help but think how that echoes the tensions that surface around the question of ‘impact’ in so much process and relationship-based work (talk vs. action, relationships vs. results). These questions and tensions are not just academic of course; they carry much weight in terms of what types of work and approaches receive funding and resources.

Thinking of those things put me in mind of Eamonn Kelly’s closing comments about assessment, measurement, and change in the 21st century when I interviewed him a while ago:

“There’s an increasing disconnect between the tangible assets that we can actually account for, literally, and the intangible assets that are about relationships and are fundamental. These questions are starting to become more visible and meaningful and will lead, I believe, to really important changes. Will we end this century with our same measurement systems for value, growth, and development? I truly hope not and I don’t believe we will.”

Needless to say, I share his sentiments.


  1. Christopher on October 16, 2009 at 8:16 am

    It's so nice to see the TWI blog back in action, and exploring vital issues from such a singular slant.
    There seems to be a 'which comes first' aspect to the way this great post is presented: namely, that having an array of cultivated cognitive, emotional, social, physical skills precedes a person's ability to be a successful and ethical civic participant. I'm wondering if they go hand in glove, or even whether meaningful civic participation*precedes* and drives the formation. of these skills. Can one of our most fundamental relationships be with the greater body politic itself, driving and determining the intimacies and healthy identies we have with ourselves, loved ones, community? Does the private self come first, does its cultivation precede social interaction, or are the private and public entwined at every turn?
    I look forward to hearing what others have to say.

  2. The Whitman Institute on October 16, 2009 at 8:36 am


    Thanks for your great reflections and questions. You make a good point as far as "which comes first" and I would say that it's more a matter of "hand in glove." I think one challenge in terms of writing and talking about interrelated topics or issues, not the least of which is thinking and feeling, is that there can be a tendency to communicate in either/or terms when what we're actually advocating are "both/and" frameworks.

    Thanks again for responding.


  3. Christopher on October 16, 2009 at 11:51 am

    John, you know, I'm not sure that they (always) go hand in glove, though ostensibly that would seem to make the most sense (and certainly was the premise I'd operated from). I've been thinking a lot lately that the that public involvement/civic engagement is the necessary precusor to fruitful affective and cognitive development in all our many dimensions of being, including or even especially our most private niches of 'self.' cheers, Chris

  4. The Whitman Institute on October 19, 2009 at 10:05 am


    I think the link between outward participation/engagement and inner skills development is a really intriguing area and one I think is being explored in a lot of different ways at the moment. At its core, perhaps, is the notion that our development of self is inextricably linked to our ability to think and act in ways that take us outside of our self, however that manifests. Hopefully, in ways that manifest curiosity, compassion, and connection:)