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Don’t Look Now but the 21st Century is Behind You!

By: Jaime Casap on February 20th, 2019

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Don’t Look Now but the 21st Century is Behind You!

Innovative Leadership

Five years ago, our team partnered with the Economist Group to conduct a study where we asked business and industry leaders around the world, what were the most critical skills they wanted their employees to possess. You could say the results were more validating than surprising. The usual suspects were on the list – problem-solving, teamwork, communication, critical thinking, and digital literacy were among the skills mentioned. When I show the results of the study on a slide, I warn my audience that the most fascinating thing about the list is that it’s not fascinating at all. Everyone in the room knows what's on the list. We have been talking about how students need to develop these skills for so long, we actually call them “21st Century Skills," and we talk about them a lot! If you do an exact term search for “21st Century Skills,” you get about 4,170,000 results.

What those four million results are really talking about are the skills students need for the future. The problem as I see it is that we are 20 years into the 21st century and yet, we are still talking about these skills as something students need for the future. I believe the future is here and they should be developing these skills as soon as they walk into our schools.

The other problem I see is the lack of respect these important skills get. We call them “soft skills,” when I believe they are required or crucial skills. I still believe in soft skills, I just don’t think problem-solving and critical thinking are soft skills. Other aspects such as time management or work ethic can be defined as "soft skills."

Before we get into the actual definition and examples of the skills, let’s discuss why they are crucial in the first place.

At one point in history, we learned how to farm at scale, thus beginning the agrarian economy.  Shortly after, we learned to make items at scale, thus starting the industrial revolution. One hundred years into the industrial revolution, manufacturing started shifting from manual labor to automation. It was at that point that we saw a shift to what we called knowledge workers or white-collar jobs. This is when we started to recognize how vital skills like communication and creativity would be in the future. We started predicting the automation of work way before the 21st century started!

Then came 1991 and we didn’t know it at the time, but the world was about to shift into a whole new economy. The Internet age had started and with it would come eCommerce, mobile phones, smart devices, artificial intelligence, machine learning, virtual reality, augmented reality, and so on. This all happened very fast. In 1995, only 1% of the world was online. Today, that number is 47%. In the US, 89% of residents have Internet access, and the majority of them are online every day.

The idea that robots, automation, and technology are going to replace all our jobs all of a sudden became very real. The fact is, automation isn’t replacing whole jobs, at least not yet! What technology is helping us do is replace parts of all jobs, particularly the mundane and repetitive process components of jobs.

Given this rapid change, the nice-to-have “soft skills,” are now, in fact, significant, not in some distant future, but right now! So, what are these vital skills? I've given this a lot of thought and I've categorized them into five central themes all students need to continuously master:  problem-solving, critical thinking, collaboration, ability to learn, and creativity. 


The first and most important skill is problem-solving. It is the key to all the other skills. We are facing all sorts of problems in the world, but that’s not what I mean. I don’t mean social issues. I mean any aspect of any project one is working on. How to get food delivered fresh and hot if you are using a flying drone to deliver it. How to get super glue into a dispenser that doesn’t glue itself shut. How to get to a 99% on-time flight departure schedule. Machines and algorithms will help a lot, but it’s humans who have to define and frame the problem we are trying to solve.  Problem-solving will require understanding systems thinking and design thinking. It will require mathematical and computational thinking as well. Problem-solving requires the ability to look at a large dataset, analyze it and identify and define the problem at hand. How many times have you spent significant amounts of time and resources solving the wrong problem?

Critical Thinking

The second essential skill is critical thinking. One of my goals for 2019 is to get folks in education to stop talking about “digital skills” or “digital citizenship” as some separate skill students need. I place digital skills where they belong, right inside critical thinking. If you have strong critical thinking skills, you know how to check a source of information. You know how to tell the difference between a credible news article and one that’s fake. Critical thinking is the ability to collect all the right information, and then be able to evaluate and understand the information. Critical thinking also involves pattern recognition and the ability to make connections with all the evidence in front of you.


The third must-have skill is collaboration. We talk about collaboration in education a lot, but we don’t really mean it. Our current education system is set up as an individual sport. The problem is that we live in a team-based world. When it comes to collaboration, I’m not talking about group work, where you assign a paper to four students, and only one of them does all the work.  Real collaboration is the ability to work well with others, especially those with different skills and abilities and backgrounds. Real collaboration is the ability to empathize, listen well, and value the point of view and perspective of others. Can you influence, motivate, and build consensus? Can you put the right team together at the right moment for the right circumstances?

Ability to Learn

The next crucial skill is the ability to learn. I freely admit remembering the last movement of graduate school, when I hit print on the last 60-page paper I wrote to complete my requirements for graduate school. I remember thinking, “I am done learning! I never have to learn again!” Of course, nothing is further from the truth. We must constantly learn. We look at education as a process, something we go through, or something that is done to us. We think education has steps. First, we learn step one information, then step two information, and so on. In actuality, learning is not linear at all! It’s also not about acquiring facts and figures we can recite when asked. Learning is an ever-changing and dynamic process of accessing and assessing information, both as individuals and as a group, through exploration, experiences, and trials and errors. It was Thomas Edison who said, “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” Education is not a process. Education is a mindset. It requires self-awareness and honest assessment of one’s skills and abilities. Adaptation and learning are critical for the world we live in today.


The last skill to mention is creativity. Creativity is one of the main differences between humans and robots. Robots can only do what humans tell them to do. Machine learning and artificial intelligence are not defined by risk-taking. Algorithms are based on predictable patterns. Humans, on the other hand, can use their creativity and imagination to envision the impossible. In addition to using creativity for building ideas and solutions, you need to be able to creatively communicate the work you do. So, I file communication skills under creativity. You have to be able to tell a story, sell an idea, and communicate a solution in new and creative ways.  

If we can focus on helping our students develop these important skills, in the context of the content we want to teach them, we’ll actually prepare them for the future they face. You can’t be a problem solver without understanding math and reading. You can’t be a critical thinker without understanding how science works. You can't define solutions without understanding how history has a tendency to repeat itself over and over again.

If we fail to provide students with these skills – in particular, if we fail those in our most struggling schools – we run the risk of limiting the futures of our most at-risk students. We can't afford to put any students at a marked disadvantage.

So, let’s make sure our students are building the skills they need to take on this new economy, an economy that is here right now!

About Jaime Casap

Jaime Casap is the Chief Education Evangelist at Google. Jaime evangelizes the power and potential of technology as an enabling and supporting tool in pursuit of promoting inquiry-based learning models. Jaime collaborates with school systems, educational organizations, and leaders focused on building innovation into our education policies and practices. Before he joined Google 13 years ago, Jaime spent seven years as a strategy and organization consultant at Accenture, where he worked with companies in financial services, government, utilities, healthcare, and electronics and high tech. In addition to his role at Google, Jaime serves as an advisor to dozens of organizations focused on learning and the future of work. He is the coauthor of “Our First Talk About Poverty,” as a way to talk to children about poverty. Jaime also teaches a 10th grade communication class at the Phoenix Coding Academy, and guest lectures at Arizona State University. He speaks on education, digitalization, innovation, generation z, and the future of work at events around the world. You can follow and reach him on Twitter at @jcasap

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