The True 21st Century Skill

13 October 2017

This article was first published in the Queenwood weekly newsletter on 31 October 2017

There is a great deal of talk in education these days about ‘21st century skills’ which are repeatedly said to be essential to success in life. The phrase has a certain glamour but generally accompanies very fuzzy thinking. For a start, evidence rarely features in the discussion and there is also no agreement as to what constitutes this crucial set of skills. The list varies according to the commentator but things starting with ‘c’ are commonly cited (collaboration, critical thinking, communication, creativity) along with perennials such as leadership, resilience, problem-solving and so on.

I would agree that everything in this list is important, but it is not particularly ‘21st century’. The average child of the Dark Ages needed far more resilience than our children, and I wouldn’t want to have to break it to Socrates, Locke or Einstein that critical thinking or creativity were invented in the last two decades. The list is also hardly comprehensive. Unfashionable but essential virtues such as self-discipline, independence or kindness never feature – and nor do Queenwood’s enduring values of truth, courage and service.

In this century, however, there is a particular skill which is assuming unprecedented importance: information literacy. Information used to be harder to access and tended to come through generally reliable channels: encyclopaedias, large news networks, mainstream publishers. There were times, places, issues where the reliability of information had to be interrogated (tobacco studies, war-time propaganda, politics of the Middle East) but most of us, most of the time, could accept the information we received as broadly reliable. As we all know, that time is past.

Much research is being conducted into how we formulate our beliefs about and knowledge of the world. The associated psychology and neuroscience can be fascinating but also, unfortunately, badly misused. (I recommend exploring these links.) Widespread inability to form accurate beliefs or well-founded opinion now constitutes a major threat to liberal democracy and a stable, prosperous and compassionate society (a point explained in the Australian context by John Daley in his Balmoral Lecture at Queenwood earlier this year).

It is therefore essential to think seriously about information literacy: how to locate and evaluate information and then apply it effectively. These skills can, I believe, genuinely be described as ‘21st century’ because, while not entirely new, the complexity of the issues and their significance in daily life is unprecedented. As the links above make clear, information literacy is in this respect essentially a new discipline and developing the most effective methods of teaching it is a work in progress.

Rigorous and dispassionate analysis is a core intellectual value in the long tradition of liberal education and it assumes even greater significance in the world of fake news, conspiracy theories and disinformation. Explicit teaching of information skills is, however, more necessary than ever. We are thinking through this responsibility carefully and as new research is constantly emerging we are continually adapting our approach to reflect a widening and deepening evidence base.

At Queenwood information literacy is embedded from Kindergarten to Year 12 within the curriculum of various subjects. The work of our librarians is, however, particularly important. We are fortunate to have such a motivated and expert team in our libraries and, in addition to supporting the teachers in delivery of the curriculum, they are responsible for explicit teaching of information literacy within dedicated lessons. Their work may have been regarded in past times as focused primarily on locating information, but librarians are now on the front line of teaching how to evaluate that information critically and apply it effectively.

HL Mencken famously said ‘men become civilised, not in proportion to their willingness to believe, but in proportion to their readiness to doubt.’ As we now daily see, however, excessive skepticism can be just as corrosive as overconfident belief. Instead, our aim must be to give young people the desire to seek truth, the confidence it can be found, and the courage to endure the discomfort of the search.

Ms Elizabeth Stone