George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

Any-Century Skills: Basic Abilities Are Building Blocks

May 16, 2007

Last summer, during a conference session I was doing in Tennessee, we were discussing those kids who come into schools without book sense -- five-year-olds who, sadly, don't know how to operate a book. A participant spoke up and said, "Jim, I'm a kindergarten teacher, and I'm getting worried about the number of kids coming into my classroom who don't know how scissors work."

I was stopped short, considering the implication of what was said. It really got me thinking. And since that day, I have come to believe that this lack of scissors sense really is a big deal, and in fact that the mastery of scissors is even one of the early steps on the road to Advanced Placement physics or chemistry. I believe that the kinesthetic experience they provide around equilibrium, experience gained in struggling to master this simple tool so as to be able to cut construction paper smoothly, lays a foundation for future complex conceptual understandings.

How can you excel, I wonder, in a world where equilibrium and the need to achieve it or avoid it is so pervasive, without early body memories of just what equilibrium means, about what this thing called equilibrium feels like?

But hold everything; I'm no Luddite, no scissors fanatic. In fact, I am an active advocate for twenty-first-century skills. Like so many of you, I get it! To be engaged and successful in 2007, you have to be able to use technology, collaborate in the electronic world, and so on. The folks at the Partnership for 21st Century Skills help clarify just what these skills are.

For example, they focus on communication rather than grammar, making clear that the latter concept certainly plays a role in all sorts of communication across all sorts of media but also understanding that this communication thing is so complex that isolated instruction in grammar cannot effectively support a student in gaining control of it.

By the same token, simply teaching kids how to use iMovie or MovieMaker is not enough. Rather, a twenty-first-century student needs to be able to carefully consider the audience and the purpose of the message before settling on the appropriate medium to use -- and, yes, even consider what grammar should and should not be used in crafting the message.

And technology skills need to be infused throughout, as it is so much a part of the way people communicate, work, and play in 2007. It is not enough for students to know how to use this technology tool or that one; they must also be able to select the right tool for the job and be so well informed about current possibilities that they can select the best one for the current job.

Yes, these twenty-first-century skills are a big deal, and we need to make sure our kids, our teachers, and even our schools work towards their mastery. But I suggest that we not forget about, and that we even take time to champion, what I am beginning to call "any-century skills" and their integration with the now oh-so-popular concept of twenty-first-century skills. For an example of what I mean here, to better understand the importance of knowing about scissors, about the complexity and power of those simple tools, check out this analytical discussion of surgical scissors.

Some examples of what I consider any-century skills are thinking, caring about oneself, caring for others, perseverance, making careful choices, listening for understanding, and being able to understand human potential and frailty. And what about being able, as I discussed at the very beginning, to use books and scissors?

I also consider the following to be any-century skills: the ability to dig a hole with a shovel, to dance without undue inhibition, to draw or paint what you see, to ride a bicycle (perhaps even with no hands), to make music (even if only by clapping of hands or tapping toes), to care for an animal, to talk one's way out of a tough situation, to plant a seed and nurture it until it grows, and to use one's imagination and whatever materials are available to build a fort and then make that rough-hewn space into a personally relevant place where memories are made.

You see, I think some skills and experiences are timeless, so fundamental to the human experience, that all kids should have a chance to master them. I guess, in a way, I am saying, "First things first." So, tell me, what do you think about the idea of any-century skills? Do they exist, and what are they? I look forward to reading what you think.

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