What is a 21st century education?

We live in a rapidly changing, and technologically accelerating world. The last ten years have brought incredible technological advancements that were the stuff of science fiction mere decades ago. Artificial intelligence is the poster child of that world, allowing us to imagine a fully automated future, where traditional forms of human labour are becoming irrelevant. Its an imagined future of possibility and imagination – but where do we humans fit in?

Education for the future

The idea of a “21st century education” is not particularly new. It stems from an understanding that our future – especially in terms of work and employment – might be radically different from the present. Automation has the potential to erase many jobs, and emerging technologies and new social needs might create new industries altogether. What constitutes this kind of new education, meant to prepare, and keep you tethered to the 21st century?

Graphic showing the 4C’s of 21st century skills, taken from a research paper by Colette Mazzola-Randles.

While the specific suggestions vary, there is a general consensus: the “production line” method of traditional education is becoming insufficient. Instead, we should focus on developing (soft) skills rather than simply memorising and regurgitating information. One of these many frameworks are the 4C’s of 21st century skills: collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and communication.

We already live in a world where many people have up- or re-skilled from the professions they initially trained in. There are AI engineers and data scientists who did not study those subjects at university, but rather re-trained to fill a niche within the market. Watching out for opportunities to upskill or improve soft skills is not just advice for the future, but already relevant. 

Author and historian Yuval Noah Harari is one of the many people who have written at length about this[1]: the need to re-engineer the education system and re-think what education should look like. In his book 21 Lessons for the 21st century he specifically devotes one chapter to education – subtitling it change is the only constant.

Know thyself – Change is the only constant

“To stay relevant, you will have to re-invent yourself not just once, but repeatedly.”

Yuval Noah Harari, “The Future of Education” Penguin Talk

But Harari does not just argue for a revamping of the education system and agenda. In his work he writes of constant change, which we will have to continually respond to. The solution to this might be a life-long process of learning and adapting to the needs of the labour market – to stay relevant in a world of ever advancing technology. If re-training is the solution to these shifting demands, then our education system needs to cater to not just children and adolescents, but adult jobseekers as well.

Harari warns that this pressure to change and re-invent yourself will be continuous, as technology keeps improving and the human niches within the labour force will keep shifting. Simply resisting that change will do no good. Harari instead suggests that we return to what he calls, the oldest advice in the book: know thyself.

Different aspects which contribute to and are signs of emotional and mental resilience. Source

To not only survive, but thrive in this world, we will need skills which are still under-emphasized by the education system. He writes of the need for mental flexibility, resilience, and balance, as well as emotional intelligence. We need to be more in tune with ourselves, and our needs.

While he meditates to achieve this, he says that any activity that brings you in contact with your core self – like therapy or art – will improve these foundations. And its this kind of foundational strength and cognitive flexibility that will help you succeed in a future that might be radically different from the now.


 Resilience: The Power of Resilience and Why Resilient People Succeed

The Future of Education – Yuval Noah Harari & Russell Brand – Penguin Talks – YouTube

To what extent does education prepare students for the 21st century to become self-regulated, future-proofed students, using networked, technological environments. – Colette Mazzola

What Are the Biggest Problems Facing Us in the 21st Century? – The New York Times

Yuval Noah Harari – Lessons for an Educator – Cargill’s Classroom

Yuval Noah Harari on what 2050 has in store for humankind | WIRED UK

[1] Given that reading Harari’s first book Sapiens partially inspired me to study Anthropology I feel a certain spiritual debt to him – however as with any popular historian or public intellectual, a certain scepticism and critical thinking, especially when it comes to the finer grain of his ideas, is necessary.