What are 21st century skills to you?

I recently had the privileged to meet with Christer Windeløv Lidzelius from Kaos Pilots, a design business school based in Copenhagen, and Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh from Sugru, a new self-setting play-doh like rubber that turns into silicon over night and can stick to almost any material. Me, Christer and Jane met the day before the inter-disciplinary conference Good Morning 2012, organized by Stockholm School of Entrepreneurship. I asked them both the same question. What are 21st century skills to you?

Christer Windeløv-Lidzelius from Kaos Pilots & Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh from Sugru

After some talking we realized that, with regards to this question, we are really trying to accomplish the same thing with our ventures, only we’re all using different tools to do it. As we do at Sparkling Science, Jane and her team at sugru also believes that humans are naturally creative but that most of us loose this capacity as we grow up and become educated. This is a paradox since creative thinking is a skill society increasingly value. I passionately believe that the problem is not WHAT we learn in school but HOW we learn it. In most cases when we learn things it is a process of convergent thinking, meaning we are presented with multiple alternatives that eventually only lead to one answer. Take for example a classical mathematical problem we are faced with in first grade: 4+3 = ? Here we are presented with several conditions that will all add up to ONE answer. We learn math this way but we unlearn the skill of divergent thinking, a prerequisite for creativity and the ability to come up with multiple solutions to one problem. Something that kindergarten kids by the way are considered to be geniuses at. Let me clarify what I mean.

Through TEDxStockholm I recently got to know Jannie Jeppesen from the Vittra elementary school at Telefonplan. At Vittra they turn everything upside down, by literally turning this simple mathematical problem on its head. Why don’t we instead write: ? = 7  What’s so interesting with this is not only do we have the freedom to approach this with any mathematical tools we have learnt, this problem could also be interesting for a university professor.

Like this new approach to the mathematical problem, the makey makey that we have in our boxes is not a static product (it has more than one intended use and gives you the possibility to modify it to fit other domains, just like ?=7) so is Sugru in the way that it is the perfect way to invite divergent thinking (How many uses can you for example find for a play-doh like material that can stick onto any surface and turns into silicon after 24 hours?) We have grown up as passive consumers in a world where technology is controlling us rather than the other way around. Me and Jane both believe this is conflicting with human nature causing stress, unease and making us less creative. As we need to change the way we teach our children so we need to change the way we relate to technology.

So how does this tie into 21st century skills? I think we can conclude that to deal with complexity we have to be creative, which we discussed requires the ability to think divergently. To deal with uncertainty however, we have to get better at nurturing our curiosity, something that’s much easier if there are always more than one solution to a problem. This whole philosophy is embedded in both Sugru and Kaos Pilots. Nurture your curiosity! Imagine if in real life someone came to you saying: “Here is a complex problem, there is only one answer, solve it quick!” Would this make you creative, would it make you eager to start and curious to find the answer? Most probably it would not.

Just like sugru our black boxes aims to promote divergent thinking, not kill it. Products today should not treat its owners as passive consumers, only inviting to be used in a certain way. In fact neither Sugru, nor our boxes are products in it’s traditional definition. They are platforms. Platforms that invite creative hacking (=modififying) and curiosity, while being able to share this back to the community in a socially engaging and meaningful way.

Discussing this with Christer we both agree that while a more analytical skillset favoring the left hemisphere of our brain might have been important in last century’s more linear world we are now living in a highly exponential one with increasing uncertainty and complexity.

In order to deal with 21st century society we have to get comfortable with uncertainty and complexity and fully embrace it to get even more comfortable with it. Coming back to 21st century skills Christer points out: “I think the most interesting people are those we call agile learners, people who actively seek novel and sometimes scary situations so that they can learn, evolve and grow as human beings.”

Accepting this you will find joy in the fact that there are always several answers to one question and you will start appreciating the process of learning itself. In other words what this century needs are places where we can better learn how to learn and appreciate the fact that we don’t always have the right answer.


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