[Warning: long post]

I’m at the SAIS/MISBO conference in Atlanta, Georgia. My keynote and workshops aren’t until tomorrow so today I’m just a learner. Right now I’m sitting in a session titled 21st century education: Flaws, fixes, further thoughts, facilitated by Matt Gossage and David Streight. David is the director of the Center for Spiritual and Ethical Education. Matt is the Head of the Cannon School in Concord, North Carolina. Most of the session attendees are heads of independent schools or school business managers. Here are my notes… [much of this is paraphrased]


A few years ago, I began to feel an assault as I was bombarded by journalistic and educational calls for my school and me to incorporate 21st century skills. It was like a course I had to take that I wasn’t interested in. How many lists of competencies have you seen that are supposed to be part of 21st century learning? I pushed back with my head, not my whole self.

Watching my son go through college counseling made me reframe much of this, however: What are the essentials for my son? Can he relate to other people? Can he put a stake in the ground that’s uniquely his? Does he have the resolve to stand for something because he owns it in his heart? And so on… And for my granddaughter, what kind of schools is she going to attend? Is someone going to claim her, pick her up, and dust her off when she needs it? Is someone going to help her be discerning, to have hope?

The 21st century skills list seems to blow right by many of the fundamentals. I’m not against these competencies, but I think there’s a layer underneath to which we need to pay attention. The government-owned Buckner Building in Whittier, Alaska, is now an empty shell because its purpose is no longer viable. Are we in danger of turning out graduates who have certain skills and competencies but are empty shells inside?

David ( if you want a copy of the slides)

There’s a huge body of research that says that we do our best work when we experience Relatedness, Autonomy, and Self-efficacy. If at your job you didn’t like the people (and maybe they didn’t like you), you had no say over anything, and the work bored you out of your mind, you’d HATE it! For how many of your students do these hold true?

Center for Public Education, Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the 21st Century Skills LLC, Tony Wagner’s ‘survival skills,’ Pat Bassett’s 6 Cs, the NAIS/SoF competencies, Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences / 5 minds, and so on. All of these are 21st century competency lists…

The big 7 (occur across multiple lists)

  • critical thinking / problem solving
  • creativity / innovation
  • collaboration
  • media / technology / digital literacy
  • cross-cultural skills / diversity
  • initiative / self-direction
  • oral and written communication

Other frequently-mentioned 21st century competencies

  • leadership
  • green / ecoliteracy
  • math / finance literacy
  • ethics
  • social / emotional literacy
  • flexibility / adaptability

Is the purpose of education in the 21st century the same as it was in previous centuries? Are our 21st century goals aligned with our mission goals? Are we creating a better world or a faster world or a different world?

Wagner’s ‘survival skills’ are based on concerns about global workforce preparation / economic needs. Should these be the primary drivers of what we do as educators?

Fixes – Focus on goals consistent with your mission. We need to glean the best from the 20th century, be open to the new and unexpected, and take the best of what’s available out there. Teresa Amabile, How to Kill Creativity – people are most creative when they feel motivated primarily by interest, satisfaction, and the pleasure of the work, NOT by external pressures.

Autonomy – “We give our kids a lot of autonomy” – it’s not how much autonomy you have, it’s how much autonomy that you perceive that you have that fosters your best work. The more perceived autonomy, the greater the persistence, performance, and well-being. Lots of research to support this. Ways to kill it: extrinsic rewards, threats, deadlines, directives, and competition.

Relatedness (social engagement) – Perceptions of connectedness, warmth, and trust are key. 

Self-efficacy – “I have the skills to meet challenges.” ‘Mastery’ over important components in the environment. We build self-efficacy through mastery experiences, seeing others can do it, encouragement/persuasion (by ‘relateds’), mood.

The extrinsic to intrinsic ladder: 1. ‘buy me off’ (resistance); 2. ‘my ego is at stake’ (give me status, avoids shame); 3. ‘this has importance’ (goals identified); 4. ‘this is me!’ You remember better the higher up the intrinsic ladder you are. And you can live deeper conceptually. We can help students internalize motivation: Did I choose to study this or did somebody make me study this?

Making motivation internal: 1. provide a meaningful rationale (understand importance), 2. acknowledge feelings (person feels understood), and 3. offer choice rather than control (feel responsibility for the behavior). 2 or 3 of these factors = internalization tends to be integrated. 1 or 0 present = internalization tends to be introjected.

Benefits of Relatedness, Autonomy, and Self-Efficacy (RAS): psychological health (less anxiety, greater coping), sense of well-being, conceptual understanding, academic performance, standardized test scores, enjoyment of learning, attitudes toward school, self-regulation (start & sustain behaviors, persistence), creativity, confidence.

7 questions that make all the difference (each on scale of 1-5)

  • People at school like me
  • I can trust the people around me
  • I am capable of saying no when friends pressure me
  • I have an appropriate amount of control over my life
  • I get to choose lots of things throughout my day
  • I am learning important things at school
  • I love the challenges that school offers me


  • We have parents with very high expectations for their children. In elementary school they begin to incentivize behavior and issue rewards in ways that, over time, often kill their kids’ own creativity and interest in learning.
  • We have to spend a lot of time educating and working with our parents. And talking about what we stand for, not just what we do.
  • Our teachers thought our scores and grades would go down as we assigned less homework. But our scores and grades went up.
  • Streight: We stopped talking about ‘success’ and instead started talking about living a life of significance 

My own closing thoughts

Is a focus on ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ a luxury of the middle class or affluent, because the rest are just struggling to survive? Conversely, is economic success worth it if it lacks meaning?