Education in the 21st Century

Executive Summary

The educated man in the 19th Century was expected to have excellent skills in handwriting arithmetic, spelling, and memory.  Therefore 19th Century Education concentrated on teaching those skills to prepare the student for the 19th Century workplace.  We automated those skills using 20th Century technology. 

But traditional education continues to use 19th Century skills as “basic”.  You must learn these first before you can move on.   Must you?  The employer in the 21st Century wants employees with 21st Century skills.  19th Century skills are secondary.

They would prefer someone who could keyboard to someone who had good hand writing.   The spreadsheet is one of the most widely used programs across almost all industries.  But education stresses paper and pencil arithmetic.  The World Wide Web has made memorization a thing of the past. Handwriting, spelling bees, mental arithmetic can be called Unnecessary Goods.  Estimable skills but not essential to the workplace.

The most devastating blockade to education is the “standardized test”.  A test attempts to predict what a student would do in the real world.  Project based learning IS the real world; where a student gets things done and is evaluated by authentic assessment, rather than test score.

Postpone the alphabet until the child can read.  Within 5 years children will come to school reading and writing.

Scroll down for a detailed expansion of the Summary

The skills of the 21st Century.

I wrote this in 1990 and it states my vision today as well as it did then.

A major goal of the 20th century has been automation and streamlining of the 19th Century. The major goal of Education in the 20th Century seems to have been the preservation of 19th Century obsolescence. The traditional "3 R's" of Education need to be modified and a new set of Educational Basics developed if our children are to become effective workers in the 21st Century.

Reading, writing, and arithmetic were the basic tools of 19th Century education.  Reading is the most important of these, now as it was then.  It is so important that it will be treated in detail as the last section of this concept note.

Writing is a skill that includes two components: the creation of the thought, and the conversion of that thought so others can share it.  In the 19th Century penmanship was essential if those thoughts were to be shared and handwriting was a course in itself.  In the 21st Century keyboarding has replaced handwriting and is the most effective way to share one’s thoughts.

Writing has frequently been used as a punishment.  No wonder why students do not like to write.  Writing can be a laborious task, especially when editing mistakes or rearranging thoughts.

The purpose of writing is communication.  A keyboard is much easier to use than paper and pencil, especially when it comes to revisions. Let the student concentrate on communication using a keyboard.  Then teach them to handwrite what they create.

Hand written material has value in its own right.  Handwriting may be secondary to content, but should be taught separately from creative writing.  After the student has created work on a keyboard, transfer the meaning to paper and pencil.

This section ends with a two questions. 

At what age can a baby learn to push a key?
At what age can a baby learn to write a letter with a pencil?

Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics.

In the 19th Century if you could not do arithmetic you could not move forward in Science.  In the 21st Century arithmetic has been automated.  So children should be taught with arithmetic automated.  Accurate Estimation will replace arithmetic.  An accurate estimate means that the estimate is within 10%, for example, of the actual. 

Furthermore Estimation is a higher level of skill than Arithmetic.  Arithmetic is a rote memory process that is best done by a machine, not a person.  Estimation demands an understanding of the underlying process, not just rote memory.  The students will have a grasp of mathematics, not just arithmetic.  They learn accurate estimation.

In most things we do, that works fine.  We estimate 15% when we leave a tip.  How many rolls of cloth are needed?  But when we need the exact answer for business, we use a computer.

In place of Arithmetic substitute a spreadsheet. This will be the platform from which math and science are taught.  The graphical nature of the spreadsheet has the look and feel of paper and pencil, except the arithmetic is automated.


Arithmetic is the major cause of mathematics and science phobias.  It is a tedious exacting skill that belongs in the 19th Century.  Eliminate Arithmetic and concentrate on the development of Estimation skills. 

When arithmetic phobia is no longer an issue, how many more students might be attracted to Math and Science?

There is a world-wide need to increase STEM students, especially girls.


Standardized tests have become the most important goal and teaching has been focused on that goal.  We are teaching students how to pass a test and this is not a skill valued in the workplace.  We need to know what skills any employer seeks and teach those skills.  Then give them a project that calls on those skills.   Then evaluate the project and give a grade.  This is Project Based Learning combined with Authentic Assessment.  You teach the basics on level 1 and the children complete a task that calls on those skills.  Level 2 expects you can do tasks and teaches you more.  And they do a project and learn more…as long as you want.  You are not giving them a test, you are looking to see what they can do.

In a standardized test, the student must find the right answer.  In Project Based Learning there are many ways to find the right answer.  Standardized tests are a barrier to Education and lead to stagnation.  Project based learning lets the students find their own answer.

Does a person work better alone or as part of a team?   There can be team projects in which the teams compete for the best.  Put both boys and girls on the same team working together and competing with others.  A good way to gender equality.


Postpone the alphabet until the child can read.

This seeming contradiction will lead to a paradigm shift in Reading and Education in general. 

The purpose of reading is to understand the meaning of the printed word.  Reading aloud may be a good skill, but it is not necessary for comprehension.  But somehow it has become to mean reading, with comprehension a by-product.

This is reflected in the traditional approach to reading which concentrated on the part of the word that is phonetic.  From the start the course of a phonetic approach, the course is fixed.  Teach the letters of the alphabet and their sounds and learn words by saying them. Then put them together into words and sounds.

If we postpone the alphabet, how do we teach reading?

Consider how we learn to hear and speak.  It was word by word.  Not sound by sound.  We will treat reading like hearing, word by word.

Show the text paired with something that connects the word with its meaning -- a picture, an object, or spoken words.  They will quickly connect the meaning of the word with the printed word.  They can read the word, without the alphabet.  Now that they can read the word, show the letters and sounds that make up the word.  Let phonetic decoding by a by-product of reading.

We know that 85% of dyslexia is due to phonetic issues, so using this approach will solve the problem.  They will still have phonetic issues, but they can read.

The most consequential question is at what age can children read? The answer opens a new door. 

Children can learn to read before they can speak!  Parents can teach their children to read and speak at the same time.  And they will read before they speak.  Combine that in with keyboarding and a child can communicate in print before they can speak.  They will be reading and writing the same way they speak and listen.  Mathematics can be started earlier.

And now comes the challenge presented by this Concept.
What do you teach a child coming to school reading, writing, and computing?  There is time to open a new world for the new student.  It might form the basis of an International Forum.

Moving forward, Tanzania will be creating the Curriculum of the 21st Century to answer the question: what do you teach a 21st Century child?