Monday, June 4, 2012

Not so 21st century skills?

A few months ago I was talking with my brother about the pace of change.  He was arguing that innovation actually declined during the 20th century - that people were much more inventive at the start of the century than at the end.  I found this hard to believe as it seemed to me that the pace of change was actually increasing but then I started to investigate the facts behind this belief a little more.

Last week I was talking with a class of Grade 5 students about the scientific method.  Students were asking about cloning and they got onto talking about the possibilities of teleporting.  I told them that it might be possible to do this in their lifetime - what seems unbelievable today, is tomorrow's reality.  Back in the 1960s and 70s my brother and I were Star Trek fans.  The things that we saw on these programmes were definitely, in those days, science fiction, but these same things are now in general use.  For example we could see the characters communicating using devices that bear a remarkable similarity to flip phones, there were medical scanners, translators, things that resembled GPS devices, ear piece communicators and so on.  All these things, that to us were very futuristic, are now simply ordinary - so who's to say that in a few years teleporting won't also be a reality?

To prepare for my next conversation with the Grade 5s, I started to research into the top inventions of the 20th century.  These are listed on many websites and included the following:  radio, television, antibiotics, the submarine, nuclear power, rockets, the automobile, the airplane, computers and the internet.  I started to think about when these were invented - were they in the first or second half of the 20th century?  Well the submarine was first invented in the 1880s, but only started being used around the time of the First World War.  The automobile also became a possibility for many after the invention of the mass produced Model T Ford in 1908.  The radio was invented in 1916 and the television in 1923 - even the colour television was invented in the first half of the century, in 1940.  The airplane was invented in 1903, antibiotics in 1928 and the technology behind nuclear power in the 1940s.  Looking at this list of the most important inventions in the 20th century, therefore, it seems only 2 of these were invented in the second half - the personal computer and the internet.

So what were the skills that led to all these important inventions at the start of the last century.  It seems they included creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving, communication and collaboration.  Do these sound familiar?  Aren't these the very same skills that we are now dubbing 21st century skills? It seems that these skills have always been important, though then as now it's very difficult to teach them.  How do you teach creativity, or assess it, for example?

The PYP has a list of transdisciplinary skills that I think are important for any education system in any century.  These include thinking skills which are so important to creativity and innovation, social skills and communication skills that are vital for global collaboration, self-management and research skills.  These skills are important not just in the PYP programme of inquiry, but for all learning - both in the classroom and for life outside school.

Photo Credit:  The Cyber Ring by Gilderic Photography, 2012 AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works


  1. Whilst the technological inventions you mention are all correct, you have missed out by far the most in important innovation of the 20th century, and that is the contraceptive pill!

    Can you imagine the lack of development in our economies of the second half of the 20th century without the introduction of women in the workforce? It is this contribution which has single-handedly allowed all of the innovations which you talk about to be realised.

    You see? Computers are important but science and women are by far more relevant to this discussion.

    1. Here is my brother's response which is more about the lack of scientific advances (as opposed to the lack of advances in engineering/technology). As you can see Paul, he does mention the contraceptive pill - briefly!

      There are 2 parts to this reply - this is the first (the rest will come later as it's too long to fit into 1 comment).

      1. We think scientific progress is rapid in our day because we are living through it rather than reading about it - we are experiencing something that is directly affecting our perception.

      2. Nearly all the advances that we see that give us the perception of change are applications and development of technology - engineering, not science. There have been huge advances in technology, and the layman thinks this is science. It is actually the continual application of scientific principles most of which were established before our lifetime.

      3. Taking the evolution of technology and applied science out of the equation, what scientific advances have been made within our lifetimes? I'm hard pushed to think of any. My own analysis of the situation (trying to be objective) is that the rate of advance slowed after the late 1920s; the decline had a short reprieve due to the necessities of war in the 1940s, but has been in catastrophic decline since the 1960s. I will come to my suggested reasons for this below.

      4. In 1900 classical physics felt pretty sure that it was on the final ascent to reach the summit of knowledge of the basic principles of the universe. There were a few anomalies that had evaded explanation, such as the photoelectric effect, the advance of the perihelion of Mercury, and the black body radiation curve, but physicists were confident that these would soon be explained. No-one could have foreseen what would happen over the next 30 years.
      In 1900 there was nothing known about radioactivity or atoms or subatomic particles. Most physicists did not believe there were such things as atoms, and that the concept was considered merely a convenient fiction for chemists. There was nothing known about fission or fusion and the mass-energy relationship. All physicists believed in an imponderable luminiferous ether in which electromagnetic radiation propagated. The sun was believed to shine through gravitational collapse. The universe was regarded as nothing more than our own galaxy (obviously other galaxies had been seen, but these were thought to be nebulae within our own galaxy. The earth was thought to be solid, and mountains and earthquakes the result of surface shrinkage due to cooling. There is almost nothing that physicists believed in 1900 that they still believed in our lifetime.

      Gone was the luminiferous ether. Einstein had introduced his theories of special relativity (1905) and General Relativity (1916), confirmed by observation in 1919. In came the concept of the photon and the quantum, and all of quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics. In came radioactivity, the atom, the structure of the atom, protons, electrons, neutrons, neutrinos, mesons, quarks etc. In came the idea that the sun was powered by hydrogen fusion, and that our galaxy is a mere speck in a universe 100,000 times bigger across (and 15 orders of magnitude bigger in volume) than was thought even in 1920. Plate tectonics and the idea that the continents were floating on a hot molten interior, and mountains, earthquakes and volcanoes due to subduction effects etc was proposed in 1912 and confirmed during the 1960s.

      I'm hard pushed to think what essential advance there has been since the early part of the 20th century. Too much science today is just making stuff up, like dark energy, dark matter, black holes etc to save pet theories. The transistor was built in 1948, but the principle upon which it would work (and thus its theoretical basis) goes back the the 1920s, so the technology had to catch up. Likewise the principle of digital computing goes back to the 1930s and had to wait for the technology to catch up.

    2. Part 2 of the response:

      For me, the most important experiment done in my lifetime was the demonstration of quantum entanglement. But this goes back to theoretical work in the 1920s, and even the concept was named in the 1930s. It took until 1964 to solve the mathematics as to how it could be tested (Bell's Inequalities), and not until the 1970s and 1980s until the technology had advanced enough to be able to test them practically (e.g. Alain Aspect, 1982). This is now being used in development of quantum computing and quantum cryptography (and, believe it or not, teleportation - the current record as of last month is 97km, But again I stress that this comes out of work done in the 1920s, and technology is playing catch up. For me, this is applied science and technology, not really an advance in pure science. When thinking of inventions it's important to distinguish those that are novel applications or developments of existing technology and ways of applying existing scientific 'knowledge' from those that are truly revolutionary in our ways of thinking about the world. What inventions do you think there have been in our lifetime that fall into the latter category? Not computers, mobile phones. Not electronics. Possibly the internet, based on Arpanet (1969), though was that still not really just an evolution? Nearly everything has been an evolution of what was before, with no essential scientific breakthrough necessary.

      But what about our granddad's life? Not the telegraph, nor the lightbulb (which Swann and Edison merely improved). The phonograph (sound recording and reproduction) and the telephone were only a little before his time. The internal combustion engine (1890s). Wireless communication: radio, telephone, television, radar; radio astronomy. Aviation, spaceflight. The atom: atomic and nuclear weapons, nuclear power, fusion and fission. Electronics. Lasers. Visual display terminals/monitors. Computing. Synthetic materials and plastics. Synthetic drugs. Isolation of hormones - hence contraceptive pill, insulin. Antibiotics. X-rays. Radiotherapy. Electron microscopy. Colour photography and reproduction. Motion pictures and video recording. Robotics. Jet propulsion. DNA and genetic modification. Fluorescent lighting. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (from nuclear magnetic resonance, discovered 1937). CAT scanning (first commercial machine 1972). Medical ultrasonics (1942), ultrasonic imaging 1960s, digital imaging 1970. The internet falls into his lifetime as well, of course (1969), if you count that as a scientific advance (I don't really).

    3. Part 3 of the response:

      5. Briefly, suggested reasons for the slowdown in scientific advance (not in any particular order):

      Absence of teaching (and thus ignorance) of the history of science and the philosophy of science.
      Peer review (reviewers by definition are 'orthodox' and have vested interests in keeping out papers that challenge it; peer review has not really been done before the 1950s).
      State funding of science.
      Supra-national bodies with their own agendas, e.g. the UN.
      Politization of science.
      'Post-normal' science.
      Diversion of limited funds towards 'big science'.
      Scientist panel control of resources - using them only to support 'orthodoxy'.
      Too many vested interests.
      Making up entities to save orthodoxy without any experimental support.
      Corruption of science by policymakers and advocacy groups.
      Politization of science.
      'Consensus' science. Consensus has nothing to do with science.
      Corruption in science ('climate science' is one of the most egregious currently, and combines many of the other factors mentioned above).
      Humanism/atheism (and, earlier, Marxist) worldview impinging on science.
      Media distortion and bias.
      Capture of National Academies of Science (e.g. the Royal Society) and Institutes of Physics by those with vested interests.
      Media bias - massively promotes 'orthodoxy' and 'consensus science', yet gives airtime/space to cranks for entertainment value, giving the impression that all positions other than the 'consensus' are cranky.
      Science socially constructed.

      Most of the above are features of the second half of the 20th century that were not substantially present before. Science today is hugely dysfunctional.

      I saw a number of worrying things about physics when I was at Oxford, which is why I changed to engineering. I have learned a lot more since about the philosophy and history of science which has confirmed that my instincts in the late 1970s were essentially correct.

      I personally do not think anyone should be allowed to graduate in a pure science who has not thoroughly studied the philosophy of science and the history of science. A person who knows nothing of these is easily led into corrupt practices, and really has no idea what science is about, nor awareness that science is (without proper safeguards) merely a social construct.