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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

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RHSU Classic: Talking 22nd-Century Skills With @realpbanksley

By Rick Hess — February 05, 2020 5 min read
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This month marks the 10th anniversary of Rick Hess Straight Up, making it a propitious time to revisit some favorites from the past decade. For each of the Top 20 which run this month, I’ve offered a quick reflection or thought as to why it remains a personal favorite.

I’ve been making fun of 21st-century skills since the 20th century. Even so, I was struck in late 2018 by a particularly insipid end-of-year letter by one education leader which went on at great length about nothing, with much of the nothing devoted to the import of 21st-century skills. That struck a chord, resulting in the introduction of the inimitable Paul Banksley in the predictions column for 2019. I foresaw that Banksley, an out-of-work vacuum cleaner salesman, would redefine the whole pursuit of 21st-century skills—by focusing on 22nd-century skills. In a charming development, one gifted reader started the @realpbanksley Twitter feed, which moved me to imagine this sit-down with the big man. Now, onto number 18, originally published on January 14, 2019.

The other day, I had the privilege of sitting down to talk 22nd-century skills with Paul Banksley, TED talk phenom, founder of Tomorrows Are for Tomorrow, and Nobel favorite. Mr. Banksley, or @realpbanksley, as he’s known to his hard-core fans, was kind enough to carve out 17 minutes for me, allowing me to tag along in his limousine as it ferried him from one packed D.C. appearance to the next. Here are some of the highlights of my chat with education’s visionary-in-chief.

I asked if he could offer the backstory on how he became America’s hottest education icon. “People do seem to find me fascinating, so I’m happy to share this again. I’d been laid off from my job selling vacuums and was sitting around the house watching television, yelling at my kids, and playing Fortnite. Anyway, one of my kids was doing a homework assignment on 21st-century careers and skills. All of the sudden, she looked up and asked me what came after the 21st-century. I was stumped. After I got killed in Fortnite, I went and looked it up. Turns out, it’s the 22nd century. Occurred to me, those careers and skills would be better than 21st-century stuff—after all, they were one higher. So I made a YouTube video on my phone. From there, things just took off.”

I was curious how the TED talk happened. He told me, “Once my YouTube video took off, the TED people came calling. Over the phone, I told them about 22nd-century skills. All they wanted to know was how soon I could become a member of the TED family. I didn’t even need to write my TED talk out. I just spoke my truth—about the fact that the 22nd-century is coming, that it’s important, and that we’ll need skills for it. Oh, and that people will live in the future. And what can I say? It blew up.”

Given that he didn’t grow up as an “education guy,” I asked how he gained the knowledge that has made him such a transformative figure. He waved his finger in a “no-no” gesture. “The mistake,” he said, “is to focus on knowledge. This is the future, man. I turned off Fortnite and spent a night putting Google to work. I learned all about education and schools and teaching and realized it’s all sales. Knowing stuff is OK, but it’s the pitch that makes the sale. And since the computers know everything, schools should be teaching kids how to pitch. That’s the 22nd century, man. I just got there a little early.”

I asked how the fundraising came together for Tomorrows Are for Tomorrow. He told me, “A lot of these funders had apparently been hunting for something bold, innovative, and committed that could help actionize thinkiness and promote co-creative, dynamic classrooms. One of them saw a few of my hashtags and asked me to fly out. We sat down, and I told them that we needed to stop talking about 21st-century skills . . . and to start focusing on 22nd-century skills. It blew their minds. Then they mentioned that equity was a big priority for them. After I explained that nothing is more equitable than 22nd-century skills, they were hooked.”

I asked what he thought of those calling for more subversive teaching. He observed, “You know the best way to teach subversively in the 21st century?” I shook my head “no.” He smiled, “It’s by teaching 22nd-century skills.” I can’t deny that my mind was just a little bit blown by the insight. He continued, “We need to scrap antiquated ideas. In the future, computers will know stuff for us. That’s why we need a forward-looking focus on what kids actually respond to, like Fortnite. It will take some time for 22nd-century skills to come to fruition—some predict it’ll be 81 years—but I’m confident we’ll get there.”

I asked if there are any other folks that he finds particularly inspiring. He said, “I’m especially taken with Anthony Mackay, the new CEO of the National Center for Education and the Economy. I mean, this guy is a boss. The other week he wrote this.” With that, Banksley fished around in his jacket pocket and pulled out a worn page. He read from it. “Just listen to this. Mackay says, ‘NCEE will continue to contribute to global knowledge generation and mobilization as we seek to design learning systems for the Third Industrial Age—an artificial intelligence (AI) future in which human-centered learning will be crucial to our sustainability.’” He looked up and said, “I mean . . . Wow!”

I noted that he seems to be one of the leading thinkers in the push to rebrand STEM as STEAMED (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math, and Everything Delightful). “You know,” he said, “one of the things I have always understood is the power of trendy jargon to change lives. And I found myself thinking, ‘Why are we putting limits on our learning? If there’s delightful stuff out there, it should be part of our brand.’ And, it works. I can tell you that we’ve spent a couple million on polling, and parents and educators support delightful things by enormous margins.”

I observed that he seems to have a real knack for hashtags. He said, “I like to think of hashtags as more than hashtags. To me, they’re like little poems, except they’re written with a hash.”

I did note that critics complain that 22nd-century skills aren’t concrete or clear enough. I asked if that ever bothers him. He said, “Is a Kardashian bothered by a math problem? Of course not. The critics just don’t get it. It’s like I used to say when I was selling vacuums—what matters is whether it busts the dusts, not whether a dog’s fleas say ‘please.’ ” When I chuckled appreciatively, he added, “It’s clear those people have never heard of Google or Wikipedia. I mean, you and I could build a nuclear reactor right now by asking Siri for directions and then ordering on Amazon, if this back seat had enough room.”

Our time together was as magical as I would’ve hoped. I walked away, to quote one of Banksley’s favorite hashtags, #TRULYinspirED.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.