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Doug Johnson's Tech Proof

Are 21st Century Skills
Right Brain Skills?


Many of us were terrified by Thomas Friedman's book The World is Flat and its report on the rise of outsourcing of white-collar jobs to Asia. But there's hope. Daniel Pink's book, A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age brings some relief -- if not a little optimism for our kids in tomorrow's workplace -- if we as educators take some lessons from it.

Like Friedman, Pink acknowledges the outsourcing trend (Asia), as well as two other trends that he labels Automation and Abundance, as having an impact on employment in the future. He suggests that his readers ask themselves three questions about their jobs:

  1. Can someone overseas do it cheaper?
  2. Can a computer do it faster?
  3. Am I offering something that satisfies the nonmaterial, transcendent desires of an abundant age? (Are you making not just toilet brushes, but toilet brushes that satisfy the user's aesthetic sensibilities as well?)

As a result of those trends, Pink believes we are shifting from the Information Age to the "Conceptual Age." Successful players in this new economy will increasingly be required to develop and use the right-brain abilities of high concept (seeing the larger picture, synthesizing information) and high touch (being empathetic, creating meaning). Happy news, perhaps, for those of us who never were all that good at the left-brain stuff in the first place.

More specifically, he suggests we work toward developing in ourselves (and by implication, in our students), six right brain "senses," to complement our left-brain, analytic skills. We need to realize the value of:

  • not just function, but also design.
  • not just argument, but also story.
  • not just focus, but also symphony.
  • not just logic, but also empathy.
  • not just seriousness, but also play.
  • not just accumulation, but also meaning.
And I would add a final conceptual age skill to Pink's list:
  • not just knowledge, but also learning.

In the age of educational accountability, we seem to be gearing all our instructional efforts to helping students master left-brain skills, because that's what the tests measure, of course. But to what extent should we also be helping kids develop design sense, storytelling abilities, synthesis, feelings for others, humor, and the ability to detect the importance of the information they learn?

Want More?

Want to read more about Doug and his thoughts on library media and technology? Visit his Web site or browse his new blog. Got a compliment, a complaint, or just a comment to share? E-mail Doug at [email protected]

Using Pink's model, might technology use help cultivate the skills of a conceptual-age worker?


  • Teach drawing and painting programs.
  • Assess not just content, but appearance of student work.
  • Teach visual literacy.


  • Ask for student writing in the narrative voice when word processing.
  • Teach speaking skills along with multimedia presentation creation.
  • Teach storyboarding as a digital photography skill.


  • Design classroom projects that cross disciplines.
  • Ask for the application of skills and concepts to genuine problems.
  • Use inductive learning strategies (learning by doing).


  • Use the web to find literature about people from other cultures and socio-economic groups.
  • Give students service-learning and volunteer opportunities or requirements (such as maintaining the computers at a senior citizen center).
  • Design group projects.


  • Teach with games, including computer games such as simulations.
  • Offer a variety of athletics and physical education classes (not just computers!).
  • Offer participatory music classes that include electronic music composition.
  • Allow access to humor sites on the Web.


  • Use the Web to find information on comparative religion, myth, and legend.
  • Teach ethical behaviors as a part of every technology project.
  • Asking for communication products that include statements of personal values.


  • Teach processes, not facts.
  • Allow students to research areas of personal interest (and tolerate a diversity of interests).
  • Give students the ability to learn in non-traditional ways (online, early enrollment in college, apprenticeships).

Our society and educational system sadly sees many of these opportunities that develop conceptual-age skills as extras -- frills that often are the first to be cut in times of tight budgets. It's tragic that by doing so, we are doing a disservice to our students as future workers and citizens.

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