21st. century skills: Fundamentals 1

image courtesy of Rob Swatski— Flickr

An article in three parts. Part 1 — Three Internal Forces

A case for mindset tool development supporting 21st century skills.

By Design & Innovation Learning Specialist Mark Dyson Ph.d mdy.dk.


In this series of three posts concerning 21st. century skills I want to discuss some simple ideas that are relevant to everybody — students, craftsman, academics, professionals alike. I want to discuss some basic fundamental aspects that relate to all of us: How can we be understand how our actions influence our ideas so we can improve both of them and be better at what we do?

This is based on one simple important idea — that the key to development, is through awareness of self — during activity. This is about developing a ‘new awareness’ — alone, and more importantly, together.

image courtesy of Caroline Bucky — Flickr


For the first, as a number of design academics around the word are aware of, there is a ‘myth of design thinking’ that is prevalent amongst those who fail to truly grasp the fundamentals of creative processes. The business world is making a grab, Design bureaus brand themselves on it, some wonderful guides have been developed by those in the know for tackling real world challenges and programmes developed amongst the revered halls of esteemed places of higher education. However, despite all of this, what dominates, thanks to the search algorithms of the online services, is a repetition of the same recipe with minor variations — most of which is based on 20th century thinking and mindsets.

We are a world that develops inwardly by the ‘clip and paste’ culture: We think we know since we search for it on the web and paste it to our own recipes. Which is fine for some, but also bad news for others, since the repetition of out-of-date paradigms is what gains center stage instead of developing new thinking that is more suitable to the present climate.

Talking of which…

We are entering a new era. This new era is based on how people think for themselves when together with others.

There are many advantages to be gained and exploited — be it the work environment (organisational development, developing meaningful spaces to be in), a challenge in society to be faced (design thinking) or just wanting to be better at what we do (self-improvement).

All can be developed and improved opening new opportunities — by learning. How learning then conditions the re-application of what we have learned, developing new thinking is the next step in this new awareness. And neither can we afford to be complacent. We are all part of a paradigm change — the world is complex, changeable and nothing is certain. The tasks being laid before us as challenges are many and problems require invention as much as solution. Sometimes, chaos rules. Some call this disruption.

Image courtesy of Neil Moralee, Flickr

This article therefore addresses a simple aspect that is common concerning anyone who wants to learn a better way that is common to all: the one better way. Not the clip-and-paste way — but your way. Can there be a one better way when dealing with task — problem related productivity? And if so, how can this be supported? The objective for these posts is therefore to develop some simple fundamental thinking open to interpretation in all in order to develop learning, doing and thinking tools and the hell out of the rut of clip-and-paste navel watching.

The Problem Solving Agenda

Problem solving is here to stay. But is capturing and solving ‘problems’ the right way of addressing the challenges of the 21st. century?

I’ve spent the best part of my life designing, building, researching, thinking, learning and innovating (architecture and design) and here’s why I don’t like the term ‘problem’: It does nothing to suggest the ‘desired’. Problem solving is a 20th century century mindset. It suggests something is given and one way can be planned to solution. It says nothing about the doubt of which is the right way or indeed, the challenges of inventing or developing the right solutions to the wrong problems. Neither does it have anything to say about what we dream of. The difference between what fulfills our needs and what turns us on is the engaging of emotion — what gets us excited. It’s the reason we choose to fork out more for that new gadget. This is achieved by the process of design and is an illustration of why design and channeling creative processes in design is so important. So to get the ball rolling, here are a few simple insights:

Creative-Reflective DOING

This concerns the one better way, the way each of us can adopt to take control of our own learning and adapt it to our own doing processes — whoever you are, whatever you do, however you do it. It’s universal. By being universal, we climb right to the top of the tree and sit amongst the leaves in the crown, looking down.

The Importance of Design

Design is two things — a process and a product. Here I’m talking about the process. The process of Design concerns learning and thinking, teachers no longer teach and the dynamics of human interaction have not been more challenging or exciting as they are today. In design we:

Keep assessing, keep testing, keep preparing, keep looking for opportunity…

Here’s what the expert says on design:

The designer calculates his moves in a threefold way: in terms of the desirability of their consequences judged in categories drawn from the normative design domains, in terms of their conformity to or violation of implications set up by earlier moves, and in terms of his appreciation of the new problems or potentials they have created.’

Donald Schön — The Reflective Practitioner. 1983

This still holds true today and in that respect, nothing has changed in calculating moves, in figuring out, what we are going to do next in any situation where we are in the driving seat. And let’s face it: Managers and educators are not going to do this for us — we have to learn to do things for ourselves and be aware of our thinking when we involve ourselves in what we do as and when we apply ourselves. We also need to figure out how best to communicate and share with our team or network what we have done through whatever media channels we use to do that.

Important References

Of other references can be mentioned Meta-cognitive strategy, Visible Learning (Hattie) and Experiential Learning (Kolb), Strategic Doing (Morrison) are just some of the new ideas, tools and methods being developed, discussed, shared and adopted to taking control of ‘better ways’: What we do when directing experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge (Association for Experiential Education).

Experience, Reflection, Meaning and Acting

Experiential Learning, or the process of learning from experience is especially interesting for all, since it reinforces an understanding that we already have some idea about, since it confirms our own way of interacting with the world around us. Represented by David A. Kolb as a cycle of experiencing, reflecting, making meaning and acting. However this shows what is happening, but tells us nothing about that magic word: Application.

Image courtesy of OmniGraffle, wiki commons

Abstract conceptualisation and making meaning will be dealt with in the next installment. But for now, I want to make it clear that we need something, some simple model of understanding that accounts for how we do work, work made in the real world, while also showing us how to move forward. Call this a map of you like, a navigational aid that allows us to not only get from A to B, but to provide a means of assessing alternative routes so we arrive at a better destination than one we set for.

Best Fit

Learning is the model — based on the four aspect of experiencing, reflecting, making meaning and acting… learning, or experiential learning is what Kolb’s model is all about. However, for me this doesn’t quite equate to the way we work — the cyclical mode suggests one thing leads to the next in a cycle of activity. The real world does not work this way. I prefer instead to think of each as a ‘force’ — it is something we do that acts on something, or something that attracts us. It has effect both in the whole, but also in the parts. This can get quickly complicated which isn’t the objective of this exercise — which is to simplify.


Let’s recap for a moment: Change today lies in the way we go about looking for a best ‘fit’ between what we perceive and what we do. Or put in another way, between what we think and what we learn. We do according to what we have learned. We think based on our perceptions. Calculating what we do next is based on what we have learned.

So this isn’t rocket science, just a simple appraisal of what is important when looking for a better way of ‘thinking about doing things as we do them’ — using reflection-in-action as introduced by (Schön) coupled to some fundamental ideas concerning how we need to understand the way we work creatively in problem solving.

Mapping Out: 3 Internal Forces

The reuse of learning intelligent processes is task related:

  • How we think > conditions > what we do
  • What we do > conditions > what we learn
  • What we learn > conditions > how we think

Each of these three aspects is not hierarchical or necessarily dependent, they are three forces in the mind and the body. The focus is on the person — me. And the group — us. These three forces have meaning but little value unless applied. Think of them as three ‘forces’ connected by elastic bands that can never be broken.

copyright Mark Dyson mdy.dk

The Kolb model can be referred to here, but this is not the same thing, or is it intended to be a replacement, just a simplification in order to develop some simple but powerful insights:

  • Experiencing — part of doing
  • Reflecting — part of thinking
  • Making meaning — part of thinking
  • Acting — part of doing

The difference in representation Learning is treated as one force of two more forces, each given equal weight. Exerience as doing is treated equally with thinking about what we do. This is more general than the Kolb model but also more applicable, since the object to these posts is to develop learning, doing and thinking tools.

Developing Understanding

This is an important distinction even though it is very simple because the more we stretch one of them, the longer and stronger the relations are to the other two. The longer we stretch one, the stronger the relations become. The three aspects are one, not separate. The other two act — not according to any laws of the universe — but according to ‘a law of us’, to pull the one aspect back into balance — as long as we are aware of all three.

copyright Mark Dyson mdy.dk

Thinking Alone

So in other words sure, we can sit on a bench and think about something. But we won’t be learning and we certainly are not doing anything else other than thinking. We can work as we want, immersing ourselves in each aspect, or in two. But without the other two even being together, we are really only on our own.

Photo by Paul Lieberwirth, Flickr

Doing Alone

We can do, say play with Lego. One of the most enjoyable things about having children is to be able to just play, letting the process dictate the outcome. But doing without purpose is precisely that, play. It is not objective since there is nothing we have to do, we just do.

lego image. Photo by Steven Andrew, Flickr

Learning Alone

We can learn by reading a book. The words on a page is not learning — we first need to have something from our own experiences to make real. So we read someone’s words, as mine here. We learn something because we have constructed an understanding by relating what we already have as experience — then transform that into perception using the words as a catalyst. By having that perception we did not have before, we have learned something.

copyright Mark Dyson mdy.dk

The Three Internal Forces

Putting this all together is critical to be able to develop ourselves and our 21st. century skills. To do this we require an approach to real-world problems or challenges that this is truly about by understanding our three internal forces and how they work together. The same holds true for thinking together, doing together and learning together. It’s when we can think and do and learn both alone and together and figure out how we can support that so we can do so much more — for ourself, but far more powerfully together, that things start to get really interesting. That will be the subject of a future article.

Streamlining the LTD:

Learning — Thinking — Doing

If we can order our thinking, it becomes streamlined — it favors a particular direction above others, focussing our actions as the results of what we do show us what works, what doesn’t. By learning and adjusting our doing as we reflect on what we learn, we achieve in theory at least, a faster, better way of doing what we do.

Without learning, the value of how and what we think and do is limited. This might sound obvious, but the process, the exercise, that document, the act of doing or producing tends to take over the reflection of what we ought to be doing, not what we are doing.

Learning-Thinking — Doing: Seeing the wood and the trees

copyright Mark Dyson

By using the above as a simple tool for perceiving what we do as we do it, we have a way of:

  • develop understanding and knowledge of how we work, think and learn best
  • improve on what we do by seeing the wood and the trees.
  • see how our actions have influence on what we want to achieve in accordance with aims, wants, dreams and desires.
  • focus on our strengths and weaknesses by seeing how they relate
  • develop tools for each of the three forces


Originally published at mdy.dk on January 28, 2016.