22nd-Century Skills Guru Paul Banksley: “The Future Is Ahead of Us”

The future is unknown, but it’s probably really smart


It has been five years since I caught up with 22nd-century skills superstar Paul Banksley. Longtime readers will recall that I first wrote about Banksley back in 2018, when the out-of-work vacuum salesman rose to fame after launching his nonprofit “Tomorrows Are for Tomorrow.” As he says in his hugely popular TED talk, “I asked myself, ‘What’s next? What comes after the 21st century, anyway?’ So, I looked it up. It’s the 22nd century. And then it hit me. We need to stop talking about 21st-century skills . . . and start focusing on 22nd-century skills.”

The education visionary was able to make time for an interview as his private jet hurtled from Davos to Silicon Valley. We revisited how he became an icon. He recalled, “I’d been laid off from vacuum sales, and was mostly sitting around the house watching TV. When I discovered that the 22nd century came after the 21st, I realized those skills would be so much better—they’re one higher.”

Asked about the genesis of his famed TED talk, he recalled, “I didn’t bother writing my talk out. I just spoke my truth: The 22nd century is coming, it’s important, and we’ll need skills for it. Oh, and people will live in the future. Next thing I knew, I had the most-viewed TED talk ever.”

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Today, Banksley told me, he’s into “the whole equity thing in a big way.” He said it’s a perfect match for 22nd-century skills. “One problem with those old-fashioned 19th-century skills like math and chemistry,” he said, “is that they’re not equitable. As a student, I remember confusing multiplication, molecules, the Magna Carta, and Moby Dick. Who can expect learners to keep all that stuff straight? Talk about being bad for equity!”

I asked how we can do better.

“What we need,” he said, “are co-created, learner-centric alternatives. It all comes down to innovative, future-driven programming which promotes equitable 22nd-century heuristics and a praxis of pedagogical liberation while progressively decentering the oppressive legacy of meta-cognitive holistic supremacy.”

“Wow!” I said. “That’s so smart. Sometimes it’s tough to believe you started in vacuums.”

Paul Banksley nodded modestly.

We talked about how the funding environment has evolved since the pandemic. “School closures and chronic absenteeism have a lot of schools searching for something different,” he said. “Funders keep telling me they’re looking for innovation that’ll cultivate thought partnerships, alleviate pain points, and actionize equity. Well, that’s just where 22nd-century skills come in.”

I asked how 22nd-century skills help with something like chronic absenteeism. Banksley locked his steely gaze on me. “That’s the beauty of it,” he said. “We’re all about skillfulness, well-beingness, and futureness. And guess what combats absenteeism? The researchers we’re paying say it’s just those things! And that each dollar spent on this stuff saves seven dollars later. So, when someone gives us $100 million, we tell them they’re really getting $700 million.”

“Boy!” I exclaimed.

I asked what’s next for Tomorrows Are for Tomorrow. Banksley said, “Well, we feel good about where we are. We’ve got an industry-leading presence on Instagram, TikTok, and LinkedIn. But what’s next? It’s AI. We’re helping leverage generative skills-based dynamic cognition to support equitable, mastery-based learning environments while transitioning students towards fifth-generation skills that turn them from AI consumers to innovative AI creators.”

“That’s a lot of big words all at once,” I marveled.

Banksley nodded. “Well, our data show that bigger words lead to more funding. So, we’ve really leaned into that.”

I asked if there were any particular challenges ahead.

“We’ve got some competition that’s keeping us on our toes,” he said. “Since we discovered the 22nd century, some other far-sighted innovators have started to hop onto the bandwagon.”

I asked for an example or two.

“Check this,” he said, reading aloud from the Association for Middle Level Education web page: “The four new 22nd century Cs are here everyone, so buckle up: ‘care, connection, culture, community.’” He paused. “Sharp, right?! And did you see that they made all the words start with a ‘C’? Wish I’d thought of that,” he mused. “That’s how you drive change.”

“Hey, ‘change’ starts with a ‘C’,” I noted.

“Let’s not get carried away,” Paul replied.

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He brought up another page, from the Tech Mahindra Foundation, and read, “The dialogue in the last five years has been progressively shifting from 21st to the 22nd century because . . . innovation, exploration, civic engagement and global citizenship are progressive futuristic skills.”

“Those Tech Mahindra folks are lit. I mean, they have pages of this stuff,” he said. “Just listen: ‘The future is building itself through us slowly and gradually and it won’t take much longer for it to be the other way around.’”

He shrugged in frank admiration. “Game recognizes game. We’ll need to be on our A-game to stay a step ahead of thinkers like that.”

Until that moment, I don’t know if I’d ever fully appreciated the constant pressure on a pioneer like Banksley. At that point, his assistant signaled that we needed to wrap the interview. I asked if he had any final thoughts for my readers.

The great man looked meditative for a moment. “Tell them,” he said, “that the future is ahead of us.”

Frederick Hess is an executive editor of Education Next and the author of the blog “Old School with Rick Hess.”

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