Teachers and employers across the globe have at least one belief in common when it comes to educating our society: 21st century skills are no longer a luxury but a necessity.
“The skills that are easiest to teach and easiest to test are now also the skills that are easiest to automate, digitize, and outsource,” writes Vivien Stewart for the Asia Society’s Global Cities Education Network. “Because of this shift, schools are directing their attention to developing so-called 21st century skills and competencies for all students.”
These competencies include the cognitive skills of critical thinking, problem-solving, knowledge application, and creativity; the interpersonal skills of communication and collaboration, leadership, and global and cross-cultural awareness; and intrapersonal skills like self-direction, motivation, and learning how to learn.
Institutions in different parts of the globe are currently experimenting with different ways of integrating and measuring 21st century skills. Hong Kong, Stewart says, is one of a number of cities introducing project-based assessments, which “require students to apply their knowledge to new problems.” Shanghai now uses PISA-type tests of problem-solving as a way to “shift the curriculum in the direction of modern skills and pedagogy.” Toronto’s curriculum standards explicitly emphasise the need to assess learning skills and work habits as well as content knowledge. Both Toronto and Seattle are “interested in ways to assess student’s global competence–whether they can apply 21st century skills in a global context.”
Singapore, in particular, exemplifies what successful adoption of such standards might look like.
“First, new skills are being integrated throughout the school curriculum as well as teacher preparation and professional development,” Stewart explains. “Different pedagogies are being encouraged, including greater use of inquiry-based learning, information and communications technology, cooperative group learning, and problem-solving routines, among others.
“Next, the national examination system is being revised to incorporate higher level thinking skills through different modes of assessment including open-ended and source-based questions as well as Singapore’s traditional essay format.”
Some skills are being assessed primarily at the school level, Stewart says, such as students’ skills in planning and performing experiments in science and in carrying out projects and design work in other curriculum areas. “In primary schools, assessment and reports to parents are more holistic, going beyond academic achievement to other areas of student development. And the competencies expected of graduating teachers are being changed to match these outcome goals for students.”
Institutions differ in exactly which competencies and skills they choose to adopt, and at what grade level, but they generally fall within those three primary categories mentioned above: cognitive competencies, interpersonal skills, and intrapersonal skills.
Below are what we see as the most critical skills for students to master.
What Are They?
- Learning How to Learn. Being part of a formal learning environment is like building the scaffolding for a house. Once you enter the “real world,” the frame disappears and it’s up to you to stay standing. Knowing how to teach yourself–and having a willingness to do so–is the only way to build a lasting foundation.
- Gaining Empathy. “The first step in effective design is gaining empathy for the ‘user,'” writes education guru Weezie Yancey-Siegel on her Eduventurist blog. “Whether you work in sustainable development, healthcare, education, business, or technology, designing or re-designing a service, system, or product requires the ability to tap into the mindset and perspective of your customer, patient, student, or community. Think of how many times you’ve heard someone say, ‘Now, why would they build it like this? That doesn’t make sense.’ The designer probably wasn’t too skilled in this area.”
- Creativity. This competency is a big part of problem solving, especially in a time of limited resources. Schools are doing a lot to inspire creativity in students, but even more than that, we need to make sure our students understand why it’s important.
- Foresight. Trend-spotting and recognition of patterns fall under this category. As social entrepreneur David Bornstein has said, “Intelligence is the ability to predict the future.”
- Digital Literacy/Programming. Although there is a big emphasis on becoming bilingual in our internationalized world, another key language to learn is computer programming. You can save money and have a lot more freedom to get your work done (and marketed) if you can work well with computers.
- Curating information. We may complain about information overload, but the trick is to see it as an opportunity. If you are able to handle the flood of data and filter it all to find what’s truly valuable and useful, you’ll be ahead of the curve in a highly employable way.
- Being able to navigate diverse perspectives. Being well-rounded not only means having a breadth of knowledge but also having the ability to participate in various discourses. Think interdisciplinary curricula and connected learning.
- Being entrepreneurial. We all have great ideas from time to time, but can we implement them? Acting on creative impulses is ultimately what separates true innovators from all the rest.
- Being a group facilitator. Learn how to bring the best out of a team by facilitating its collaboration. Not everyone has to lead–being a facilitator just means making it easier for creative things to happen.
- Staying up-to-date. If you don’t read the news, start. Your skills will become rusty if you can’t readily see how they should be applied.
How Do We Teach Them?
Teaching 21st-century skills can be challenging. Educators tend to disagree on which of them should be prioritized over others given curricular and time restrictions, and assessing them is no easier. So what can we do to help ourselves stay on track?
- Create scenarios that test skill transfer, not just skills. Students need to develop the ability to apply skills, concepts, knowledge, attitudes and/or strategies they develop in one context to another, both instinctively and after deliberate thought and analysis.
- Take time to point out the bigger picture. Students need to comprehend relationships between given variables and how to apply this understanding to different contexts. Plus, the relevance of learning specific knowledge and skills is much clearer to students—and much more motivating—if they understand how a given topic fits into “the big picture,” or a meaningful context.
- Treat technology as a natural part of learning. It’s time to face the truth: today’s students will have very little concept of life without technology. So stop talking about integrating technology into learning and start talking about integrating learning into technology.
- Make your lessons interdisciplinary. Students develop their 21st century skills and knowledge as they learn why each academic discipline is important, how experts create new knowledge, and how they communicate about it.
- Teach students to learn to learn (metacognition). Since there is a limit to how much students learn through formal schooling, they also must learn to learn on their own.
- Address misunderstandings directly. People have many misunderstandings about how the world works that persist until they have the opportunity to develop alternative explanations.
- Promote teamwork as a process and outcome. The ability to work collaboratively is an important 21st century skill, not to mention an important condition for optimal learning of other key skills.
- Start a maker culture. Innovation requires creativity to be effective, and creativity requires innovation to be effected. See our post on creating a culture society.
- Let students try out different roles within a group. Sometimes they can be the ‘manager’ and at other times they can be an ‘organizer’ or a ‘graphic designer’. There are many different roles that students can fill during a project with their peers that allows them to work with others in a more collaborative way than just breaking apart a project and then putting it back together in the end.
- Teach digital literacy. Students have access to unimaginable amounts of information today. Students need to be taught how to sift through the millions of web pages available on a topic, find what they need, and recognize the difference between factual information and factual-sounding opinions.