How do you define 21st century skills?

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:

What would be on your list of the 21st century skills that all students must be exposed to? Niel McLean discusses how evidence and research must contribute to this debate.

During the consultation on Butler’s 1944 Education Act, employers were asked what they expected of state education. Their response was straightforward: it should teach literacy, numeracy and obedience. At the same time, the great public schools were focusing on developing leadership skills and character.

Nearly three quarters of a century later few would argue for a system that simply prepares young people for their allotted place in life. The world has changed. From the 1980s onwards commentators on all sides of the political divides have argued that new circumstances may demand new skills or, at the very least, that the skills and competencies once required by the few are now needed by the many.

The change in emphasis is nowhere better illustrated than in the latest recruitment advertisement for the British Army, which features an ex-supermarket checkout worker claiming that “the main skill I have developed is leadership”. It is interesting to speculate as to whether the view of leadership expressed in the ad – the ability to step back, think about what needs to be done, and say “right here’s what we’re going to do” – aligns with that developed in past centuries on the playing fields of Eton.

James Callaghan was one of the first to question the dichotomy between life and employment in his famous Ruskin College speech, and it is interesting that, whether through the Technical and Vocational Educational Initiative or its later progeny, educationalists have felt broadly comfortable identifying skills such as problem-solving as essential to young people’s future success.

Of course, the needs of employment in a world where the old certainties no longer hold have not been the only driver in the discussion. The uncertainties around employment are matched by uncertainties in wider society. Politics has become less tribal, sources of information are diverse and contested, and the skills associated with critical-thinking are, as a consequence, seen as increasingly important.

While educators in the developed economies of the West may have been the first to focus on “key skills”, “core skills” or “transferable skills”, a quick search of the web shows that interest is global. The move towards a new century has provided an attractive banner to draw together the debate. Typing “21st century skills” into a search engine generated more than six million results.

So, what does the evidence tell us about what these skills might be – how they might be best developed in our young people, what the relationship is between these skills and subject knowledge, and, perhaps more challengingly, how they might be assessed? Let’s start with the issues around definition.

A variety of approaches have been taken to identify the skills. The ATC21S project, led by the University of Melbourne and supported the IT industry, puts 21st century skills into four broad categories:

  • Ways of thinking: Creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making and learning.

  • Ways of working: Communication and collaboration.

  • Tools for working: ICT and information literacy.

  • Skills for living in the world: Citizenship, life and career, and personal and social responsibility.

Others have produced their own lists. Tony Wagner, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, talks of “critical-thinking and problem-solving, collaboration and leadership, agility and adaptability, initiative and entrepreneurialism, effective oral and written communication, accessing and analysing information, and curiosity and imagination”.

While, to some extent each list bears the hallmarks of its originator’s cultural, economic and social circumstances, it is worth making two important observations.

First, there is a significant degree of consensus. Given that there are differences in how national curricula and standards across the globe describe knowledge in skills in well-trodden subjects such as maths and science, it would be remarkable if identical descriptions of such a new area had arisen from such diverse starting points.

Second, researchers have been able to identify descriptions that work for them in their educational communities. Perhaps our starting point should be to describe 21st century skills in a way that best matches the needs of our learners and their futures – local definitions building on global understandings. What all of these lists share is a degree of abstraction.

There is an assumption that skills can be described independently from the context in which they are used or the knowledge drawn on when they are used, that they are “transferable”. While this belief is attractive, it needs investigation. Does deciding whether to end a relationship and deciding the best approach to designing a ship draw on the same set of transferable skills? It is not immediately obvious that they do.

Both draw on different sets of knowledge and there are certainly cases of people who could perform more effectively in one domain of decision-making than the other. Identifying the extent to which 21st century skills are really transferable should be a priority for educational research.

At some time in the future, neuroscience may provide a definitive answer in terms of how neural networks enact those skills in the brain. Until then a systematic programme of practice-based research will be needed.

While there is broad agreement about the importance of 21st century skills, there is far less agreement about the best way to develop them. Some educators believe they are best developed tacitly – leadership did not feature explicitly on the Eton curriculum. The argument is that they emerge from rigour in subject teaching together with a whole-school ethos that supports the learner’s wider development.

Others argue that specific 21st century skills are best taught within home subject contexts, much like the argument that Latin develops logical thought. Similar arguments are presented about the value of computational thinking within the ICT curriculum.

Some schools have restructured their curriculum, using 21st century skills as the core organising idea with subject knowledge in support, rather than the other way round. Others have experimented with dedicated teaching time addressing core skills such as problem-solving.

There is much we do not know, and the importance of an evidence-informed approach cannot be overstated, particularly as we move to greater autonomy within the curriculum at school level.

Finally there is the issue of assessment. If these skills are important, surely we should assess them, both formatively to help pupils progress and develop the skills, and summatively, given the extent to which the assessment system influences practice in schools.

Again, a variety of approaches is emerging. PISA has announced that it will assess collaborative problem-solving skills in 2015, and the OECD has talked of the “critical gap between existing basic research on assessment design and methodologies, on the one hand, and the implementation of large-scale assessments that provide reliable data at reasonable cost, on the other”.

There are also the issues around 21st century skills in the context of the planned changes to the English qualifications system. It is difficult to envisage a truly rigorous and demanding EBacc Certificate in mathematics that does not require candidates to solve demanding problems.

We now have a unique opportunity. In the old model of curriculum reform, 21st century skills would have been centrally prescribed, with curricula and teaching programmes “rolled out” and evaluated. In the new world of distributed innovation we have the opportunity to adopt a different, though equally evidence-based approach.

How we teach 21st century skills aligns perfectly with a more “research and design” or even “design and research” approach, where innovation is disciplined, strategic and meets the school’s needs; teachers and researchers work together to both develop and evaluate ways of teaching iteratively in a spirit of continuous, evidence-based improvement; and where the school contributes to the development of new knowledge.

  • Niel McLean is head of research at Futurelab.

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