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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


21st century skills for those who will set the stage for the 22nd

Blog Editor, IOE Digital27 June 2013

Chris Husbands
Last week the CBI and Pearson published their Education and Skills survey for 2013.  The headline finding: a stubborn shortage in the skills the UK needs to remain competitive and fuel long-term growth… 
A child born this year will start school in 2018; she will complete her schooling in about 2031; current indications are that her working life would last almost certainly until 2083.
No one has any real idea of what her working life will be like, but we can hazard some guesses: she is likely to change roles two or three times and will probably need to re-train several times; the technologies and work routines she uses will alter repeatedly; and her 50-year or so career will be played out against a background of resource depletion, rising pressures on food stocks and unpredictable climate change.
In his book 21st Century Skills – Learning for Life in our Times, Charles Fadel talks about the inter-relationship of “knowledge, skills, and character” as well as “the meta-layer or fourth dimension that includes learning how to learn”.
He questions the sorts of knowledge needed in a world in which information is instantly accessible. Should the curriculum teach facts and knowledge, or the ability to appraise information? Should engineering, with its focus on the practical application of learning, become a standard part of the curriculum? Is it necessary to teach skills such as long division when there are calculators? Should entrepreneurship be compulsory, and from what age?
Fadel complains the conventional school curriculum is over-burdened with content and urges instead a focus on the 4Cs – creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication – and the ability to “learn how to learn”.
It is a powerful, influential cocktail. Unfortunately, it does not add up. Although the dynamics of the workplace will change fundamentally over the next century, it is most unlikely that the basic laws of science will be extensively revised. The way we receive text will change, but the ability to read will still depend on being able to decode meaning. Advanced mathematics will still depend on early acquisition of number bonds and mathematical operations. Twenty-first century skills will turn on some very 20th-century basics.
The skills demanded by employers are already complex. The CBI complains that too many school-leavers struggle to write to the necessary standard, employ basic numeracy or use a computer properly: it is a far from straightforward mix of familiar content – literacy and numeracy – and more recent innovations – the ability to use a computer.  More than this, in their earlier November 2012 First Steps report on schooling, the CBI complained that the curriculum was too crowded and underpinned a conveyor belt education system that did too little to challenge higher achievers while providing little to support those needing it. The system was not delivering the workforce modern employers need.
The complaints are familiar: new employees too infrequently “possess habits of discipline, ready obedience, self-help, and pride in good work for its own sake“.
But that last quote is not from 2012, but from a Board of Education report of 1906. For as long as we have evidence, employers have been critical of the ability of the education system to provide the workers they need.
For all this, the global experience has been striking. In the 1960s, around the world, young people with minimal qualifications went straight from school – often in their early or mid-teens – and secured low-skill, manufacturing jobs. In the 1960s a third of US workers had dropped out of high school. By 2006, nine out of 10 workers had at least graduated from high school and 69 per cent had some college education. Labour market growth over the past 50 years has been a race to skills and qualifications.
There are still low-skill, low-waged jobs, but increasingly the focus is on higher-skill, added-value careers. The production lines that generated the metal-bashing jobs of the 1960s are now digitised, so that those who operate them need software diagnostic skills; the best social care is provided by those who can diagnose and make intelligent interventions; and so on.
As a result, the world’s most efficient and effective education systems, from Finland to Singapore, have some strikingly common characteristics: they are unremitting in their focus on the core skills of literacy and numeracy, but they set those skills in the wider context of developing higher-order complex thinking.  Most of all, they take equality seriously: they focus, in a way which education systems historically did not, on ensuring that all – not just a privileged few – develop the higher-order skills needed to use and analyse information, and that they have access to rewarding higher-level training. Put at its crudest, conventional subjects still matter, but they need to be taught and learnt in innovative ways.