Students need different skills for a changing world
The Japanese want their kids to be better problem solvers. In Finland, they're encouraging expression. In the classrooms of Singapore, children are being taught critical and inventive thinking.
Across the world, many countries are pouring resources into pinpointing the skills, behaviours and new knowledge young people need to successfully navigate life and work in the 21st century.
Governments of all types and flavours are recognising that while obtaining and retaining knowledge remains fundamental, it is but one of many capabilities young people need to survive and thrive.
To flourish in the workforce of the 21st century, they will also need to be able to solve problems. To think creatively. To have strong social skills and high emotional intelligence.
Many of these competencies were also needed in the past, but their status has increased considerably. Yes, they are not new. However, they are newly important.
While this curriculum reform is under way across the world, different countries are prioritising different skills, depending on their particular geopolitical circumstances, social constructs and workforce needs.
Though some defenders of the status quo (including those with an uncritical view of traditional approaches to schooling) would want to portray it as such, this focus should not be dismissed as a fad.
Japan is not undertaking its “Zest for Life” reform to be fashionable. Finland has not prioritised seven competencies in its new curriculum to further bolster its popularity. Singapore has not developed its central 21st Century Competencies Framework because everyone else has one. The Canadian provinces haven’t changed their curricula just to be noticed.
Further, the OECD, as the architect and manager of PISA has not broadened its scope to assess areas such as collaborative problem solving, global competency, creative thinking, and social and emotional skills because it craves attention.
Of course, some aspects of schooling should not change. No one is seriously questioning, for example, the need for students to acquire solid foundations in literacy and numeracy.
However, the nature and pace of change in and across countries has brought into hard focus an acceptance that the skills students need for a fulfilling life extend far beyond those required by young people from previous times.
While the emphasis on capabilities varies between countries, there are some that have been widely identified as key to contemporary schooling.
One is the the skills young people will need as the economy transitions from an information-based one to a knowledge-based one (where new knowledge is seen as adding new value), particularly as technological advances are so rapid. Hence the attention being given to STEM.
Another is the need to equip the employees of tomorrow with skills that are valued within the business sector, such as collaboration, initiative and innovation.
A third concerns attitudes and values such as respect, responsibility, empathy.
Then there is the need to equip young people with the tools to relate to others, maintain effort in the face of setbacks, realise their potential, and shape a positive and productive life.
Countries want their young people to be literate and numerate. They also want them to be agile, compassionate and innovative. They need global thinkers that are digitally literate, resilient and reliable.
Australia too is trying to integrate these skills into its national and state curricula. There are significant implications for teaching, learning and assessment.
As Australia looks to change, some will feel threatened. In the past, regime loyalists have been highly successful in undermining good reform intentions. They will do and say whatever they can to thwart this.
What is now needed from governments at all levels in Australia is the same commitment shown in other countries to ensure the overdue vision for curriculum reform is realised. Our young people deserve nothing less.
Dr Phil Lambert is curriculum expert to the OECD Education 2030 initiative, External Advisor to Japan’s Innovative Schools Network, and National President of the Australian College of Educators