Tucker’s Lens: On 21st Century Skills

I wonder whether educators over the millennia have focused as this generation has on the nature of the skills that would be demanded in the next century.  Maybe not.  The idea of progress is pretty recent, after all.  For most of human history, people thought the future would be much like the past.  We know better.

Or do we?  Consider the typical list of  “21st century skills”:  Problem Solving, Creativity, Leadership, Collaboration, Adaptability, Initiative, Critical Thinking, Learning to Learn, Agility, Innovation, Communication, and, of course, Technological Literacy.  What’s interesting about this list is that, except for the last item, Technological Literacy, all of these goals were important to the headmasters and faculty of Harrow, Eton and Rugby—the great British “public” schools at the close of the 19th century and the opening of the 20th.  These schools were responsible for training that era’s “masters of the universe,” the people who would be responsible for running the British Empire.  They needed people who could operate independently, if necessary, who could apply what they had learned to problems no one had anticipated, who could come up with innovative solutions to those problems, who would be good team members, who could lead, who could communicate well, and so on, right through the list.  Back in those days, though, it was clear to everyone involved that much of it would be learned at school but outside the classroom— on the playing fields and by the student as he negotiated the informal, but formidable, social structure of the institution.  Not least important were the values they wanted those institutions to inculcate.  “Its not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game that counts.”  If course, it did matter whether you won or lost, but your standing in society would depend in some measure on how you did it.

What is most important about the skills they were after is that they were reserved for—and, in some respects, actually defined by—the British elite.  They were not for the hoi polloi.  Far less was expected of the ordinary British students and the schools that prepared them.  What is truly remarkable about the typical list of 21st century skills is not their content—it is a very old list—but the fact that the countries that are now leading the PISA league tables expect all their students, not just an elite, to master them, and have more or less completely redesigned their education systems to that end.

But the matter does not rest there.  For some years now, employers in the world’s advanced economies have been complaining that the graduates they get do not measure up to their needs.  Correctly surmising that educators have not understood how dramatically the terms of global business competition have changed the nature of their human resources requirements, they have pursued the not unreasonable idea that they might get a better response if they could only produce a more accurate and detailed list of their requirements.  And thus was born a growing number of efforts to define 21st century skills.

In my mind, these efforts have not so much defined a new set of skills as make explicit the sorts of skills that have always been expected of most elites, but were never codified in this way.  That’s actually very important, because we are here discussing the nature of the demands now being placed, for the first time, on mass education systems.  Countries in the past have always been willing to spend a lot to educate their elites, because they have been so small, and because it has often been the elites themselves that shelled out the money for the education of their own children for this purpose.  This time, it is different.  It is for everyone, it is the public’s money, most of the children who will now have to meet these standards will be harder to educate but there will be no more money than there was before to educate them.  So it is now very important to spell out what society is trying to achieve, and to spell it out in a way that can guide the legions of ordinary teachers who will now be expected to do for ordinary youngsters what only elite teachers were expected to do for elite students before, so that students all over a country will have access to the same opportunities.

But it turns out to be not simply a matter of writing down on paper what the faculty of the English public schools were trying to accomplish.  Elite higher education institutions communicated informally with elite secondary school heads what they were looking for and the heads recommended the graduates who they thought would be most suitable as undergraduates at their elite institutions.  They did not need to spell out the skills nor did they need to have tests that had been proven to be valid and reliable.  Back in those days, there was no organized education research establishment, and there were certainly no cognitive scientists, psychometricians and professional test makers.  So now we have the advantage of science as we go about formulating the skills graduates will need as they enter the workforce and take up their duties as citizens and family members.  And we also have the advantage of a very active business community, as well as private foundations, and government, which have collectively been willing in many cases to fund research intended to produce empirically-derived descriptions of the needed skills.

We’ve been at this awhile.  In 2009, the OECD published a Working Paper on “21st Century Skills and Competencies For New Millennium Learners in OECD Countries.”  The authors, Katerina Ananiadou and Magdalean Claro, gathered together all the definitions of 21st century skills they could find and sent out a survey instrument to the OECD countries asking them whether they were incorporating such skills in their education policies.  Only 16 countries returned the survey form.  Most said that their country’s policies addressed most of the items on the list in some way, usually in the context of an overall revision of their national or state or provincial curriculum.  But virtually all said that they were not measuring the acquisition of most of the mentioned skills in any systematic way, or any way at all, except to the extent that school inspectors chanced to take them into account in the course of their visits.  Apart from skills related to the use of information technology, they reported, schools of education were not training prospective teachers in the development of these skills.  And, though there was mention of these skills in official documents, the terms were not well defined or specific. It seems that not much was happening as the first decade of the new millennium was coming to a close.

But before 2009 was out, the situation changed dramatically.  A consortium formed by three of the world’s leading technology companies—Cisco, Intel and Microsoft—announced that they were partnering with Singapore, Finland, Australia and the United States to create a serious research and development program to identify the 21st century skills with the specificity necessary to produce very high quality web-based assessments of them.  This Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills program (now known by its acronym ATC21S) would be based at the University of Melbourne in Australia and headed by Barry McGaw, formerly the director of the education program at the OECD (McGaw has since retired and the program is now headed by Patrick Griffith).  Costa Rica and the Netherlands have since been added to the ranks of participating countries.  Several other world class universities, in addition to the University of Melbourne, have also been added to the roster of participants, as have several commercial developers.  Leading academics were involved in specifying the 21st century skills to the detail needed to use them to drive a serious research and development program intended to result in high quality curriculum and assessments.  The decision was made by the participants to focus the research and development program on two arenas:  ICT Literacy for Learning and Collaborative Problem Solving.  The first round of piloting those materials is now complete and more is under way.

The reader will note that the choice of these two arenas meant that the research and development would focus not just on what the relevant skills are, and how to teach them and how to assess them, but, in particular, how to teach them and how to assess them using technology.  The participants clearly believe that technology opens up possibilities for enriching teaching and assessment in ways that are not possible without the technology and are out to demonstrate the validity of that belief.  The assessments are performance-based and are designed to model the kind of instruction that will enable students to do well on them.  For a more detailed overview of the ATC21S program, see this video of Patrick Griffith.  To get a feel for the kind of instructional materials being prepared by the project, see this video.  To get access to the papers prepared by leading academics to support the work of the ATC21S consortium, look here.

The ATC21S effort initially involved more than 250 researchers worldwide in the process of defining 21st century skills.  In the end, they organized them into four categories, as follows:

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

Ways of Working: Communication and collaboration

Tools for Working: Information and communications technology and information literacy

Skills for Living in the World: Citizenship, life and career and personal and social responsibility

The faculty at Eaton, Harrow and Rugby would have been very much at home with the first, second and fourth of these, and perhaps the second part of the third as well.

The ATC21S acknowledged its debt to a number of other initiatives that preceded it, including the Partnership for 21st Century Skills in the United States, which partnered American firms with American states to develop a list of skills which the partner states then drew on as they developed their academic standards; and the work of the Lisbon Council in the European Union.  And they also acknowledged the work of several groups which had focused more narrowly on defining needed skills in the arena of information technology and communications, including the International Society for Technology in Education and the Educational Testing Service in the United States.

But by far the most interesting contribution to this nascent field in recent times has been a contribution of the National Research Council of the National Academies in the United States, the report of an NRC panel chaired by Jim Pellegrino titled “Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century.”  You can download a brief on the report and a PDF of the prepublication version and order a printed final report here.

The report acknowledges right at the outset that “…these dimensions of human competence…have been valuable for many centuries….The important difference across time may lie in society’s desire that all students attain levels of mastery—across multiple areas of skill and knowledge—that were previously unnecessary for individual success in education and the workplace.”  The Committee identified three broad rubrics under which it organized the relevant skills, as follows:

The Cognitive Domain: Of which there are three clusters—cognitive processes and strategies; knowledge; and creativity.  Included here are critical thinking, information literacy, reasoning and argumentation and innovation.

The Intrapersonal Domain: Of which there are again three clusters—intellectual openness; work ethic and conscientiousness; and positive core self-evaluation.   These include competencies like flexibility, initiative, appreciation for diversity and metacognition.

The Interpersonal Domain:  Of which there are two clusters—teamwork and collaboration; and leadership.  Included here are communication, collaboration, responsibility and conflict resolution.

Pellegrino and company acknowledge that there is not very much research showing a causal relationship between these skills and the kinds of adult outcomes that the societies interested in 21st century skills are hoping for, but they point out that the research that is available points in that direction.  And, of course, they gently suggest that more research on this subject would be useful (there are many calls for more research).

The Committee uses the term “deeper learning” to describe what it is mainly after, the ability to take what is learned in one situation and apply it to new situations.  And they call this process “transfer.”  They then go on to say that deeper learning often involves shared learning and interactions with other people.  Deeper learning is used by the individual to develop expertise in a particular domain of knowledge or performance.  The product of deeper learning is transferable knowledge, including the knowledge of how, when and why to apply this knowledge to answer questions and solve problems.  All of this knowledge is structured around fundamental principles of the content area and their relationships, not lists of facts and procedures.  This, it seems to me, is a very important point.  We hang our knowledge on the conceptual structures of the disciplines, and it is in the process of understanding those structures and learning how both to hang new knowledge on them and use them to understand new situations that we come to be able to solve new and complex problems.  This is why rote learning of facts and procedures is not enough, indeed why it is not the heart of the matter.

But the Committee makes it very clear that it is a great mistake to think about the 21st Century Skills as hanging out there by themselves, to be taught as if they were freestanding subjects.  No, no, it says.  They play out differently for different disciplines and the only way to teach them successfully is in the context of the disciplines.

For those who might have thought that the job was nearly done when the 21st Century Skills have been described, the Committee puts that thought to rest.  Standards documents will need to be thoroughly revised to reflect this much broader range of skills subject by subject.  New curricula will have to be written.  Most important, perhaps, the programs of teachers colleges will have to be completely rethought and new approaches to student assessment will have to be developed, because we now have the tools to assess  only a very small part  of what we need to be assessing and, not least, because assessment always drives what teachers do in the classroom, and, in this age of assessment-driven accountability, if the assessments do not skillfully assess what we now want our students to be able to do, we won’t teach it and the students are not likely to be able to do it.

All of which brings me back to where I began.  These are not new skills.  What is new is the determination of a growing number of nations to teach them to all of their students.  Even though these are not new skills, they will not be widely found among a nation’s students unless the education system of that country, taken as whole, is driven by standards, curriculum, assessments and teacher education systems fundamentally different from those that were previously used to drive that country’s mass education system.  Some nations are well down that road.  Others, like my own, are largely at the beginning of it.  The Pellegrino report provides some very useful insights into the research that can be used to do that, the research that still needs to be done, and the scale and nature of the task ahead.  That is a very useful contribution.