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21st Century Skills for Children

The “21st century skills” movement is a phenomenon being embraced by schools, universities and governments around the world. Businesses are increasingly looking for these skills in graduates and school leavers. Universities claim they improve academic performance. But why is this? What are these 21st century skills? And how can our children benefit from them?

“We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that have not yet been invented, in order to solve problems that we don’t even know are problems yet.” Karl Fisch

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Why are 21st century skills so important?

Increased urbanisation, an ageing population, and technological leaps have left 20th century life imagined as ‘a simpler time’, while the future remains an exponential unknown. The 20th century is remembered as a time of “jobs for life”, while we are reminded that the US Labour department expects today’s students to have had 10-14 jobs by the age of 38. Whereas information used to be bound up in libraries, Google now processes 1.2 trillion searches every year. The accelerating pace of change means that, for students starting a technical degree, half of what they learn in their first year will be outdated by their third year.

How do we educate our young people for this brave new world?

The 3 R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic) are undoubtedly as essential as they ever were but now the skills needed to adapt, collaborate and continuously learn have become vital as well. The 21st century skills advocated by this movement include resilience, multilingualism, collaboration, meta-cognition, communication, implicit memorisation, setting smart goals, creativity and critical thinking.


How will 21st century skills help my child?

A 2013 Gallup poll, in collaboration with Pearson and Microsoft, showed that students with large exposure to 21st century skills in their last year of school were two times more likely to be successful and valued at their jobs. Businesses are only too aware of this. In the 2014 CBI Education and Skills survey, employers rated “attitudes and aptitudes for work” – like self-reliance, confidence and openness to new ideas – as the most important factors when recruiting school and graduate leavers. Only 30% listed a school leaver’s academic results as a priority compared to 85% for attitude to work.

Critics argue that these skills are nothing new and far from uniquely 21st century. Indeed, the best of our teachers – and tutors – have always fostered these in their students. But as the pressure of school league tables increases so too does the pressure for schools to teach to “measurable” forms of academic progress. The issue with this is, what we are most able to measure is not necessarily what is most important to measure. Objectively assessing resilience, creativity or collaboration – for example – is no simple matter.


Does this signal the end to core academic skills?

We need to be careful not to set 21st century skills up in opposition to – or as a distraction from – skills that are typically the focus of exams. The development of 21st century skills is complementary and enhancing to core academic skills. Ohio State University recently ran a study on students taking a “learning and motivation strategies” course that focuses on many 21st century skills. The study showed that students taking this course are six times less likely to drop out in their first year of study, 45% more likely to graduate and that they score significantly higher-grade point averages.