Preparing for the Second Half of the Century

Mark Whitfield highlights the ever-growing demand for 21st-century skills, integrating them into the curriculum, and preparing students for rapid advancements in society.

The 21st century skills challenge

Over the past 30 years, most education systems have developed an expectation that schools engage, in some way, with 21st-century skills. There has been a general acceptance that, to thrive in the 21st century, young people need to develop a set of skills that are deemed to be more needed than they were in previous centuries. Defining what this group of skills is has been an ongoing debate that will remain fluid, it is a matter of opinion and a matter of circumstance, and there is no empirical evidence that confirms a definitive list. Definitions of 21st-century skills can be limited to something called the 4Cs, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication, or can be extended to be a list of more than 20 skills, defined as necessary to learners in the 21st century.

In Bahrain, the Bahrain Qualifications Authority, in its inspection framework, identifies eight 21st-century skills that it expects to find when inspecting Bahrain schools: critical thinking, communication and teamwork, creativity and problem-solving, leadership and decision-making, local and global citizenship, entrepreneurship and initiative, technological literacy, and language empowerment. Accreditation bodies are clear in their expectation that schools are expected to develop 21st-century skills in their teaching and learning.

Living in the past

Most would agree, 21st century skills are important. However, I think it is important to understand the skills challenge within a greater challenge for education, as we head towards the middle years of the 21st century. Whilst there has been a concerted effort to define the skills required for the 21st century, less progress has been made on how to systematically integrate these skills into the curriculum for 21st-century learners. The fundamentals of the dominant curricula offered in schools worldwide are still dominated by content developed in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The National Curriculum for England, better known as the British curriculum, is still mainly taught and assessed in discreet subjects that are very similar in content to those subjects offered in the 1930s. A student taking A levels today will most likely be studying a choice of the following: Maths, English, Chemistry, Biology, Physics, History, Geography, Art, Music, Physical Education, Business Studies, Computer Science, Economics and maybe French. A student studying A levels in 1970 would have been offered a similar menu of subjects. The state standards and Common Core in the US curriculum are also from a previous era. The International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum seeks to challenge the status quo, its diploma programme and the career-related programme are both more progressive than what is offered by the UK or US system. So, whilst the skills we are promoting may be from the 21st century, there has been little challenge to the status quo in terms of what the formal curriculum offered.

In the context outlined above, 21st-century skills are expected to be taught through traditional subjects, rather than as academic disciplines, but is this enough? In an already overloaded curriculum, do all traditional subjects retain their relevance or could they be discarded to allow for more time to develop 21st-century skills? Which 21st-century skills are critical and deserve greater exposure in the school curriculum as disciplines in their own right?

If the role of education is to help prepare young people to be successful citizens in an uncertain future, I would suggest some areas of 21st-century knowledge, skills and understanding require their own discreet time in the school timetable. I believe that by maintaining a traditional curriculum throughout the 20th century, schooling has failed society, and more ambition would have had a more positive impact on society.

For example, when you consider the importance of personal health and well-being, why did we devote so little time to understanding the consequences of unhealthy choices and the benefits of being healthy, both physically and mentally? Maybe obesity would not be the crisis it is if young people in the later part of the 20th century had spent more time learning how to be healthy. The same could be said for financial health, we have given very little time to supporting young people to develop financial literacy.

Skills for the future

As we move deeper into the 21st century we have new skill areas that are now emerging and there is little doubt they will begin to dominate society and the workplace, can schools prepare students for this new future? Can education meet the needs of the young people of tomorrow by being braver in what the curriculum offers? Schools and education systems must take action to ensure young people are ahead in their understanding of digital fluency and citizenship, adaptive learning, artificial intelligence, data ethics and quantum computing. Schools need to find time to support the development of interdisciplinary thinking, global citizenship, and cultural competency. How can we help students understand their learning through greater understanding of augmented reality, meta-cognition, neurotechnology and cognitive enhancement?

In conclusion, the evolution of education over the last three decades has underscored the importance of 21st-century skills, acknowledging the necessity for students to acquire competencies essential for success in the modern era. While there is a consensus on the significance of these skills, the challenge lies in systematically integrating them into overloaded curricula designed predominantly in the 19th and 20th centuries. The failure to prioritize certain aspects of 21st-century knowledge, skills, and understanding in the past has had a profound effect on societal well-being. Moving forward, education systems must boldly adapt to emerging societal priorities, ensuring students are well-prepared for the challenges and opportunities presented by the advancing 21st century. Schools must play a pivotal role in cultivating a generation that not only understands but excels in digital fluency, global citizenship, and the transformative technologies shaping our future.


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