21st Century Skills

This post was written by Jon Tait, you can follow Jon on Twitter @TeamTait.

In today’s target driven world where numbers and statistics are becoming more important than people and feelings, education has become somewhat lost. There was a time where education meant developing the whole child with knowledge and experience so that they could be successful in life, irrespective of the career path they chose. Sadly, this has been overtaken by the ability to pass a test. But, who can blame the teachers? As a profession we have been backed into a corner, being placed under intense pressure, and this coupled with some of the most ludicrous targets that the profession has ever seen. Targets have emerged for almost anything a man can think up, alongside these targets are huge sticks to beat us with if we don’t meet them. Schools have been put in a highly pressured position of simply having to get students to pass exams so that they can produce the numbers and statistics that will satisfy a spreadsheet at the Department for Education.

But is this really education? Are we really moving any further towards providing a world class education system for our young people? And, do we really believe that the young people of today are 27.5% more intelligent than the students who sat exams 25 years ago? Statistics say they are, however most would disagree (Source: Joint Council for General Qualifications).

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If we truly mean what we say – that we are trying to deliver a world class education system,  we must look carefully at our core aims. Are we trying to develop students for a world in which the jobs they will secure do not even exist yet? Or, are we happy to spout statistics about how many of our children have the ability to score highly on a test. If we want to develop the whole child, then some fundamental changes need to be made.

Historically, examination boards have pushed content before skills, meaning a culture of factual recall has been present for far too long in our schools. This has compounded the issue when it comes to targets and getting students to pass tests. We can all probably recall being in that situation before as a student, where you ‘learn’ or remember something purely for a test, but have forgotten it moments after…. and never really knew the true meaning of what you had ‘remembered’. What we really need to be spending more time on are the skills we need as lifelong learners. Content is becoming more and more irrelevant in this day and age.

Put it like this – In this day of mobile digital technology where we can access information in a split second, how important is factual recall anyway? If you don’t know something you can Google it in a few seconds. Now, I’m not for one second suggesting that we disregard all content and tell students that they don’t need to learn anything anymore, but more that we need to work out what our priorities are as educators.

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If we want students to be able to remember facts and recall information, then we have lost the race with technology. Google can give you an answer quicker than it takes to even ask the question, and with mobile technology, this can be accessed anywhere and everywhere. What we really need to be doing is to be educating our students to ask the right questions in order to solve a problem when it occurs. These are the modern day skills that our young people will someday call real intelligence.

The best example I have ever come across in terms of defining intelligence is this:

Intelligence is knowing what to do, when you don’t know what to do.

That example reflects a society that has valued skills before content, empowering its young people to be able to solve the problems that they find themselves in, with the educational tools that they have been given. It is in direct contrast to the situations that we often see in our classrooms when students hit a brick wall when they appear to be stuck. “I don’t know what to do”, “I’m stuck”, “I need help”, “How am I supposed to know” are all too common phrases. This ‘Brick Wall’ attitude is a mental barrier to most students, stopping them from progressing any further. They lack the skills to become ‘unstuck’, so either stop working until they receive help from their teacher or simply disengage with the task or topic. What we need to promote is the fact that being stuck is good, because it enables us to use our skills to solve these problems and become ‘unstuck’, giving us significant success as a result.

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Verbs from Blooms Taxonomy such as Analyse, Evaluate, Create and Apply must begin to replace the all too popular Describe, Recall, Remember and Understand that we focus too heavily on when preparing students for exams. These higher order thinking skills not only stretch and challenge our students, but they also lend themselves to solving problems in any subject. The lower order skills are far too specific to one subject eg. Recalling information about Hitler or Nazi Germany, where as the high order thinking skills such as being able to analyse an argument or evaluate the success of a process or system are transferable skills across any subject. These skills are the difference makers in our students’ lives. These are the skills that will truly serve them well in whichever career they choose to follow.

But are we going to see any movement towards a society that values skills before content in the near future?  Teachers, consultants, experts and probably even students themselves will agree that the most vital aspect of a child’s education are the skills and tools they learn, enabling them to be able to access and be successful in any subject they study. However, this is still in direct conflict with the intense pressure for students at all ages to learn how to pass a test. Unfortunately, whilst we are living in this climate of targets and league tables dominating the work we do, we will not see any significant change towards an education system that we all know would be more beneficial for our young people. Until that time we must be content with sending out our young people into the world of work carrying a clutch of exam passes, but in some cases, without the necessary skills to know what to do with them.

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