How governments and universities can support 21st-century skill development

Rear view of students sitting and listening in university lecture hall doing practical tasks on their laptops.

By Shizuka Kato

Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Key points:

– Creativity and critical thinking are key skills sought by employers in a wide range of professions.
– Action is needed at institutional level to bring change to teaching and learning in higher education, but institutional autonomy and support from policy makers are necessary to make this happen.
– An OECD project has identified three possible ways policy makers and institution leaders can support pedagogical innovations.

As digitalisation and automation increase, it is becoming more important for students to develop the skills that make us human and can’t be replicated by a computer. At the core of this are creativity and critical thinking – two skills that are on the top ten list of skills sought by employers worldwide.

The OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation recently gathered higher education stakeholders to discuss how governments and higher education institutions can foster pedagogical innovations that support the further development of these skills, in the context of the Teaching, Learning and Assessing Creativity and Critical Thinking in Education Project.

While governments implement policies with the aim of supporting quality in teaching and learning, in some cases these policy instruments might hinder pedagogical innovations. For example, some quality assurance systems and national legislation limit the autonomy institutions and teachers have over curriculum development, and may impose administrative burdens that distract them from the continuous improvement of teaching. Public funding formulas largely based on the number of completed degrees or credits do not encourage institutions to experiment with new pedagogies either, in addition to career advancement policies in higher education institutions often placing great weight on research performance rather than incentivising teachers to focus on teaching.

So, how can policymakers and institution leaders support pedagogical innovations? The preliminary findings of our project point to three possible ways:

Increasing incentives for teachers to engage in teaching and learning

Among project participants, about eight in ten agreed that research performance principally determines career advancement at their institutions. You probably agree too! For teaching to have greater priority, public policy and institutional measures are needed.

The Netherlands’ Comenius Programme, for example, sets aside a budget of approximately 25 million euros to support and reward teachers’ and institutions’ efforts to introduce educational innovation. Some higher education institutions have also taken measures to give teaching a greater standing. For instance, the National University of Singapore has created an educator career track in which academic staff focusing on teaching excellence have similar career advancement opportunities and remuneration as academics engaged in research excellence.

Supporting higher education communities of practice to advance teaching and learning

Collective efforts seem to accelerate innovations in teaching and learning more than individual efforts. Governments, higher education associations and international organisations can all play a role in fostering peer learning and collaboration.

In Ireland, for example, the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education serves as a platform for collaboration, bringing together educators from higher education institutions across the country to share and strengthen teaching and learning practices. Similarly, Universities Australia awards teachers’ efforts to improve teaching and has created a community where teachers can learn from each other.

Intergovernmental organisations can also play a role in creating an international community of practice, and this is precisely what our OECD project is doing. It brings together 26 higher education institutions from 14 countries, facilitating peer learning among participating institutions and faculty members.

Including a range of stakeholders when developing policy

As governments establish and revise quality assurance and public funding policies, dialogue with higher education institutions and faculty is essential. This recognises the diversity and autonomy of institutions and helps give proper consideration to teaching and learning in policy development. Involving other stakeholders, such as employers and students, ensures the relevance and quality of higher education programmes. Open and transparent consultation at the institutional level is also important to reflect the voices of teachers from different disciplines and staff with different responsibilities.

Fortunately, stakeholder engagement in policy-making is becoming an international standard. However, it’s important to ensure that their engagement is not merely a formality and their views are reflected in decision-making.

As our project has found, there are many good examples emerging across OECD countries of how governments and higher education institutions can ensure high quality standards without limiting autonomy or hindering innovation. And in doing so, they help students further develop their creativity and critical thinking skills, essential to navigating the challenges and opportunities of the fast-changing world in which they live.

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Photo: Shutterstock/Matej Kastelic