What should students learn in the 21st century?

By Charles Fadel
Founder & chairman, Center for Curriculum Redesign 
Vice-chair of the Education committee of the Business and Industry Advisory Committee (BIAC) to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
Visiting scholar, Harvard GSE, MIT ESG/IAP and Wharton/Penn CLO

It has become clear that teaching skills requires answering “What should students learn in the 21st century?” on a deep and broad basis. Teachers need to have the time and flexibility to develop knowledge, skills, and character, while also considering the meta-layer/fourth dimension that includes learning how to learn, interdisciplinarity, and personalisation. Adapting to 21st century needs means revisiting each dimension and how they interact:

Knowledge – relevance required: Students’ lack of motivation, and often disengagement, reflects the inability of education systems to connect content to real-world experience. This is also critically important to economic and social needs, not only students’ wishes. There is a profound need to rethink the significance and applicability of what is taught, and to strike a far better balance between the conceptual and the practical. Questions that should be answered include: Should engineering become a standard part of the curriculum? Should trigonometry be replaced by more statistics? Is long division by hand necessary? What is significant and relevant in history? Should personal finance, journalism, robotics, and other new disciplines be taught to everyone – and starting in which grade? Should entrepreneurship be mandatory? Should ethics be re-valued? What is the role of the arts – and can they be used to foster creativity in all disciplines?

Skills – necessity for education outcomes: Higher-order skills (“21st Century Skills”), such as the “4 C’s” of Creativity, Critical thinking, Communication, Collaboration, and others are essential for absorbing knowledge as well as for work performance. Yet the curriculum is already overburdened with content, which makes it much harder for students to acquire (and teachers to teach) skills via deep dives into projects. There is a reasonable global consensus on what the skills are, and how teaching methods via projects can affect skills acquisition, but there is little time available during the school year, given the overwhelming amount of content to be covered. There is also little in terms of teacher expertise in combining knowledge and skills in a coherent ensemble, with guiding materials, and assessments.

“Character” (behaviours, attitudes, values) – to face an increasingly challenging world: As complexities increase, humankind is rediscovering the importance of teaching character traits, such as performance-related traits (adaptability, persistence, resilience) and moral-related traits (integrity, justice, empathy, ethics). The challenges for public school systems are similar to those for skills, with the extra complexity of accepting that character development is also becoming an intrinsic part of the mission, as it is for private schools.

Meta-Layer:  Essential for activating transference, building expertise, fostering creativity via analogies, establishing lifelong learning habits, and so on. It will answer questions such as: How should students learn how to learn? What is the role of interdisciplinarity? What is the appropriate sequencing within subjects and between subjects? How do we develop curiosity? How do we facilitate students’ pursuing of their own passions in addition to the standard curriculum? How do we adapt curricula to local needs?

So what is actually being done to ensure that our workforce is skilled for 21st century success and  to ensure that students are skilled, ready to work and contribute to society?

The global transformation, often called the “21st century skills” movement is helping move schools closer to learning designs that better prepare students for success in learning, work and life. The OECD Skills Strategy is responding to this by shifting the focus from a quantitative notion of human capital, measured in years of formal education, to the skills people actually acquire, enhance and nurture over their lifetimes. My hope is that schools, universities and training programs will become more responsive to the workforce and societal needs of today, and students will increasingly focus on growing and applying essential 21st century skills and knowledge to real problems and issues, not just learning textbook facts and formulas.

This will raise levels of creativity and innovation, and provide better  skills , better jobs, better societies, and ultimately better lives.

21st Century Skills – Learning for Life in our Times, by Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel, Wiley.
Center for Curriculum Redesign

Photo credit: Finger smileys / Shutterstock

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