Why 21st Century Skills? To Prepare Students For Life, Not Just Exams

13 November 2015

The term “21st Century Skills” can be considered something of a misnomer, as it is not that these kinds of skills were deemed to be unimportant in the 20th Century.

However, our post-primary education system still largely adheres to an educational convention that originated in the Victorian era, with rows of students facing a single teacher at the top of the classroom, and with an emphasis on individualised study.

The 2012 PISA report, which aims to evaluate and compare international education systems through testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students, highlights a need for prioritisation of opportunities for students to develop the habits and reasoning skills that will permit them to become effective problem-solvers and self-directed learners (www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/pisa-2012-results-overview.pdf).

Such competencies are echoed in our own curricular material relating to the development of “key skills” at Junior and Senior Cycle (e.g., collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, information literacy, etc. – www.juniorcycle.ie/Curriculum/Key-Skills-(1)).

Commonly known as “21st Century Skills”, these competencies are recognised internationally as being as important as the development of subject-specific content knowledge. It is clear that a strong foundation for success in this regard is rooted in learning that happens informally, but also within the confines of formal education. So why then are we still not providing adequate opportunities for our students to cultivate these skills in an integrated manner, throughout curricular activities?

To facilitate a transformation in this regard – e.g., an educational transition to the current century – change is required at three levels:

  1. The overarching school system, particularly with regards to short class periods and assessment: For the successful development of 21st Century in classrooms, appropriate assessment procedures need to be in place to determine whether the desired learning outcomes have been achieved. Although assessment is generally a primary driver of students’ activity, traditional high-stakes exams do not generally test the kinds of skills prioritised by 21st Century Learning; instead they tend to focus solely on the reproduction of content knowledge.
  2. The provision of resources, including sustained professional development for teachers: Educators need to be provided with adequate support and continuous professional development in order to master the necessary skills and teaching strategies, but also to ‘unlearn’ the beliefs and assumptions that underpin the traditional industrial-model of classroom practice. It is vital that the skills we are encouraging in our students are also espoused by the teachers. However, the incorporation of collaboration, creativity and critical thinking into their practice can be challenging for teachers who are so confined by current curriculum and assessment processes.
  3. Beliefs about the role of the teacher in the classroom: In order to facilitate the development of 21st Century Skills in their students, the role of the teacher in the classroom needs to adapt from the traditional one of “knower” and instructor, to facilitator, guide, and co-learner.

It is fundamental that we begin to address the issues around the meaningful integration of 21st Century learning into our mainstream secondary education system in order to provide future generations with the opportunities to develop the requisite skills to succeed. 21st Century learning environments are necessary in order to provide students with the appropriate knowledge, but also to prepare them with the skills to apply that knowledge in real-life situations and to be equipped for full participation in society. However, evidently this is not a trivial task. 

Teaching for Tomorrow (TfT) is an Erasmus+ project (www.leargas.ie/programmes/erasmusplus) that aims to address some of these issues. The project is a partnership between Bridge21 (www.bridge21.ie) in Trinity College Dublin and schools in Sweden, Estonia, Germany and Ireland. 16 teachers from the four partner countries will collaborate to develop and refine the existing Bridge21 model of 21st Century learning.

TfT will combine cutting-edge educational research with best practice in schools at a European level, ultimately leading to the development of a pragmatic and efficient model of 21st Century teaching and learning. Throughout the process, transnational communities of practice will develop to support teachers’ use of the model in their own contexts.

Media Contact

Thomas Deane, Press Officer for the Faculty of Engineering, Mathematics and Science | deaneth@tcd.ie | +353 1 896 4685