21st Century Skills from the World Economic Forum

The World Economic Forum has published a new white paper called New Vision for Education: Unlocking the Potential of Technology; the link for the full report is included at the end of this article.  The World Economic Forum is a not-for-profit international institution headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.  Although the focus of this report is worldwide, the gaps in identified twenty-first century skills are very applicable to schools in the USA.  In a powerful statement, the report says: “By the time students enter college and the labour market, deficiencies that have not been addressed earlier can be far more difficult and costly to remedy.” (p 8-9).

The report differentiates 21st century skills among foundational literacies, competencies, and character qualities. It sees foundational skills as what schools and systems traditionally teach and measure: literacy, numeracy, scientific literacy, instructional-communication technology literacy, financial literacy, and cultural and civic literacy.  Competencies sited include critical thinking/problem solving, creativity, communication and collaboration. While curiosity, initiative, persistence/grit, adaptability, leadership, and social and cultural awareness are included in a category called character qualities.  Appendix 1 includes definitions of 21st century skills.

The instructional cycle is referred to as a “closed loop” in this report. Beginning with clear learning objectives through the development of curriculum and instructional strategies to instructional delivery, ongoing assessment, interventions and the tracking of learning outcomes in a repeating complex system.  The report looks at ways that technology can be embedded into each step of the instructional loop to improve student learning outcomes and eliminate the skill gap, providing some resources that might be used at different phases of the cycle.

The report cites differences in the use of technology tools to close the skill gap, looking at different income levels among countries which create different contexts and stating that there are fundamental social and economic problems, such as poverty, that impede learning and underlie the skills gap. Although the deficiencies in many undeveloped countries far surpass those found in the United States, it is my perspective that there are different contexts within the United States itself that must be acknowledged and addressed.

The importance of creativity, problem solving and innovation to the economic well-being of our nation and therefore, the employability of our workforce cannot be stressed enough. The pressure of standardized testing can lead to a standardized curriculum and instruction model that does not allow  the classroom time for these skills to develop. Teachers caught in this dilemma are often driven to insure success on state tests at the cost of providing time for experimentation, reflection, and collaborative feedback. The report does suggest using technology for some of the foundational skills in order to free teacher time to provide instruction on competency and character skills.

In two of the examples from low income countries, technology was used to provide scripted lessons that were created centrally  to under-trained teachers. My preference would be to  more fully train teachers or provide a mentor/coach rather than a “turn the page” curriculum model.

One of the tenants of the article is the need to define and find a metric to assess each of these 21st century skills in order to compare countries skill level. Although I agree with the need to define the skills needed and provide training and resources to teachers so these skills can be embedded into the curriculum and instruction, the idea of an assessment to measure creativity or persistence fills me with dread. Paul Torrance developed a well-used test for creativity used to screen students for school gifted and talented programs.  It is not a test that can be administered and interpreted without training. The idea of administering a standardized test which by definition is convergent in thinking to measure a thinking skill that is divergent by definition seems inappropriate and a major shortcoming of this report.


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