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Education for 21st Century Skills

·       Best practices from Singapore, Finland, and Switzerland

By Anis Haffar

In both my secondary school education in Ghana (in the 1960s), and my university studies in the United States (in the 1970s), “Critical Thinking”, “Problem Solving”, and the other so-called “Soft Skills” were hardly part of the mix. In both instances, students dutifully accumulated information to pass examinations, and hoped to be duly employed and useful thereafter. How things change!

Today, Goggle, Wikipedia, and various internet platforms supply – free of charge – more information than one can possibly need. The essential questions then are these:  How do we think anew and connect theory with applications, knowing that Critical Thinking, for example, cannot be memorized? How do we update our attitudes and talents to leverage the time on our hands? How do we elevate ourselves and the nation into shining examples reflecting our superior selves?

How do we use the information available to solve pressing problems?  How do we navigate from a sedentary “know-how” to the vigorous “do-how”? What skill sets will be most appropriate for the new millennium? Worthy of consideration is the large mismatch between what schools prepare students to do to graduate and the practical realities of life after graduation.

In addressing such concerns, two visionary world leaders come to mind. The American president, John F. Kennedy (1917 – 1963), provided the cue that, “Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction”, and Africa’s iconic Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013) seemed to corroborate that, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

In April 24 – 26, 2014, the Harvard University Advanced Leadership Initiative Think Tank held a colloquium with about 30 top international policymakers and panelists to focus on those essential questions. The task was to merge purpose and direction for a relevant 21st century education to create a better world.

In the Think Tank sessions, the following types of skills were identified as key international benchmarks – to shift education from “thought” to “doing” – to prepare students to be architects of their own lives, and also for the workforce of the future to contribute to their communities, and reduce human suffering:

  1. Critical thinking and problem solving. Businesses do not feel that many students enter the work force with skills related to non-routine thinking and solving complex problems. For employers, these are key skills for high ability, high paid jobs.
  2. Creativity and innovation. Employers want individuals who think outside of the box and develop new solutions to complex problems.
  3. The workforce of the future will be diverse and globally distributed. Individuals must be able to collaborate.
  4. Question formulation. Ideal employees can formulate and ask appropriate questions, which show higher order thinking. Some schools have begun adopting pedagogy that includes working with students to develop skills to formulate questions.
  5. Global awareness. In the past, students have been somewhat isolated. Going forward, employers want students with a sense of global awareness.
  6. Communication skills. Solid oral and written communication skills are essential, and often lacking today.
  7. Technology skills. All students need to be comfortable with, and able to use, technology.

Other desirable 21st century skills include entrepreneurial skills, financial literacy, life skills, people skills, self-direction, personal and social responsibility, character and citizenship. When combined with basic academics, these newer skills create a complete graduate ready to enter and thrive in the workforce of the future.

Unique to Singapore are goal congruence: all parties in Singapore are aligned with the goals and directions of the country’s educational system; and all parties have a sense of urgency. This translates into coherence and alignment of the various efforts, particularly teacher education. Also unique is Singapore’s emphasis on quality teachers. Singapore’s 33,000 teachers are selected from the top 10% of college graduates.

Finland’s education system is not particularly fixated on the 21st century skills. Those sorts of things are not new to them. The main focus of the educational system is to equip students for “a good life”. There are now 10 applications for every teaching vacancy. Of all countries in the world, social class background in Finland is least predictive of academic performance, and variation amongst schools is the lowest. An elite core of high performing well paid teachers emerge from the best qualified graduates.

Half of Finland’s economy is based on international trade, so internationalization is a top national priority. As a result, the schools emphasize the study of foreign languages: each student must speak at least two of Finland’s domestic languages and two foreign languages.

Switzerland combines classroom and workplace learning to produce a great many skilled workers. The youth unemployment rate is under 5%. Most countries can emulate the Swiss model by strengthening vocational education through hands-on abilities.

Today, the whole world is at an inflection point in education where one cannot continue to do the same old things and expect innovative practices to meet the 21st century demands.  The more serious nations, however, advance by raising standards of education consistently.


IMG-20140827-WA0048Singapore: Education systems are indicators of a nation’s prosperity or poverty

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