21st Century Skills for Students

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Anyone who works in education, learning or an industry or any kind is hearing about the need for people to develop ’21st Century Skills’. These skills are not new, and have traditionally been known as ‘soft’ (ie, not as important) skills. They include an ability to build positive interpersonal relationships, to think about and solve problems, to negotiate, to give and receive feedback, and an ability to learn new things. These skills are now becoming essential for human development and success in life and work, and are being coupled with new technical skills from exponential industries.

But what 21st Century skills will be important, and who’s going to pay for people to learn, develop and apply them?

In other posts we have discussed the skills 5 year olds will need in the year 2030, and developing uniquely human competencies. The pages of this site are filled with examples of what organisations and companies such as the World Economic Forum, Boston Consulting Group and the US Department of Labor consider to be essential skills for 21st Century living and work.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s Office of Testing and Assessment has also compiled a series of reports examining this issue. They explore the various definitions of 21st Century Skills and ‘sift’ through them to find out what’s important, why and how these skills can be taught and assessed. The different reports look at transferable knowledge and skills, the building of personal character, along with intra and interpersonal competencies.

The reports are pretty interesting to read for the most part, and offer a scientific perspective that is important.

For example, Dubai has started a strategic partnership with the World Economic Forum to develop two programmes to address skills shortages in the coming Fourth Industrial Revolution. From the article:

“One of the programs focuses on identifying future skills and preparing the education and training systems accordingly, while the other focuses on codifying these future skills in order to transition from the current degree-based into a skill-based labor market.”

The first programme involves establishing a series of global private/public partnerships, in both developing and developed countries with the purpose of training, re-training and up-skilling people for the future of work.

The second programme aims to address the mismatch of supply and demand in the labour market, and involves working with universities and key industries to develop a shared taxonomy for skills, again with a view to developing countries. With the global youth unemployment rate at 13% and growing, it’s reassuring to see this investment in learning for the future.

Finland is taking a thoughtful approach to up-skilling and preparing for the future in teaching its population about machine learning and artificial intelligence. The idea is to teach 1% of the population to understand how AI works to see how people in industries as varied as dentistry, paper manufacturing and the civil service so that Finland positions itself as a leader in practical applications of AI.

Finland is well aware that it can’t compete directly with the likes of China and the U.S. in terms of AI research and development, but it can put AI in the hands of ordinary people to see how they run with it. Ordinary people can identify opportunities and risks, and they can share their ideas with their government so it knows where investment and regulation might be required. It’s a great idea that seems to follow the Law of Diffusion of Innovation (LDI), i.e. once a critical mass of a population is adopting a certain technology others will follow.

Finland is the first European country to develop a national AI strategy, is forming partnerships with neighbouring countries, and has also identified that about 1,000,000 people, or just over 18% of the population (around the ‘tipping point’ of the LDI towards widespread early adoption of a technology or idea), require some for of machine learning training. This initiative is supported by companies and the government – a sort of private/public partnership similar to what’s happening in Dubai, and will likely become more wide-spread.

Continuing in this theme – is there starting to be some consensus about who’s going to pay for all of this up-skilling? Should it be the individual, the government, the private sector or a combination of all three?

In looking at who pays for re-skilling, this article from Modern Diplomacy states that the cost of just over 80% of worker up-skilling in the workforce can be met by industries, industry partnerships or industry in partnership with government, at a total cost of about 34 billion dollars in the United States alone. However this leaves just under 20% of workers for whom up-skilling does not provide return on investment, in which case the loss falls to the government alone.

And it’s not just the training: unemployment benefits, housing, medical, education for children all need to be accounted for. From the World Economic Forum:

“In our view, a combination of three investment options needs to be applied: companies working with each other to lower costs; governments and taxpayers taking on the cost as an important societal investment; and governments and business working together.”

It doesn’t look like there will be a net positive return on investment for re-skilling every worker for every job lot or augmented. But the cost and risk can be shared, hence the current widespread development of private/public partnerships like those we see happening in Dubai, Finland and recommended by the WEC.

There are certainly skills that can only be learned once one enters the job market, but the foundation for essential attributes and behaviours such as lifelong learning can be built through years of practice at an early age, i.e. in schools?

The research conducted and insights gained during the writing of this article have inspired the Indigo Schools Framework, the details of which can found in the Primer on our Resources Page. Send us an email at info@indigoschools.net or complete the form below if you’d like to learn more about how the Indigo Schools Framework can be successfully applied within your school. Also be sure to follow us on Facebook and Linkedin for our latest updates.

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