Finding and measuring 21st-century skills

Companies want employees who can think critically, work collaboratively and communicate through new technology. A revolutionary project is teaching students how to do them all.

Even before the dawn of the new millennium, business executives, educators and parents were asking what skills workers would need to succeed in the new century. The answers are now becoming clearer, thanks to a ground-breaking project called Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills (ATC21S). In 2009, three technology giants – Cisco, Intel and Microsoft – joined forces with the University of Melbourne’s Assessment Research Centre and six governments (Australia, Costa Rica, Finland, the Netherlands, Singapore and the US) to identify the key proficiencies that employers are looking for now and into the futur e. Their findings: companies want individuals who are good at critical thinking, problem-solving, collaborating and communicating through new technology.

The search for such talent is getting more and more serious. According to PWC’s 15th Annual CEO Survey, one in four chief executives said they were unable to pursue a market opportunity or had to cancel or delay a strategic initiative because they could not hire the right talent. One in three of the 1,258 international CEOs polled for the report expressed concern that skills shortages will impact their company’s ability to innovate. To help address the problem, the European Commission held its second e-skills week in March, dedicated to showing young people the relevance of – and demand for – e-skills in a digital age.

But to keep ahead of global competitors, businesses are also looking for people with the social skills to appreciate different perspectives and cultures. These 21st-century skills are not part of the traditional classroom curriculum. What’s more, they are challenging to teach, to measure and to adapt to the needs of Europe’s citizens. But the ATC21S project is making exciting progress, and changing the world of education at the same time.

In a school in Finland, for instance, two 15-year-old students sit in separate classrooms – each at a personal computer working together on what appears to be a game. In fact, it is a fairly sophisticated business problem that involves the cost of materials, marketing information, sales and profit figures (see box). As they bat ideas and information back and forth, the computers they are using to message each other are also assessing the ways in which each is collaborating and building knowledge.

The exercise reflects the dramatic rise in collaboration via information technology networks across countries and time zones – for most of the global workforce. Schools have failed to keep pace with that shift, continuing to focus on the traditional curriculum, reinforced by competitive national exam regimes. When schools are judged on their results, they teach what the exams test.

But what if policymakers change the exams? “How do you change the nature of assessment?” Greg Butler, senior director, Worldwide Education Strategy for Microsoft, asks rhetorically. “How do you measure you and me collaborating?”.

Here’s how. Researchers divided the desired skills into two sets – collaborative problem-solving and digital literacy – and developed two suites of complex, challenging and appealing activities that children could work on in pairs from PCs in separate rooms, schools or even countries. The students, each of whom has only half of the information needed for a solution, might be asked to balance a beam with weights, feed balls into the mouth of a clown or figure out how to add up a set of numbers to get to 20.

In every pilot school, the pattern was the same. Diederik Schonau, senior international consultant at the independent assessment body, CITO, describes the scene in the Netherlands. After 15 minutes of noise and some bafflement, the students caught on, became intrigued and “worked eagerly” together on the tasks. Teachers taking part were “very interested and surprised by the assignments”.

Assessing assessment
The ATC21S project involved 5,000 12-to-16-year-olds, cost upwards of $3 million and harnessed the thinking of more than 200 academics worldwide, along with executives at major banks and multinationals. “This remarkable initiative… has cracked the code on how to set standards for, and assess the acquisition of, 21st-century skills,” says Robin Horn, education sector manager for the World Bank. ATC21S was “a harbinger of a wholly new approach to standards and assessment”. That’s important, since to make changes at the classroom level policymakers need accurate information about the abilities of the student population. “This research has broken the ground on assessment,” says Patrick Griffin, associate dean of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education and ATC21S executive director.  “And it will lead to changes in curriculum across the world.”

In fact, the ATC21S assessment data led to the OECD’s decision to measure 15-year-olds’ “collaborative problem-solving” skills alongside the usual language, mathematics and science tests in its 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey.

“ATC21S has played an essential pathfinder role to move the assessment agenda forward,” says PISA director Andreas Schleicher. “It fills a critical gap between existing basic research on assessment design and methodologies, on the one hand, and the implementation of large-scale assessments that provide reliable data at reasonable cost, on the other.”

Governments in every industrialised country care about their position in the PISA league tables. So the inclusion of collaborative problem-solving data will push politicians and policymakers to expand school curricula beyond the three basic subjects that PISA currently measures.

That will increase demand for the ATC21S findings and materials, which are now migrating to the cloud so they can be easily accessed. ATC21S will offer curriculum recommendations, advice and workshops for teachers as well as policy and implementation guidance for test developers and governments.Of course, official testing means scoring children and ranking countries – always a controversial process. But ATC21S has worked on a “developmental model, not a deficit model”, says Greg Butler. In other words, its purpose is to help identify what each student can do so that the teacher can help the individual child take the next step.

Still, once the main part of project is wrapped up in June, the debate will probably intensify. After all, arguing about education policy is a skill that is centuries old.

This article was originally published in Issue 10 of the Futures Magazine.

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