Skills for the 21st Century: Implications for Education



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6.3 Challenges related to the required output
Which skills should be developed in education and when should this take place?
Although most scholars would agree that education is an appropriate place to develop basic skills and many of the 21st century skills as well, there is a major issue of timing and organization into the curriculum. Education is faced with demands in many areas, ranging from traditional disciplines like language, math, science and vocational subjects, new domains like civics and health, as well as all the 21st century skills, and meeting these demands takes time. By definition however, time is limited. Even if we could agree that it is possible to increase the workload for students in education, there is a natural limit to the number of hours that can be spent in a school day, a school week or a school year. This makes time in education precious, and we need to think very carefully how that time should be apportioned. In deciding the amount of time that should be spent on each of the different skill domains we need to ask ourselves the following questions:

  • Is education the most efficient environment to develop these skills?

  • Are these skills more important to develop than other skills that could be developed in education?

  • At what age can these skills best be developed?

  • Is the development of a certain skill a prerequisite for the development of other relevant skills?

  • What would happen if we did not develop these skills in education?

In a number of cases the answers to these questions are pretty straightforward. In the case of basic skills such as literacy and numeracy, there is abundant evidence that children are biologically predisposed to learn these skills, and that education is the appropriate place for a large part of this learning to take place. As Hinton and Fischer (2010) point out, the brain is biologically predisposed to acquire language and work with numbers, but learning formal written language and math is a painstaking cumulative process that takes time, as formal linguistic and mathematical abilities are overlaid on top of the brain’s natural capacities in these areas. Research has shown that in both cases there are clearly different ways in which this overlaying can take place, some more effective than others, which underscores the desirability of allowing this learning to take place in a controlled learning environment, i.e. in formal education. The efficiency of the learning process in other skill domains will be greatly enhanced once a basic level in these domains is reached, which is why teaching these skills needs to be done at a very young age.


In other cases the situation is less clear. Civics, health literacy and financial literacy are all considered important skills, but it is not obvious that education is the most efficient environment to develop these skills. And even if this is the case, allocating time to these subjects will presumably have to be at the expense of science, math, language, or some other subject that is currently taught, which means that we have to weigh the gains in one subject against possible losses in another. In the case of typical 21st century skills, the role of education is even less obvious. As such there is no reason to doubt that skills like cooperation, communication and ICT literacy can be developed in education. The main question is whether this constitutes an efficient usage of the scarce resources available to schools. If this was a matter of devoting explicit space in curricula for developing such skills, the answer may well be no. With the possible exception of ICT skills, it is far from obvious what lessons explicitly designed to develop these skills would look like. However, the development of 21st century skills in education is primarily a matter of the form, rather than the content of education. This insight has formed the primary motivation behind the introduction of innovative modes of teaching and learning. The question is then not so much whether cooperative, student- and inquiry-based learning fosters communication, cooperation and problem-solving skills, but at what time in the educational career they can best be introduced and in what manner (see the discussion above on the circumstances under which these methods are effective).
In short, policymakers and educational practitioners need to think very hard about their priorities, not only in terms of what is to be taught in education, but in which form, at what time, and in which order.
Developing the top, the middle or the bottom?
One of the biggest challenges facing educational systems today is that they are torn between two major objectives that to some extent at least are in conflict with each other. On one hand there is enormous pressure to make resources available to develop talent at the top of the skills continuum. As indicated earlier the Dutch educational system is less effective in developing top talent and is lagging behind when it comes to the upper end (top 5%) of the distribution (Minne et al., 2007). In the past decade many schools and institutes in secondary and tertiary education have developed special programs (bilingual programs, honours programs etc.) for this group, but it is still unclear whether this is enough to develop real top talent. One might assume that this has negative effects on the innovative capacity of the Dutch economy, but in fact the empirical support for the existence of such effects is quite thin (Minne et al., 2007). In its review of the Dutch higher education system, the Commission Veerman (2010) adopted quite a different position. In their view the Netherlands has relatively many top researchers, as indicated by the number of patents, but has to date been not very successful in translating this into commercially viable activities. If this is true, developing top talent may not be the best way to proceed, and it would probably be better to invest in the transfer of knowledge between education and (especially medium and small) enterprises.
The second major objective is that schools are expected to address the serious problems facing those at risk of leaving school with little or nothing in the way of useable skills. Here we might face a problem of diminishing returns. As indicated earlier, the Netherlands has done quite well in terms of decreasing the number of early school-leavers, and although there are indications that some further improvements can be made (Allen and Meng, 2010), it is clear that we have passed the phase of ‘picking low hanging fruit’.
The attention given to the two groups at the extremes of the skills distribution – to be clear, we are talking about the top 5% and the bottom 10% - could easily obscure the fact that education systems are also expected to provide high quality education for the much larger group of students who lack the potential to become geniuses, but who are nonetheless sufficiently gifted to do well at school and make a valuable contribution to the economy and society. Numerically it is this group who make up the bulk of the work force, so it is crucial that they receive adequate schooling. Moreover this is the group most likely to be faced with the consequences of the polarization of the job structure, leading to an increased need for an upgrading of their skills.
If infinite resources were available, it would be easy to address the needs of all three groups mentioned above. However this is not the case, and educational policy will need to make clear how to divide its resources over these three groups in the years to follow. Although it is important to continue paying attention to the top and bottom groups, for these we have perhaps reached the point of diminishing returns, so it is unlikely that extra investments in these groups will pay large dividends. By contrast, general improvements in education along the lines sketched above should pay large dividends when focused on the larger middle skill range group which makes up some 85% of the youth cohort.
How to deal with the narrowly gifted?
One key feature of the new skill requirements is that different skill domains are becoming increasingly interlinked. To give an example: technicians and engineers do not only need to be experts in their own professional domain, but are also required to possess general skills such as an ability to communicate well or a strong customer orientation. As well, tasks in modern math curricula do not only require traditional math skills, but often also require a rather high level of reading skills in order to understand the task at hand. In short, it seems as if everybody needs to be a “Jack of all trades”, and many of the 21st century skills are assumed to be essential for everybody.
This may pose a problem for those who have outstanding talents within a more narrow range of skills. People differ in their innate abilities and interests, and it is unlikely that everybody will be able to achieve the same minimum level for every skill. Education programs seem to offer little room for these more narrowly gifted students. Students in vocational education who may be excellent craftsmen are increasingly forced to follow courses in such things as language, math or civics, as well as to develop good communication and teamwork skills and the like. This may lead to motivational problems and even dropout for these often exceptionally talented students. Similarly, students in general secondary education who are narrowly gifted in science or humanities are faced with obstacles in their school career because they are not only being assessed in domains in which they excel but also in domains where their talents are poor.
The fact that the labour market requires most people to be competent in all these areas does not mean that there is no room for a small number of highly specialised people. On the contrary, in many areas work has become so complex that it is only comprehensible to select groups of specialists. We cannot afford to lose the talents of these narrowly gifted students and it is a task for education to allow these students to optimally develop their talents in the areas in which they excel.

7. What does education need to do?
The changes in the knowledge economy require more than just the development of 21st century skills but also require further improvements of the level of basic skills like literacy and numeracy. Moreover the upgrading of many jobs requires an increase of the participation rates in higher education. This implies that many actions that are aimed to improve the general quality of education coincide well with the requirements that were listed above. This holds for example for the importance of early intervention programs to ensure that young, low-skilled children who enter primary education possess the skills they need to keep up with their more gifted peers and to ensure the efficiency of subsequent learning processes (prevention is the best cure). In this section we will not dwell on these more general actions, but concentrate on actions that are specifically related to the challenges listed above.

7.1 Actions related to the input
Professionalization of the teachers
Research shows that 75% of teachers in primary and secondary education currently use computers in their classes (Kennisnet, 2010). This percentage increases by 2-3% annually so that the gap will be closed in 10 years time. Although most teachers have the medium-related skills to use the computer in their class, the proportion of teachers who is fully aware of the didactic possibilities of ICT is rather low. And more than 40% of the teachers does not feel confident enough about their ICT skills to actually teach ICT skills (Kennisnet, 2010). It will therefore not come as a surprise that the use of modern technology in education is far less developed than is desirable. Most of the programs being used relate to standard programs like e-mail, internet or text editors. The use of curriculum specific ICT tools is less well developed.
A successful implementation of ICT in education demands more than just an investment in hardware (Zucker and Light, 2009). To change the educational practice, a balance needs to be struck between vision, expertise, digital learning materials and ICT infrastructure and the best strategy is to start with the human factors: vision and expertise (Kennisnet, 2010). It is vital that educational managers and professionals develop a shared vision on what they want to achieve and how to develop their expertise. To develop the ICT skills is not just a question of learning some technical skills. It takes a long time before teachers have developed the didactic skills that are necessary to optimally use ICT tools in their curriculum (Kennisnet, 2010). As with many other skills this can best be developed in a combination of non-formal and informal learning.
The non-formal learning of ICT skills could be a (mandatory) part of their overall professionalization. Schools are expected to spend some 10% of their budget on training but little is regulated on how this is done. In this respect it is strange to note that the current Act Occupations in Education (‘Wet BIO’) does not have any reference to the level of ICT skills that teachers need to have, despite the fact that for other areas these skills levels are described (“Vakbekwaamheidseisen”). Having a good description on what is expected of teachers in this area is an important step forward.
In other professional sectors like health care we can see that professional associations play a major role in developing the standards and organizing non-formal training to keep the skills of the professionals up-to-date. Unfortunately these professional associations in education are weakly developed in the Netherlands. It would be good to stimulate discipline-related networks of teachers to take a role in the development of professional standards, course material, open content, dissemination of good practice and training of professionals.

7.2 Actions related to the process
Develop and disseminate systematic knowledge about the conditions under which innovative learning methods are successful.
The success of innovative learning methods is crucially dependent on the conditions under which they are implemented. Unfortunately systematic knowledge in this area is still lacking. It is important to build up a coherent knowledge base about the effectiveness of innovative learning methods and to ensure that this knowledge will be disseminated to educational professionals. Current research programs by the Dutch Scientific Council NWO-PROO and the Top Institute for Evidence Based Education Research TIER have already started to explore the conditions under which innovative learning method are effective. It is important that this knowledge base will be systematically further developed. Moreover it is vital that this information is disseminated to the educational professionals, not only in the initial training of teachers but also to those who are already working in the field. It is important to develop an authoritative standard that teachers can follow when using these methods.
Integrate the use of ICT skills in core curricula
Very often the fact that students usually have better ICT skills than their teachers is taken as an argument not to teach ICT skills in education. This is probably true for the more technical ICT skills, the ones that Van Dijk (2005) defines as operational ICT skills and formal ICT information skills. OECD (2010b) shows that in countries like the Netherlands, England, Austria and the Nordic countries 95% or more of the 15-year-olds use internet on a daily basis. We would argue that such skills per se are in general not efficiently developed in education: the technology changes too quickly and in any case young people develop the relevant skills largely in private life. There is no need to make the application of innovative technology an explicit goal, but rather barriers to using such technologies for learning and inquiry should be removed as far as possible, for example by organizing assignments in such a way that it is efficient for students to use the latest technology. Under such conditions, the fastest students will need no further prompting to make use of the technologies they are all too familiar with, meaning that the students themselves will introduce the technology into the classroom. By incorporating this into cooperative, inquiry-based methods under the conditions described above, the slower students will develop ICT literacy by following the example of their faster peers.
However the situation may be different for the more content related part of ICT skills, the substantial ICT information skills and strategic ICT skills. Van Deursen (2010) shows in an experiment that the overall level of content-related internet skills of young people is much lower than their medium-related skills, and that young people do not perform better than older people on such skills. This part of ICT literacy consists of generic skills such as developing information-processing skills, logical thinking, deductive reasoning and the like. These skills are already part of the curriculum in education, but their significance has increased even more in a technology-rich environment. The vast amount of information available on the internet has given rise to problems related to locating and evaluating information for quality and credibility. Students need to learn how to evaluate and appraise the information they can find on the internet and developing these content-related internet skills should be part of the curriculum.
Promote the use of open content and show examples of best practice
One of the important implications of the ICT development in education is that it changes the role of the teacher as an autonomous professional who is solely responsible for developing the curriculum, teaching and assessment. Through the use of modern technology, communities of practitioners emerge who jointly develop curricula and make them available through open resources. Teachers can choose from materials already developed elsewhere. Students can follow lectures by the best teachers in the world. This will probably have a positive effect on the quality of teaching, and decrease the variation in teaching quality as individual differences between teachers become less important. Education can and must benefit from the ICT revolution, making use of the possibilities created by for example open content, mobile technologies and innovative interfacing technologies. Education should embrace such ICT innovations and use them to improve the way education is organized. The best way to promote this practice is by using existing professional networks and by making it part of the training of teachers (see above).
Pay more attention to assessment
The success of each innovative learning method is critically dependent on the presence of well-designed assessments. It is clear that not only the curriculum but also the way we assess students drives the learning process (Van der Vleuten, 1996). However, the kinds of skills that are needed to pass an exam are often quite different from the skills we aim to develop. There is little value in using multiple-choice exams that merely test the short-term memory capacity of students when the actual aim is to develop academic skills. It is therefore important to align the way we assess students with the objectives of the curriculum, for example by using some form of authentic assessment.
Related to this, in many cases exams are used as a purely summative evaluation of whether the student has passed or failed the course. Wiliam (2010) makes a strong case for the role of formative assessment, in which the results are used to give feedback to students about their progress, and to diagnose any remaining tasks that have not been mastered yet. Students often need help understanding the problem they are aiming to solve, and in developing their strategy for solving that problem, they crucially rely on effective feedback to ensure that they learn from their mistakes. They will learn little when the only feedback is that they passed or failed the exam.
More flexibility in the exams
One way of dealing with the problem of the narrowly gifted is to allow exams to be taken at different levels, depending on the subject taken. As in the international baccalaureate, students should be allowed to take an exam in some subjects at say VWO level and in other subjects at HAVO level or even below (see also Onderwijsraad, 2007). As is the case now, courses in tertiary education can formulate specific requirements about the subject as well as the level of the exam that needs to be taken in order to enter the program. This flexibility would solve many of the inherent problems of the early tracking system and would allow for an optimal development of talent.

7.3 Actions related to the output
Develop systematic knowledge about what should be learned and when.
Education is facing many and sometimes conflicting demands. But instruction time in education is by definition limited and this means that there will trade-offs. These trade-offs are complicated. More time spent on one skill domain will often be at the cost of skill acquisition in another domain. But improving skills in one domain (e.g. literacy) may also improve the efficiency of later skills acquisition in another domain (e.g. history). Another issue relates to the timing of skills acquisition. Some domains are more effectively developed in early childhood, while others are more effectively developed during adolescence. And finally, we need to know how the skills that are acquired in education affect relevant economic and social outcomes.
Educational policy needs to make complex decisions about what needs to be taught in education, when this learning should take place and how the learning process should be organised. The how question is often a prime focus of teachers and educational researchers and in recent years we have seen a strong movement towards evidence-based innovations (but see our earlier remark on the lack of knowledge on the conditions under which these innovations are successful). However regarding the what and when questions, we still lack a thorough understanding of the educational production process. The ‘technology of skill formation’ (Cunha and Heckman, 2007) is still to a large extent a black box. It is important to systematically develop our understanding in this area by developing a simulation model of the educational production process and its effects on social and economic outcomes. Such a model can serve as a basis to make educational policy on what and when questions more evidence-based.
Remove obstacles for the enrolment in higher education
The objective of Dutch educational policy is to further increase enrolment in higher education. This is also necessary because the polarisation of the job structure forces more and more medium-skilled workers to upgrade their skills to a tertiary level. However there are three bottlenecks in the Dutch educational system which may hamper further increases in the enrolment in higher education.
One is the narrow basis for recruitment of students from the academic tracks in secondary education: HAVO and VWO. The largest share of enrolment in higher education comes from these two academic tracks. Although these two tracks show a steady increase compared to the lower tracks in secondary education, they still make up less than 50% of the students. Especially the share of HAVO is lagging behind compared to the distribution of teacher’s advices and test results at the end of primary education (Borghans et al., 2008). In order to increase enrolment in higher education the basis in secondary education should be broadened, which means more enrolment in HAVO.
The second obstacle is the long route to higher education that is followed when students choose the vocational tracks. Compared to students from HAVO, it will take students from vocational tracks (VMBO) 3 years longer to proceed to higher vocational education (HBO). Given this long route it is surprising that so many students actually follow it successfully, and it is questionable whether this can be simply increased further. It is important to develop shorter routes to allow talented students in vocational education to proceed to higher education. More in general it would be good to develop honours programs in vocational tracks (VMBO, MBO and HBO) to raise the reputation and attractiveness of these tracks.
The third bottleneck is the lack of differentiation in higher education, especially in HBO. Compared to other countries the share of short cycle courses (Associate degrees) is very low. It has been argued that the 4-year courses in MBO fulfil the same function as Associate Degrees in other countries, but a recent evaluation by Coenen and Van der Velden (forthcoming) shows that this is not the case. The lack of differentiation in HBO seriously hampers the further participation of students and adults with an MBO qualification. It is important to develop both the short cycle courses as well as the dual courses in tertiary education. This will make tertiary education more attractive for students from MBO who want to continue in education, but do not want to follow a 4-year program as well as for adults who want to upgrade their skills level.

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