The main conclusions that can be derived from the analysis provided in this essay are listed below.
Important as the so-called 21st century skills may be, educators should base their programs and education systems more on state of the art knowledge about the full range of skills needed in the world of the future, including basic skills and specific vocational skills. They need to base educational policy and practice on the best available information and learning models on how these different skills can best be developed, for which skills there exists a comparative advantage of developing them in initial education as opposed to other life domains or in post-initial education, at what developmental stage different skills can best be learned, what prior skill basis is required in order to effectively develop later skills and so on.
Within a very few years we can expect a tsunami of ICT to wash over education systems that are in many ways still ill-equipped to deal with the changes this will bring. It is important to realize that ICT will enter the class (to a large extent it already has) whether schools and teachers want it or not. In terms of the latest technology, young people are far more ICT-savvy than older people, and they will bring their versatile hand-held devices into the classroom and expect to use them. The challenge facing schools is not to teach children medium-related ICT skills, which are in most cases superior to those of their teachers. The challenge for schools is to ensure that ICT is used in a constructive rather than a disruptive manner. The ICT revolution may be a double-edged sword: on one hand it offers huge potential in terms of introducing innovations into education that would be unthinkable without such technology, while on the other hand the sheer complexity and volume of the changes threatens to inundate education, thereby largely undoing many of the potential advantages. The main potential advantages lie in the access to a much richer range of content through the internet, and in the availability of dramatically improved levels of interactivity in the learning process and in assessment. In the Dutch case the main bottleneck holding schools back from realizing such advantages may be the inadequacy of teacher training, particularly in the area of making teachers aware of the didactic possibilities of ICT in the classroom. Developing such skills is a time-consuming task, and is unlikely to be systematically achieved unless it is explicitly taken up as a (mandatory) part of their overall professionalization. This is especially important since teachers will need to bear the responsibility for ensuring that young people develop their content-related ICT-skills, which at present are lagging seriously behind their medium-related skills. In the absence of expert guidance, there is a real danger that students will mistake the huge volume of the information flow at their disposal for genuine insight.
Innovative learning environments have already been extensively implemented in Dutch education, but there is concern at the effectiveness of these methods if not administered appropriately. There is little doubt that such methods can be effective in fostering 21st century skills in areas such as teamwork, communication and problem solving, but there is some concern that the conditions are not being met for these methods to be effective in developing basic skills, core subject knowledge and domain-specific skills. It is of key importance that the insights into these conditions for educational effectiveness be updated to allow education to make optimal use of new developments in ICT and to disseminate this knowledge to educational professionals.
There is a clear need for more information on other 21st century skills and also on specific skills, and to continue monitoring basic skills via large-scale assessments. Recent initiatives to make use of new technologies to make large-scale assessments more continuous and authentic perhaps offer the promise that they can in time be integrated in a fruitful way directly into the learning process. The results of these initiatives warrant our close attention, but whatever their outcome is, it is clear that there is a need for more authentic, formative assessment methods in schools. There are already clear insights on the conditions under which formative assessment methods can be effective, but these need to be developed more in relation to new technologies currently emerging which create new possibilities and also new challenges in this area. It is far from clear that schools are equipped to deal with these challenges, raising the risk that what could be potentially a boon can end up as a burden on schools. Here as well, further professionalization of the teaching profession is desirable. As a general point we caution against the risk that assessment comes to be seen by students, teachers, schools or policymakers too much as a contest and too little as a means to gain a better understanding of the strong and weak points of their education.
The Netherlands currently performs well on indicators of basic skill levels as well as in terms of educational attainment, but there are some concerns that we may not be doing quite so well at the top of the skills distribution. There are competing demands on education to simultaneously deal with the challenges of producing intellectual excellence for innovation and economic growth while at the same time making sure as few people as possible fall out of the educational boat and also maintaining high quality standards for the large middle group who are neither dunce nor genius but form the backbone of our economy and society. These competing demands are made more urgent by the increasing pressure on education budgets and hard choices will need to be made. Because we are approaching a point of diminishing returns for the relatively small top and bottom groups, in our view the focus in further improving education along the lines sketched above should be aimed primarily at the much larger middle group who make up 85% of the youth cohort.
In conclusion, much is expected of education to help prepare our society for the great changes taking place in the 21st century, in a time that it is facing many challenges of its own in terms of dealing with the consequences of demographic shifts in student and teacher populations and increased diversity. With so much to be done there is no time to lose.
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