21st Century Skills: The New Reality in Education
2016-07-13 | Text: Dinar Khayrutdinov | Photo ©: Rawpixel.com, Jacob Lund, bibiphoto, Pressmaster, Riccardo Piccinini / shutterstock; Patrick Griffin's archive; salman2, Erica Guilane-Nachez / stock.adobe; Steve Jurvetson / wikimedia | 75876

In order to remain relevant in the era of cutting-edge technology and widespread automation, new skills and abilities are required from professionals. What kind of skills are those and why you cannot do without them in the modern world – in our talk with Melbourne University Professor Patrick Griffin who supervises a major international academic project called Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills.    


Patrick Griffin

– Prof. Griffin, as one of the world’s leading experts in assessment and teaching of 21st century skills, could you please clarify: what exactly is implied by the 21st century skills?

To be more precise, my field is generally measurement and assessment in education, as well as all kinds of educational psychometrics. And the assessment and teaching of 21st century skills is just one of applications of the research that I was engaged in during the last few years. But it is an area that is attracting a lot of attention at the moment. The essence of the concept is as follows: the skills that defined literacy in the industrial era were described as reading, writing and arithmetic, which in the English-speaking world are referred to as ‘the three R’s’, despite the obvious spelling issues. In the 21st century the emphasis is shifting to what we call ‘the four C’s’: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. And, although that is not so much a skill but rather a personal attribute, a lot of groups add curiosity to that as well.

– There’s a common opinion that the education system in its present form was formed as a response to the beginning of industrialization, when first large industrial facilities began to emerge, and they required a large number of workers who would arrive to their work places day after day and would work in front of a conveyor belt for 8-10 hours in a row doing a very definite and narrow set of operations. Is this really so?


Yes, it is. I think that the present education systems in many countries seem to emphasize rewarding people for how much they know, so the purpose of education is the accumulation of knowledge. What is happening now is the shift away from the industrial manufacturing era, which you correctly describe as a kind of a conveyor belt assembly line in which people were employed to undertake simple repetitive actions. Now all of those skills that are repetitive and routine have been replaced by robotics and digital media. This means that people now should be rewarded and educated not in terms of how much they know but in terms of how well they can think and accrue and critically evaluate information rather than just accumulate and memorize it. So there is a lot of pressure on school systems to move away from that old industrial-era curriculum as soon as possible to a more advanced education system that will help to prepare people for the knowledge economy and information society. Naturally, teaching approaches are going to change as well – thanks to the Internet and digital media, today students are often way ahead of their teachers in terms of how much they know. So the role of a teacher as a transmitter is changing or needs to change quickly into that of a facilitator. For many of today’s teachers this change is going to be very difficult. So, the post-industrial curriculums need to foster and encourage critical thinking, communication, creativity and collaboration to place more emphasis on non-routine interpersonal relationship type skills. As soon as something routine is digitized or automated, labour is removed from that particular type of skill, and once labour is removed it never goes back. 


So, everything is changing, even things like a lawyer’s role, for instance. In the USA at the moment about 80% of personal litigation cases are conducted without people having legal representation. Individuals are looking after themselves; they can find the precedents on the Internet, combine their own cases and they don’t need a lawyer. Or another example: a British television program once told a story of a young man who decided to convert an old cowshed into a house for his family. And he did it all by himself by reading up on the Internet about what to do and how he can do it, and succeeded.

So anything that can be learned on the Internet can replace a lot of the existing professions. Literacy as being able to read, write and count will, of course, remain mandatory, but this is not enough anymore. When creating curriculums, we will need to emphasize broader competencies such as problem solving and teamwork skills. But we still have geography teachers, history teachers, science teachers; we don’t have critical thinking teachers, collaboration teachers or curiosity teachers.


– So the whole system needs to change radically?

Yes. The curriculum needs to, first of all, embed those types of skills in the traditional subjects, and then gradually move away from the content of the subject to the critical skills and attributes of people. The subject/discipline style curriculum will be very difficult to change right away, so we will need to make a gradual shift to it – by first changing the content and the way in which those subjects are taught.

– Some experts argue that the very notion of profession/occupation is going vanish in the future. And this is going to happen because the most important ability is going to be that of collecting a new set of skills for each particular task. So, here we have the so-called project approach, which is going to be the dominant one.

That’s right. I think that project-based curriculum and problem-based curriculum are emerging as quite serious contenders to the traditional methods of education. And the same can be said about the skill of ‘learning to learn’. This rhetoric has been around since the 1980s but now this becomes a vital need. We need to teach children the skills of self-regulated learning – both students and their teachers will have to readjust a great deal to make that possible.


– You have mentioned that manual labour will have to disappear. But now there are still enough people who stand in front of a conveyor belt… Moreover, during the industrialization period there already was a demand for people with the skills that you say are essential for the 21st century. Because without critical thinking or being able to communicate and negotiate it is hardly possible to accomplish an industrial revolution in the first place. So what has exactly changed since then?

Well, two major shifts have taken place, two revolutionary steps. The first was in the 1950s and 1960s, when the computer was invented together with the whole idea of digital computing. The second revolution happened in the middle of the last century. You will be surprised but I am talking about the development of the contraceptive pill. We might think of those as two things that are very different and completely unrelated. But this is not so. The development of computing has forever changed the way we work. It changed the tools that we work with, the means of learning and the way we think. As for the development of the contraceptive pill, it changed the nature and structure of the work force: the possibility of controlling childbirth led to the fact that women are now rapidly approaching 50% of the work force, and they used to constitute a very small minority of the work force during the industrial era. So, two things are happening at the same time: the number of jobs that require a person’s involvement in the workplace is being reduced by automation, and the number of people involved in the production work is almost doubling, because now men and women have almost equal access to work positions. This is the reality of today, and in this reality we need an educated workforce that will be able to complete this shift from standing beside an assembly line to post-industrial way of working. As for your observation about some people still standing beside a conveyor belt – well that is only because the companies they work for do not have the resources to automate. But the economics will soon force those companies into bankruptcy because their competition can do it at a fraction of the cost, and the human labour cost is much more expensive than automation.

But these phenomena cause educational problems, too. For instance, there is the question of what to do with the group of students that we were previously preparing for manual routine work. Students who studied for professions that are disappearing – what are we going to do with those kids?

So all the production changes that have happened in the last 60 years caused a major turnaround in the development of the society. And the educational system probably has to move very swiftly in that direction as well. It is not so that the post-industrial workforce has invented creativity, communication, critical thinking or curiosity, but it made these skills mandatory. Now we need those as basic skills as much as we need reading, writing and arithmetic.


– But there is also one thing you haven’t mentioned which is entrepreneurship, the ability of finding new ideas and turning them into businesses. Do you agree with this, because some of the skills you have mentioned are of utmost importance for an entrepreneur?

I totally agree. And it is very interesting, because the World Economic Forum that was recently held in Abu Dhabi listed entrepreneurship as one of the essential characteristics that people need to develop in the modern world. They developed three lists at this Forum – one of literacies (basic literacy, numeracy, scientific and cultural literacies), the other of competencies (problem solving, creativity, etc.) and the third one of attributes (curiosity, entrepreneurship, teamwork and so on). Another example: The Economist magazine early last year released a study of 26 countries in 19 business sectors, and they also listed entrepreneurial thinking as a development skill that needs to happen. Some researchers combine critical thinking, curiosity and creativity and say that they are the underpinning skills of entrepreneurship. However, they do not list risk-taking, which is a really essential part of entrepreneurship. And indeed, if you are not prepared to take risks, you simply cannot be an entrepreneur.


– Let’s go back a bit. What motivated you to begin your research of this problem? Was it any peculiarities or drawbacks of the Australian education system or certain global trends?

No, it was just an opportunity that was presented to me and I took it. Vice-Presidents of three large companies – Microsoft, Cisco and Intel – decided to set up a project to develop a new educational system because they were concerned that schools and universities were not producing graduates that could fit best into the digital work places and the new manufacturing system. They commissioned a study written by American scholar Bob Kozma called “A Call to Action”, and that paper eventually led to companies approaching six governments – Australia, Singapore, Portugal, Finland, UK and USA – to start a project that would study assessment and teaching of 21st century skills. A three-day conference on that topic that was held shortly afterwards attracted about 250 people from industry and academia. At the end of it they appointed the University of Melbourne to lead that project and put funding together, and I was given the opportunity of leading that project. And the reason I was approached to do it is because I am a specialist in educational psychometrics and I could put together a scientific approach to developing the tasks and the curriculums associated with them.

Our first step was to try and define what was meant by 21st century skills. Researchers of education from all over the world wrote a number of papers on this. We had meetings, round tables, conferences. At one of such meetings in 2010 we decided we would combine collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving and communication, and we called it collaborative problem-solving, a complex skill. In the same year we also started researching social media in terms of how they can be used for teaching students those skills. That was six years ago; right now we are already at the stage of being able to define a template that allows those sets of skills to work.

– How many countries are involved in the project now?

There were 6 initial countries by 2010. Then Portugal and UK dropped out of the project due to the global financial crisis, but they were replaced by the Netherlands and Costa Rica. A massive amount of funds is being invested in these studies in the USA, I am talking about tens of millions of dollars. Besides, Latin America is showing a lot of interest in the project (mostly Argentina, Chile and Columbia). China, South Korea and Thailand are getting involved too. Japan is making enquiries about it. I was also in Moscow last November, and there is some work being done at the Institute of Higher Economics who are translating our work to Russian. So we are now in your little corner of the world as well. All in all there are about 20 countries attached to the project.

A lot of countries now realize that this has simply got to happen. There was a PISA-OECD project – they recently tested collaborative problem-solving, our invention, in 53 different countries of the world. That would give you some idea of the scope and the speed with which this is emerging.

– You have mentioned a huge amount of investments being made into this in the USA. Who is making these investments – the government or large companies like Microsoft?

It is a bit of both. For example, the Education Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey, put aside a budget of 35 mln. USD to explore and to evaluate the potential of collaborative problem-solving. As far as I know, the plans are still in place for it to be assessed in a nation-wide survey program in 2017. We can expect that such an event will have a ripple effect all over the world.


– Is your project more applicable to school education or university education?

It equally applies to both, and also includes workplace training. There already are educational institutions that have started using the newly developed approaches. In Thailand the University of Chiang Mai wants to incorporate 21st century skills assessment into the business faculty. Monash University here in Melbourne wants to do the same thing. In Finland they have incorporated this concept into teacher education at University of Jyväskylä. There are moves to start introducing it into undergraduate university education in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Universities join this work slower than schools do. But judging by how fast similar work expanded at a school level, once universities get into that area, I am thinking it would start to move very rapidly there as well. As for workplaces, we are starting to see that there are some unexpected applications of our materials. For instance, the British Council looked at the problems of unemployment and underemployment in the Middle East. They found that in Egypt 56% of university graduates remain unemployed and unemployable because their economy is simply not geared towards absorbing people from universities. So the British Council is planning to use our materials to assess the kinds of skills that people might have that might enable them to think of alternative career placement.

– How does the development of information and communication technology such as the Internet and social media influence education around the world? In your opinion, can these means be used more effectively and reasonably than they are being used now?

Undoubtedly. This technology is changing and developing with an incredible speed – children as young as 3 and 4 are able to manipulate tablet computers in far more sophisticated ways than their parents. Teachers like me who have been in the field for more than 50 years constantly come across students who are way more advanced than we are in the use of technology. And many older generation teachers are literally afraid of technology and do not know how to use it! I have read just this morning about a grade 5 student who is over at the Silicon Valley at this moment because she wrote an app for an iPhone to teach her younger sister how to recognize animals and the app has gone viral. A grade 5 student! It’s incredible!

There is a lot of movement now to introduce coding into the school curriculum. I think this idea will soon gain momentum, and it will change the way we teach as well, because a lot of programming will be done by the kids, the new generation, and this will open endless possibilities for them. Even in my own field – educational measurement and psychometrics – I cannot recruit a person unless that person is also a programmer, because this sphere now completely depends upon computing. And teaching is going to come under similar pressure.

– How do schools and universities need to change? What other changes must happen in the educational process, except the three R’s being replaced by the four C’s? Must the students still attend lectures and classes, do lab work, take tests and exams?

I think it would be fanciful to try and change everything – and probably impossible and unnecessary. Education is a conservative system that is very slow to change. At my own University of Melbourne we managed to completely change the structure of teacher education programs so that they became data-driven and evidence-based, but what we have not been able to do just yet is to shift the emphasis away from disciplines because all of my colleagues are specialists in mathematics and geography and science, so we need to change what they teach and how they teach. As for examinations, practical classes and lab work, the students will still take all that, but the nature of assessing their results will have to change. The examinations will measure thinking skills and learning skills, not how much content the students can remember. And the form of exams and tests that might happen in the future will become new as well. The kinds of tests that we develop do not require the students to find the value of X or memorize names of cities and temperatures and historic dates and that sort of thing. Instead, students are going to communicate via computer devices to solve problems together, with the computer logging everything they do and write and say to one another. And out of that log file afterwards we will interpret their social and cognitive abilities, their creativity and communication skills, etc. 


We are also researching ways to apply this technology to MOOCs. There are certain nuances in terms of objectivity and subjectivity of the assessment, but we try to find ways of using this logging activity in order to automate the assessment process. So universities should now look to their own laurels about how they might develop. In the future the research side of a university will become more pronounced, while the training side of a university will become more automated through online courses.

– Does that mean we will have fewer teachers?

I am afraid so, yes. The teacher will stop being a specialist in transmitting knowledge, and will need to become more of an expert in helping people to learn. There is already a thing called ‘a flipped classroom’ where students do most of their reading, writing and learning outside the classroom, and when they come into the classroom they rationalize the work that they have done at home and consolidate it. And that will be the new role of a teacher: organising the students’ work outside the class and bringing them into the class. In fact, Harvard Professor Eric Mazur who developed a flipped classroom at the university won an award for it. As far as I know, your magazine had a talk with him and published an article about it.

– Yes, indeed we did have a talk with Professor Mazur... But we would also like to hear your opinion on another famous initiative – the things done by Elon Musk. He has recently created a school for his own children, which is also attended by children of other SpaceX staff members. The school’s peculiarity is in its different approach to learning. There is no group or class division, no first, second or third grade. All students study simultaneously. Musk says that personal interests of schoolchildren are more important than their age, so the education must be conducted based on their capabilities and their interest to certain subjects. Can such type of a school develop the skills that you talk about?

Yes, I believe so. In fact, the more students become independent learners, the less relevant year levels and grade levels become. When I came to work at my first school as a mathematics teacher back in the 1960s, I ran some tests over my seventh grade students in mathematics. And I was really alarmed to find that the students had a grade equivalent ranging from grade 2 to grade 9. And I asked my colleagues then: how are we ever going to teach a class of students whose levels are so wildly different? And we decided that there won’t be any classes or levels. Instead we allowed students to work at their own speed, thus eradicating a possibility of failure. We presented materials to them at different levels of difficulty and practiced individual approach and peer mentoring. We tried to challenge the kids and also had certain quality control mechanisms. I worked in that school for five years, and in these five years my colleagues and I did not send any homework in mathematics – it was impossible because of the kids’ different levels. But their parents complained bitterly about the excessive amount of homework that the students had! As it turned out they took to mathematics so much that they dedicated all of their free time to it! The students couldn’t get enough of mathematics, because success was motivating them. At that time there were no theories explaining the advantages of such methods, it just seemed like common sense. 


Photo: Patrick Griffin discusses the future of global education with colleagues.

– In conclusion of our talk, could you tell us about the future steps of your project – in 3-5 years?

In the near 3-5 years I think a new generation of researchers will pick up our work, because I do not see myself involved in that time. But the Latin American developments of the last few months are very exciting. What is ahead is developing new techniques, new methods of coding and scoring, new ways of developing tasks, new areas of application for our project. The number of researchers in this area is rapidly growing and I expect to see more breakthroughs in methodology and development in the next few years. The work we did was very pioneering. Figuratively speaking, it was very much a horse and buggy type work, but I would expect the Rolls Royce to appear very soon, and then space rockets. But we are very proud of our horse and buggy. It was a small step but we have woken a new field of research that I hope will see new developments. I hope that in 5-6 years time there will be a whole different approach to Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills, and a much more effective one.


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