21st Century Skills: What does it mean to our school system?

– By Saipramod Bathena, Programme Lead, ISLI Hyderabad

Education systems across the world have been designed to produce certain outcomes based on socio-economic, political and cultural needs. The design of any education system should be flexible enough to be able to adapt to the changing needs of the time. Most of us would have read or heard headlines like: ‘India graduates millions, but too few are fit to be hired’ or ‘Nearly 47 percent of graduates in India unemployable, or ‘Only 7 percent of engineering graduates employable’. Such reports point out glaring lapses in the design of our education system in the past and warrant better planning for the future.

The digital revolution in the 21st Century has altered the way we live, work and relate to one another. To be better prepared to train citizens; governments, academia, and organisations across the world have taken the initiative to identify the skills required to be successful in the 21st Century.

21st Century skills

These are a series of higher-order skills and abilities that have been identified to be critical for success in 21st-century workplaces and society. These skills differ from traditional academic skills, as they are not primarily based on content knowledge.
A report published by the World Economic Forum, New Vision for Education: Unlocking the Potential of Technology, identified sixteen crucial proficiencies grouped into three broad categories.

Foundational Literacies broadly cover a range of academic skills.

Competencies are the means by which students approach complex challenges.

Character qualities are the ways in which students approach their changing environment.

While this article does not cover the targeted learning strategies to foster each of these skills, a few examples are worth considering. Collaboration can be developed by fostering greater respect and tolerance for others and by providing opportunities for group work. Curiosity can be nurtured by encouraging questions.

Building relevance for schools

Census 2011 estimated that in India, children (0-14 years) constituted around 31 percent of its total population. It has been widely acknowledged that enrolments in India have been increasing and India has near universal enrolment of students in schools. This trend is likely to continue in the future as well.

However, evidence from the grassroots indicates that much of the child’s time in the school is spent on mastering academic content. Even more disturbing is the fact that rote-learning system is widely prevalent in most schools. There is a very little emphasis on developing social and emotional skills. Even in schools which try to provide opportunities for developing social and emotional skills, one sees a tendency of discarding them during the time of exams as academic success is given priority above all other skills.

The need for a visionary leadership

A change from the current reality calls for a visionary leadership at all levels of our education system. More significant is the role of a school leader who has the direct opportunity to bring out the change in the teaching and learning process in schools. The task ahead of the school leaders is to understand and influence teachers to create learning environments that are creative and relevant to students who function within a globally-connecting world.

If India is to harness its demographic dividend, it is imperative that educators, school leaders, teachers, and policymakers consider ways to integrate the means of imparting 21st-century skills in the curriculum. Professional development opportunities for school leaders and teachers should equip them to embrace change. Emphasis on these skills right from schools will not only make the students better prepared for the college but also for their future.

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