Friday, May 18, 2012

What should students learn in the 21st century?

By Charles Fadel
Founder & chairman, Center for Curriculum Redesign 
Vice-chair of the Education committee of the Business and Industry Advisory Committee (BIAC) to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
Visiting scholar, Harvard GSE, MIT ESG/IAP and Wharton/Penn CLO

It has become clear that teaching skills requires answering “What should students learn in the 21st century?” on a deep and broad basis. Teachers need to have the time and flexibility to develop knowledge, skills, and character, while also considering the meta-layer/fourth dimension that includes learning how to learn, interdisciplinarity, and personalisation. Adapting to 21st century needs means revisiting each dimension and how they interact:

Knowledge - relevance required: Students’ lack of motivation, and often disengagement, reflects the inability of education systems to connect content to real-world experience. This is also critically important to economic and social needs, not only students’ wishes. There is a profound need to rethink the significance and applicability of what is taught, and to strike a far better balance between the conceptual and the practical. Questions that should be answered include: Should engineering become a standard part of the curriculum? Should trigonometry be replaced by more statistics? Is long division by hand necessary? What is significant and relevant in history? Should personal finance, journalism, robotics, and other new disciplines be taught to everyone - and starting in which grade? Should entrepreneurship be mandatory? Should ethics be re-valued? What is the role of the arts – and can they be used to foster creativity in all disciplines?

Skills – necessity for education outcomes: Higher-order skills (“21st Century Skills”), such as the “4 C’s” of Creativity, Critical thinking, Communication, Collaboration, and others are essential for absorbing knowledge as well as for work performance. Yet the curriculum is already overburdened with content, which makes it much harder for students to acquire (and teachers to teach) skills via deep dives into projects. There is a reasonable global consensus on what the skills are, and how teaching methods via projects can affect skills acquisition, but there is little time available during the school year, given the overwhelming amount of content to be covered. There is also little in terms of teacher expertise in combining knowledge and skills in a coherent ensemble, with guiding materials, and assessments.

“Character” (behaviours, attitudes, values) – to face an increasingly challenging world: As complexities increase, humankind is rediscovering the importance of teaching character traits, such as performance-related traits (adaptability, persistence, resilience) and moral-related traits (integrity, justice, empathy, ethics). The challenges for public school systems are similar to those for skills, with the extra complexity of accepting that character development is also becoming an intrinsic part of the mission, as it is for private schools.

Meta-Layer:  Essential for activating transference, building expertise, fostering creativity via analogies, establishing lifelong learning habits, and so on. It will answer questions such as: How should students learn how to learn? What is the role of interdisciplinarity? What is the appropriate sequencing within subjects and between subjects? How do we develop curiosity? How do we facilitate students’ pursuing of their own passions in addition to the standard curriculum? How do we adapt curricula to local needs?

So what is actually being done to ensure that our workforce is skilled for 21st century success and  to ensure that students are skilled, ready to work and contribute to society?

The global transformation, often called the "21st century skills" movement is helping move schools closer to learning designs that better prepare students for success in learning, work and life. The OECD Skills Strategy is responding to this by shifting the focus from a quantitative notion of human capital, measured in years of formal education, to the skills people actually acquire, enhance and nurture over their lifetimes. My hope is that schools, universities and training programs will become more responsive to the workforce and societal needs of today, and students will increasingly focus on growing and applying essential 21st century skills and knowledge to real problems and issues, not just learning textbook facts and formulas.

This will raise levels of creativity and innovation, and provide better  skills , better jobs, better societies, and ultimately better lives.

21st Century Skills – Learning for Life in our Times, by Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel, Wiley.
Center for Curriculum Redesign

Photo credit: Finger smileys / Shutterstock


  1. Excellent post. These are exactly the questions we should be asking and focusing on. Brilliant!

  2. Brilliant post. Focused, short and exactly to the point. These powerful questions are the ones that we should all be focusing on. Excellent!

  3. Yes, these are the things teachers should be focussing on. However, the trick is to link these to the content/learning outcomes that teachers are required by law to help students learn and master. This is where the real teacher work lies. To relate the learning to the student's world while ensuring the student addresses the content that the government will test while helping the student master the skills that are so important to the student's future life and career is all part of what today's teachers must do.

  4. Anonymous9:36 PM

    I agree with much of what the post says and think that a lot of what what is currently taught in schools could be much more in touch with 21st century life. The problem is, I feel, that whilst teachers are busy teaching, the world is moving on at a tremendous speed, and professional development opportunities are often too general, non-subject specific and don't address the issues covered in the article. Unless we start to provide high-quality, regular opportunities for teachers to develop their own skills, and some real time to do it in, I fear that we will not see education moving forward in the right direction for some time.

  5. I would add: speaking another language, better communication skills with people from other cultures (including learning to look at issues from other perspectives), empathy, geo-literacy, and using technology to collaborate on projects around the globe.

  6. I agree with you that these characters has to be implanted in kids so they can achieve success in their life.

  7. OECD educationtoday8:14 PM

    I agree that "Universities and training programs should become responseive to the workforce and societal needs", yet in some countries there is some disconnect between what happens in the classroom and the work place. How can this mismatch be addressed?


  8. Good analysis, but no solutions are presented ! Only questions and issues !

    Still what about civility and civism, these topics are more important and pre-requistes for a good mind that will know what to learn and how !

  9. I agree with the need to engage students in learning. As a Financial Literacy Educator I've discovered that teaching concepts and outcomes of financial decisions often resonates with all age and income groups. Teaching investment instruments or vehicles can be distracting and often a disconnect for persons with limited monies. Ultimately if you save money, pay off debt/borrow as a last resort and learn to give in a charitable way money becomes manageable.

    Jose Northover, Give Youth Truth