Published on: 02 Nov 2017

Skillful schools

By Hannah Marr, Senior International Publisher, GL Education

Life skills. The four Cs. Employability skills. Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS). 21st Century skills. These are all terms that are used in numerous educational contexts; sometimes interchangeably in fairly broad ways, sometimes with shades and nuances of interpretation that can seem bewildering to the uninitiated.

There’s a definite risk - as with any buzzword - of the terms becoming just more unhelpful jargon. However, the very fact that educators around the world are continually coming up with new terms to describe similar things, shows that we are all concerned with the crucial issue at the centre of this word soup: modern education isn’t (shouldn’t be/can’t be) purely about imparting knowledge; it’s about equipping students with the skills to succeed in life beyond school. Indeed, this is one of the core messages of the recently published EPI report, Educating for our Economic Future.

This is of course extremely easy to say (and you have a range of handy terms to choose from!) but much less simple to put into practice, particularly in education systems that are driven by attainment in high-stakes exams.

It can be done though, and there are numerous examples of individual schools and school groups implementing successful initiatives. To choose just one example, GEMS Education has set up an innovation, research and development unit to promote innovation across their schools in strategy, teaching and, crucially, learning. For example, GEMS partnered with Singularity University to institute an annual Global Innovation Challenge in Dubai, inviting students to come up with ideas to address 21st Century issues such as sustainability and disaster resilience.

At a curriculum level, the International Baccalaureate is an example of an educational system that puts what it calls the learner profile at the heart of its pedagogical approach, with a focus on development of the whole student, including ATL (Approaches to Learning) skills. This can be seen in its emphasis on interdisciplinary project work, as well as the inclusion of community service as a core component of the IB Diploma. At the recent IB Global Conference I attended in The Hague, Tony Wagner of Harvard University argued passionately for the importance of innovation in the core curriculum, suggesting that we are no longer a ‘knowledge economy’ but an ‘innovation era’.

In the UK, University Technical Colleges (UTCs) focus specifically on employability skills, and Lord Baker argues, “In the digital revolution, young people will need a range of technical and life skills alongside academic results”. Relatedly, the DfE recently announced the creation of a programme called Essential Life Skills as a means to increase social mobility.

Arguably this isn’t a particularly new idea, even if the ‘21st Century skills’ label might suggest otherwise. The concept of soft skills has always been discussed, but perhaps in a way that – inadvertently or otherwise – underemphasised their importance. Even the term ‘soft skills’ implies they’re skills anyone can gain, the logical opposite being ‘hard skills’. This is definitely one of the imbalances that newer approaches aim to address. There’s nothing easy (or easy sounding) about critical thinking, or resilience, or applied knowledge.

And crucially it’s not just educators who are now talking about, let’s call them, ‘x skills’. Employers are too, particularly in the context of the rising levels of youth unemployment that exist in many countries globally. For example, Deloitte holds summer skills ‘boot camps’ for graduates before making hiring decisions. If, as many commentators are saying, we can’t predict what the workplace will look like even ten years in the future, it becomes almost impossible to guess at what knowledge students will need. What are much more stable, and therefore by implication more important for future employees, are the core skills needed across an almost infinite variety of roles: creativity, collaboration, evaluation. If a student has these skills, they have the ability to take information learnt at school, which may now be obsolete, and to extrapolate from it what they need in their new, unknown context.

In broad terms then, we need to focus on the development of the whole student, the whole person, and use all the tools at our disposal to do so: curricula, resources, observation, interaction, assessment. Perhaps there aren’t any definitive answers on the best way to do this – if so there would probably be one definitive term, or at least a definitive list of skills. But that’s true of any area of education, or any area of life if you will. So despite the preponderance of confusing terminology, I for one am just really glad that there’s so much discussion of this important subject.