Written by Neil MacRae, Personal Best Learning (neil@pblearning.co.uk)

Learning and Living in the 21st Century

Now this is not something that parents often think about, but here is a big question for you and your child: what will future jobs look like?

Of course, we all know about the growth of technology in our everyday lives. As long ago as 2013 Andrew McAfee discussed this in a TED talk. He noted that “Our machines are getting more clever – they demonstrate new skills like understanding, speaking, hearing, seeing, answering, writing…” and now in 2017 we can see this all around us. So what on earth will machine technology look like ten years from now, when your kindergartener is thinking about some of their first major life choices?

More and more people are becoming self-employed too – whether through the so-called gig economy or as directors of their own independent companies – and these freelancers are often working all over the world, whether on location or virtually from home. Yes, we are all becoming digital global citizens.

But the gap between the skills people are learning now and the skills people will need in the future is growing. We need to educate for a changing world, and this means thinking about those 21st century skills that are needed to survive and prosper in this new world. So what are these skills we hear so much about? The easiest way to think of them is use the model of the 4 Cs. These are key skill groups that we will all need to develop.

4Cs of Educaiton

The first thing you might notice is that the new digital technologies do not feature. Surely knowing our way around the digital world of computers, the internet, social media and Skype is essential? It is – but the simple truth is that our children are digital natives – as soon as new technology comes along, they will master it enough to make it work for them.

Instead, we need to focus on what are sometimes called the soft skills – and we have conveniently divided them into the four areas of communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. This does not mean that we should forget more traditional skills – for example, those three Rs of reading, writing and ‘rithmetic that you might remember. And it has been pointed out many times that being able to Google is, of course, no substitute for understanding.

In the end, technology is simply a tool that students can use to improve their learning opportunities. What they really need from their teachers are the skills required to effectively use those tools both now and in the future. After all, they are going to encounter jobs and life events that we cannot even imagine, so it is all about preparing them for this new future. That means that we need to arm our learners with the skills they need to face these unknown events – and that is where the new focus on communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking comes from. Communication is about sharing thoughts and ideas through the many different channels now available; collaboration requires the systematic development of skills that encourage the use of pairs and groups to generate and develop these new ideas in creative new applications.

And critical thinking? Well, generating these new ideas needs careful, objective analysis and evaluation – solving problems that we may not even have a context for at the moment. Throughout all of these approaches is a core of creativity – not just the generating of new ideas, but finding successful applications that work and help to solve some of the problems created by these new challenges of living and working.

So what is happening in schools to address this skills gap? The answer is that right now, in schools around the world, young learners are busy engaging every day with new curricula that address these 21st century needs. Whether working with the International Baccalaureate (IB), its junior equivalent of the Primary Years Programme (PYP) or Fieldwork curricula like the International Primary Curriculum (IPC) or the International Middle Years Curriculum (IMYC), students of all ages are learning about how to learn best, deepening their understanding through investigations and building up their personal attributes – important skills like resilience, thoughtfulness, co-operation and adaptability.

Whilst all of this is going on, many of these new curricula are also promoting international understanding in these young learners. It is perhaps something that is in short supply in some parts of the world, and these new curriculums are excelling at ensuring our youngsters are growing up with attitudes of tolerance, understanding and mutual respect for all races, cultures and religions. I have seen it for myself in the enthusiastic comments from parents observing their children in a Model United Nations activity. The extended presentations and detailed knowledge of these ten year olds about key issues around the environment and pollution simply astounded their open-mouthed parents. They simply couldn’t believe the depth of understanding their children were expressing. “I’ve never had conversations like this with my daughter,” one parent told me, a smile beaming across her face.

So, as parents, how do you know if your children are learning 21st century skills? One simple way is to ask them about what they are learning. Avoid “So what did you do today?” and instead ask questions like “What are you learning? What are you working on?” Children engaged in these active approaches to learning will be able to articulate their thinking and share their understanding.

American president Franklin D Roosevelt once said that “We cannot build the future for our youth – but we can build our youth for the future.” It sounds like the most important job that educators (and parents) can do. And, of course, Roosevelt was right.