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Preparing the next generation with 21st Century skills


Today, young people need a wide variety of skills to thrive in the global economy. Alongside traditional academic skills, such as literacy and numeracy, education should foster 21st century skills like creativity, critical thinking and collaboration. This is known as cultivating breadth of skills and competencies.

At the same time, half the world’s upcoming generation is at at risk of being left behind. If nothing changes, 825 million young people will not be on track to learn basic secondary-level skills such as literacy and problem-solving by 2030. In the world’s poorest countries, this will be true for 9 out of 10 children.

This emerging crisis needs urgent action, investment of resources, agreement on solutions and strategies that hold all involved to account for delivering. In January, on the margins of the Education World Forum in London, ONE brought together governments, leading education experts, civil society and the private sector to debate solutions and help shape a strategy.

Here are three takeaways:

Shared goals – differing approaches

  • Everyone agrees urgent action is needed. But, how to get there and what to campaign for differs. There are broadly two camps.
    One emphasizes the need for education systems to deliver basic literacy and numeracy first, because too many countries fail in this area. For instance, even after 6 years of schooling, less than 10% of young women in Nigeria can read even a single sentence. In Mali, literacy rates for women remain close to zero even after three years of schooling.
  • The second says it would be irresponsible to reform education systems to cater to foundational learning alone, without a broader view of children’s development. It’s not enough to focus on some of the capabilities and skills children need to succeed, while ignoring others. There are many examples where integrating both has been successful – even in the hardest to reach areas. As The Centre for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution points out: The new demands of our societies require cultivating the ‘breadth of skills’.

We did agree to find and prioritise significant context-specific opportunities where 21st century skills could contribute to improving academic skills. Rebecca Winthrop of the Center for Universal Education pointed out that this could be a promising strategy for “leapfrogging” education systems (or significantly accelerating progress in education outcomes). As Ghana’s Deputy Minister of Education, Dr. Yaw Osei Adutwum, said “Any education system reform should be holistic and provide children and youth with what they need to succeed in the future: Academic skills and 21st century skills.”

Accountability is key

Countries do not know enough about what they spend their money on, or whether investments are resulting in children learning. Reforms will not be effective, without better information about the scope and shape of the problem.

This lack of accountability also leads to a lack of motivation. If there’s little scrutiny on performance, for instance if teachers are getting paid regardless of whether or not they show up to work, why go the extra mile? Successful education systems produce good learning results because they monitor performance and outcomes and they champion what works.

Context matters

Improving students learning requires reforms that are specific to different contexts – reforms that work in Ghana, may not work in the US. Lant Pritchett, RISE Research Director at the Blavatnik School of Government (University of Oxford), pointed out that while some high-income countries like the US need to address weak learning outcomes because of poor discipline and motivation, many developing countries face the opposite: low levels of learning because of an overall weak education system with low accountability and a lack of coherence, but with strong communities and societies, motivated pupils and a desire to learn.

So, strong social bonds in developing countries may already deliver some of the skills needed for the 21st century, such as grit, discipline and teamwork. The delegation from Ghana supported this point; children are incredibly eager to learn – what the system needs is not a change in behaviour, but in teaching practices and accountability.

Since the turn of the century, the world has come a long way getting children into school. The challenge now is to make sure that children are learning the right skills that will allow them to thrive in the future. The path is neither straightforward nor simple. There is no time to lose until 2030 to make quality education a reality for all children around the globe.

David McNair is ONE’s Executive Director for Global Policy. Natasha Somji is ONE’s Education Policy Manager.

Thank you to the Ministry of Education from Ghana, Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution, Big Change Foundation, HP, LEGO Foundation, Malala Fund, RISE, RTI, Malala Fund and Seamus Hegarty for their participation and invaluable insights. We are looking forward to continuing discussions on the skills agenda in 2019.

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