If you are working in the education sector, you probably have heard of 21st century skills more than once (or more than enough!). Sometimes the 21st century skills framework is promoted as a magical tool that fixes every learning problem there is. But as every teacher knows, the art of teaching requires more than just a framework. No matter how great a theory seems on paper, unless it is accompanied by a practical action plan, nothing will change (except the stress levels of teachers).
Before teaching can be reformed, there has to be a clear idea of what needs to be reshaped.
In the 20th century, teaching, learning and their outcomes were regarded rather linearly, locally and more predictably than today. You study what teachers tell you to study, you get a job, you stick with that job. It is not that this is the first time something is evolving or changing (though the school systems have remained fairly static), but the complexity and uncertainty of this century requires new approaches to teaching. The framework for 21st century skills could be seen as a road sign that guides us along the path of transforming teaching.
Currently, many countries have, or are in the middle of updating their curriculum. In Finland, the new curriculum was introduced to schools one and a half years ago, and the first reports of its implementation are now out.
The cornerstones of the new curriculum are “transversal competencies”, the Finnish equivalent of 21st century skills (see the figure below). Finnish schools still teach core subjects like mathematics and biology, but the emphasis of learning is shifting from memorizing information to being able to apply knowledge, for example when solving problems or facing unexpected situations.
How well the new curriculum has been received by Finnish teachers and schools varies a lot. Some teachers feel that the new curriculum finally prepares students not just for school alone, but for life as well. Others are distressed that there is no time to digest and implement transversal competencies. The latest report on digitalization in comprehensive schools suggests that there is a lack of tools to help school principals lead the transformation and not enough suitable trainings for teachers.
The focus in transforming schools should shift from what a single teacher can do to what teachers can achieve together. There needs to be a common strategy that embraces collaboration among teachers. It would be unrealistic to expect that every teacher would master all seven competencies. Rather, the key is in combining teachers’ expertise and recognizing the competencies teachers already have.
In Finland, pedagogical professionals together with Microsoft have created a practical assessment framework to assist schools in developing their 21st century competencies. It offers a self-evaluation tool that helps teachers to find out how well they are implementing 21st century skills in their daily school work.
Moreover, an open and safe discussion should be organized among all the teachers and the principal regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the school. This way teachers can plan collaborations and combine their knowledge with their differently abled colleagues. Mapping out the overall strengths and weaknesses makes it easier to plan trainings accordingly and hire employees with complementary competencies.
Although Finland has defined its needs for 21st Century Skills framework to support its new curriculum, the framework is of universal nature and thus applicable outside Finland too. What are your experiences so far or thoughts on how to move forward here globally?
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