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The world needs more problem solvers, not just programmers
March 4, 2020
Elnaz Kashefpakdel
Head of Research and Impact

Summary of Worldwide Educating for the Future Index (2019) by The Economist  

There seems to be a consensus being built globally that the education system urgently needs to prepare students for the challenges that await them in work and society. There is also now broad agreement on the vital role that skills such as critical thinking, creativity, communication, entrepreneurship and other future-oriented skills, including digital capabilities, will play in helping students navigate through these challenges. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), more governments have signed on to the future skills agenda in the past two years through changes to their education policies, which had shifted the average policy environment score to the highest in their index. Policy reviews, in which future skills and other elements are updated, are now a regular occurrence in many economies included in the index. However, policy adoption is not enough to change an education system. The bigger question is ‘why?’ Why do we need to foster future skills (in other words, the essential skills) more broadly? More crucially, how can this be implemented?

Digitalisation, new economies and other structural changes that, make it ever more vital to foster the skills required to work successfully. The ability to analyse, reason and question what the algorithms produce, critical thinking and other related skills are all needed to make sense of the volumes of data that businesses and other organisations are using to shape the future. On the other hand, broader essential skills are required for improvement of global values including diversity, inclusion and equality. To embrace diversity and to encourage inclusivity individuals must be able to apply critical thinking and respectful leadership and stay positive given the turbulent times. We are living in an environment in which alternative realities thrive. Students must learn to use critical thinking in a positive way, to be able to make their own discerning judgments about what is and is not right or accurate.

A different approach to skills development

It is now time for education systems to integrate future skills into curriculum and into assessment frameworks. International research conducted for this report shows that few “educational systems, in Europe or elsewhere, are taking action to translate policy on future-oriented skills into action. In the future, education settings, including schools, colleges, and universities, will need to provide a learning experience that is fundamentally different from what currently exists”. However, it’s a fallacy to say that the only thing we need now is to equip students with more technology skills. What we really need are “students who understand how to unleash their human skills in a world of technology”.

For instance, Singapore has taken great steps in introducing technical skills such as programming into education. But learning a programming language seems to be insufficient. If learners understand the logic behind programming and the ability to reason, then we might get somewhere. In the future economy, this report believes, employers will prioritise not programming but “adaptive skills” such as critical thinking, creativity and sociability. These, together with investment in lifelong learning, will take students and workers beyond the next wave of technological disruption such as augmented reality and cryptocurrency, and will stay current even as programme languages develop or become outdated.

To give another example, the report has shown why tomorrow’s data and AI specialists need essential skills. It is widely acknowledged that data is the currency of the future. Data by itself though is unstructured. It presents a reader with a lot of information but not necessarily something that is useful. It can be made useful only through “someone’s ability to apply critical thinking”. Individuals need to use critical thinking in order to see what is important in the data and draw insights. And it must be presented in a way that people can understand and use to improve their lives in some way. “The workforce of the future must have the ability to apply and convert data into actionable, relevant and timely information; and skills such as critical thinking and creativity help young people work with data more effectively”.  

There is a real frustration expressed by the international expert community about the little progression in translating policy into concrete measures, especially as many education systems are yet to update quality assurance and assessment frameworks. But aside from this, there are other challenges in taking the consensus to the next level: namely, to embed these skills in the curriculum and provide teachers with the resources and training they need to support their students in developing these skills. What are some of these challenges?

Lack of definition, variance of language  

The argument around the importance of developing future-oriented skills has been now quite well-established, yet there is still no uniform terminology to describe them. Are they skills or competencies? If the former, is the term “soft skills” representative enough? The EIU does not offer a solution, preferring “future” and “future-oriented” skills more as a matter of convenience. Most experts may agree on the specific skills or competencies that need to be developed: critical thinking, creativity, leadership, analysis, problem-solving and entrepreneurship, amongst others. However, the lack of a common language to describe these areas could cause problems when trying to design education programmes based on labour market needs.

Additionally, “educators, labour market researchers and employers often do not speak the same language. It’s important to be precise in our language, particularly when educators are speaking to employers, and vice versa, if we are to minimise the risk of misunderstanding”.

Teachers can’t go alone: we need system-level change

Teachers around the world are working hard to shift to new methods of teaching and learning. It can be a lonely place, though, especially when pressures from the national curriculum and other exam-related targets force them to teach to the test. Traditional methods taught in teacher training are also often of no help. A system that has no empathy for the amount of time and resources required to change behaviour presents a challenge. Making the leap to new methods of teaching, embedding skills in the curriculum with limited resources and limited time, preparing students not for exams but for life – all these things take investment and time! The challenge that the education system must face is that “traditional norms and expectations stifle real growth and skills development”. Even teachers who are willing to shift their methods have limited scope and resources to support skills development, practice and assessment, and given all the shortfalls of the current system they may just revert to lecturing from the blackboard. “But if they make that shift, the impact can be profound”.

Teachers may say that creativity and collaboration are very important, but most have no way of supporting such skills, let alone assessing them and building rigour into their teaching. Without such support, experts say teachers naturally fall back on teaching the way they were taught as students. Cultural resistance and lack of evidence-based guidance from both the government and senior leadership puts a brake on the progress of future skills development.

Moreover, policymakers and educators understand that the deeply-rooted exam-based approach to university entry and transitions to employment impedes the ability for schools to alter the pedagogical balance towards the development of such skills. According to this report, over the past five years, governments in China, Japan and Singapore, amongst other Asian economies, have aimed to move away from relying on exam scores alone, but it will be many years before the shift is fully observed. “Focusing on exams will continue to weigh down learning in schools for some time; which means students cannot become active future-skill learners as long as the public examination system continues to dominate school life”.

The Skills Builder Partnership’s response to the challenges raised by EIU and the international expert community

Innovation, Partnership and a universal solution

Let us now shift perspective and look at things through a ‘solutions’ lens. We can’t afford to keep missing the opportunity to teach the skills of the future, thereby letting down whole generations of young people soon to be the employees and leaders of tomorrow.

Recently, in a white paper, the World Economic Forum showcased leading education innovations across the globe and why we need to get creative to thrive in the fourth industrial revolution and technological disruption in the modern world. The Skills Builder Partnership was highlighted as one of these recent innovations to help build essential skills.

At the Skills Builder Partnership, we believe we have a solution to offer. The Partnership, a social innovation with the mission of building essential skills for everyone, consists of schools and colleges, employers and skills-building organisations who all work towards achieving a shared goal. There are vivid examples of it on our recent impact report. We formed the Skills Builder Partnership because we believe the only way to achieve the system change is through collective impact. We must work together, leveraging a shared language for teaching and measuring essential skills. Over the last decade, we have developed into a global partnership, including more than 750 organisations.

We have worked hard over the past 10 years to tackle the challenges outlined by the international experts highlighted in the EIU report. We have taken onboard the success elements highlighted in the EIU’s report and offer a holistic approach, using six principles of best practice, to embedding skills development into day to day practice:

·        We support teachers/educators and other facilitators building the confidence to teach skills step by step through (teacher)training and access to a large database of freely available resources designed by qualified teachers.

·        We help teachers/educators in using the right resources in their class by understanding the needs of their students through a formative assessment tool

·        We can evidence the progress of learners skills level across eight essential skills by using the Skills Builder Framework

Creating system-level change will require closer collaboration between policymakers, educators and private sector leaders, nationally and internationally, who will need to connect and scale those efforts to create holistic education systems. There is always room for improvement and development but we believe through the Skills Builder Partnership we can offer a unique solution to those who would like to invest in the future of their young people and workforce – and that future starts now.

This blogpost is based on the findings of the Worldwide Educating for the Future Index, which was created by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in 2017. The report and index are commissioned by the Yidan Prize Foundation. It is the first comprehensive global index to focus on the development of future-oriented skills, and to evaluate inputs to education systems rather than outputs such as test scores. The index concentrates on the 15-24 age band in 50 developed and developing economies. It is also based on a series of in-depth interviews with global experts on education.

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