THE term 21st century skills refers to a broad set of knowledge, skills, work habits and character traits that are believed by educators, school reformers, college professors and employers to be critically important to succeed in today’s world, particularly in collegiate programmes and contemporary careers and workplaces.
Generally speaking, 21st century skills can be applied in all academic subject areas, and in all educational, career and civic settings throughout a student’s life.
It should be noted that the “21st century skills” concept encompasses a wide-ranging and amorphous body of knowledge and skills that is not easy to define and that has not been officially codified or categorised.
While the term is widely used in education, it is not always defined consistently, which can lead to confusion and divergent interpretations.
In addition, a number of related terms, including various skills in applied, cross curricular, cross disciplinary, interdisciplinary, non-cognitive and soft skills, amongst others, are also widely used in reference to the general forms of knowledge and skills commonly associated with 21st century skills.
Increasing graduation rates and levels of educational attainment will accomplish little if students do not master 21st century skills.
As Rohiman Haroon wrote in his article “Of Reskilling, Upskilling Youths”, graduates need to be reskilled and upskilled in every sense of the word, according to the requirement of the industry.
Yet, efforts over the last several years have focused much more on increasing the number of students who go to college than on improving the education they receive once they get there.
By concentrating so heavily on graduation rates and attainment levels, policy-makers are ignoring danger signs that the amount that students learn in college may have declined over the past few decades and could well continue to do so in the years to come.
To truly improve teaching of 21st century skills over time in a sustainable way, it’s more about mindset, curiosity and a sense of progress and belonging.
All good educators comprehend that imparting 21st century skills require constructing a bridge between what students know and what they need to learn. However, to do that requires embracing students’ cultural backgrounds which has largely been left out of current debates on what makes teaching effective.
If you don’t know anything about the everyday living experiences of your students — the cultural backgrounds, the dialects, the family, the home and the community — educators tend to pull the examples for teaching from their own experiences.
And, hence, those connections are not made for students.
Culturally responsive pedagogy starts with the premise that diversity matters, and that some institutions fail to send diverse students signals that they belong.
To make sure all students feel valued, educators need to be aware of their own biases, work deeply to understand their individual students, find ways to bring students’ heritage into the classroom and hold all students to a high academic standard.
Being very knowledgeable in one’s field of study is also a crucial stepping stone to impart 21st- century skills.
It’s true that even the most successful educators don’t know everything. But, the more one knows, the easier it will be to teach students and to offer them prompt answers to their questions.
Learning never stops and that’s why, being an educator, one needs to feed their mind with as much information as it can take in. Remember that students always prefer consulting educators who are known to possess in-depth knowledge about a specific field. Knowledge indicates authenticity.
In today’s world, information and knowledge are increasing at such an astronomical rate that no one can learn everything about every subject. What may appear true today could be proven to be false tomorrow, and the jobs that students will get after they graduate may not yet exist.
For this reason, students need to be taught how to process information, and they need adaptable skills they can apply in all areas of life — just teaching them ideas and facts, without teaching them how to use them in real-life settings, is no longer enough.
Educators need to adapt and develop new ways of teaching and learning that reflect a changing world.
The purpose of education should be to prepare students for success after graduation, and therefore institutions need to prioritise the knowledge and skills that will be in the greatest demand, such as 21st century skills deemed to be the most important by employers.
Merely teaching students to perform well is no longer sufficient. Given the widespread availability of information today, students no longer need educators to lecture them because that information is readily available, and often in more engaging formats than a typical classroom lecture.
For this reason, educators should use class time to teach students how to use information, rather than present information.
In such a setting, educators can leverage on technology to create an engaging and personalised environment to meet the emerging educational needs of this generation. No longer does learning have to be one-size-fits-all or confined to the classroom.
The opportunities afforded by technology should be used to re-imagine 21st century skills, focusing on preparing students to be learners for life.
The writer is senior lecturer, Faculty of University Foundation Studies, HELP Matriculation Centre