21st century skills: What is the potential role for GPE?

GPE has launched a new publication on how it can potentially support partner countries in embedding 21st century skills within their education systems. The new report outlines how GPE can use its various levers to ensure that children and young people are equipped with these skills, which are crucial for them to be active, engaged and productive members of their communities, countries and the globalized world. 

January 15, 2020 by Ramya Vivekanandan, GPE Secretariat
6 minutes read
Several school girls use a computer for math instruction in a primary school in Chennai, India
Several school girls use a computer for math instruction in a primary school in Chennai, India
Credit: GPE/Deepa Srikantaiah

The world of the 21st century is radically different from before. We live in an era that is globalized, with unprecedented levels of mobility and migration, as well as civil and political unrest and environmental degradation. This is reflected in today’s economy, which is similarly globalized and constantly undergoing rapid shifts. 

An education for the 21st century

What does all of this mean for education? What does it mean to be a successful learner or graduate against this backdrop? Previously, a mastery of core academic subjects such as the “three Rs” (reading, writing and arithmetic) may have been sufficient. 

But in order to successfully engage with today’s increasingly complex societies and globalized economy, students need different skills: they need to think critically, communicate effectively, collaborate with diverse peers, solve complex problems, adopt a global mindset and engage with information and communications technologies, to name just a few requirements.

Recognizing these imperatives, the international education community has put an increasing focus on these skills, which are called “21st-century skills” (21CS) by some, but also referred to variously as non-cognitive, soft, whole child development, transversal, transferable or social-emotional skills or competencies. 

Some research suggests that these skills are associated with a range of improved short- and long-term outcomes, including mental health, social skills, academic achievement, economic mobility and pro-social behavior. The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 on education also underscores the importance of these skills in its holistic vision of learning. 

While GPE puts a major emphasis on improving learning outcomes, the Secretariat has had limited explicit engagement with 21st century skills to date. But in recognition their increasing importance and as a part of GPE’s Assessment for Learning (A4L) initiative, we have just published a landscape review on 21CS. The goal of the review is to inform reflections on what role GPE can play in this space in the future. 

The review uses a definition of 21CS adapted from Binkley et al.:

21st-century skills are abilities and attributes that can be taught or learned in order to enhance ways of thinking, learning, working and living in the world.

The skills include creativity and innovation, critical thinking/problem solving/decision making, learning to learn/metacognition, communication, collaboration (teamwork), information literacy, information and communications technology, literacy, citizenship (local and global), life and career skills, and personal and social responsibility (including cultural awareness and competence).

Findings from the review

Beyond SDG 4, there has been a rich history of framing work and global initiatives in relation to 21CS. This has included efforts such as the Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills (ATCS21S), the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and emotional Learning (CASEL), as well as the Learning Metrics Task Force (LMTF) and UNICEF’s Life Skills and Citizenship Education (LSCE) initiative in the Middle East and North Africa. These initiatives provide a rich conceptual and programmatic base upon which any efforts by GPE about 21CS can build.

But what of GPE partner countries? What are their aspirations, plans and activities to build 21CS? This was a primary focus of the review, which included an analysis of the sector plans and GPE implementation grants of 15 partner countries.

All of these countries reference 21CS (or equivalent) in their sector plans, reflecting country interest in orienting their systems to promote their skills. For example, the aims of education put forth in The Gambia’s Education Sector Strategic Plan 2016-2030 include to “encourage creativity and the development of a critical and analytical mind” and to “create an awareness of the importance of peace, democracy and human rights, duties and responsibilities of the individual in fostering these qualities,” while Cambodia’s Education Strategic Plan 2014-2018 references “the holistic development of Cambodia’s young people.”  

However, only three of the 15 countries included activities related to 21CS within their implementation grants. Though they may be implementing such activities through other resources, the evidence suggests a disconnect between the vision and aspirations around 21CS seen in sector plans and their implementation, at least through GPE resources. 

This may stem from perceptions that 21CS are extraneous, a lack of knowledge on the development of these skills or a view that other areas should be prioritized. In addition, it appears that there is a lack of knowledge on how to approach implementation at a system level.

How 21st century skills can be included in education systems

In spite of this, there is much potential to address these gaps. Looking specifically at learning assessments, the Brookings Institution in cooperation with UNESCO Bangkok and Dakar coordinated “mini-studies” in the same 15 partner countries to understand what assessment tools, if any, these countries use at the classroom and national levels that directly or indirectly target 21CS.

While this analysis reveals that these tools are not specifically designed to measure 21CS, there are opportunities to tweak them such that these skills can be captured. However, this requires much more work to understand the nature and development of 21CS and to support their integration throughout the education system.

Various GPE partners have undertaken substantial work in this realm, including conceptual work, the development of curricula and learning materials, teacher training, assessment and measurement initiatives, programs to link youth with job providers and opportunities, and advocacy efforts. 

In spite of this, there is a lack of knowledge and experience on how to approach implementation at a whole sector or system level, including practical frameworks and guidance for doing so. This requires additional research, knowledge sharing, capacity development and advocacy on what it means to integrate and promote 21CS throughout an education system, particularly in developing countries.

What potential role for the GPE?

The findings of the landscape review point to a number of opportunities that GPE may consider in promoting the integration of 21CS in its support to education systems in developing countries. 

The overall principle underpinning these is that GPE, harnessing the partnership, can deploy global policy dialogue and advocacy, financing and knowledge investments to support partner countries to implement their policy aspirations in regard to 21CS, particularly at the system level.

More specifically, GPE can signal that it is ready to accompany partner countries that express interest in supporting their children and young people’s acquisition of 21CS, including through the active dissemination of the landscape review report. There is also greater scope for GPE to participate in global policy dialogue and advocacy in regard 21CS, emphasizing the importance of a systems approach to 21CS in these engagements. 

GPE can also encourage research on how to translate policy into practice in regard to 21CS and how to integrate these skills throughout an education system. Such work should build on existing research and frameworks but be further contextualized to the realities of developing countries. GPE can work to mobilize the broader partnership to support such an effort. 

In addition, it can support global and regional work that promotes capacity development, knowledge exchange and innovation in regard to 21CS, mobilizing in particular its Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX) for this purpose.

The landscape review and the opportunities highlighted here are a starting point for dialogue within GPE as it develops its next strategic plan. The partnership should consider these and other contributions that it can potentially make to ensure that education systems foster the broad range of skills that children and young people need to thrive in the world of the 21st century. 

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