By Duncan Wilson
We often hear the term ’21st century skills’ in the context of jobs or recruitment. But what exactly are these skills? These are competencies that often help determine a person’s success professionally. Broadly, these include critical thinking skills such as problem solving, life skills such as self-direction and collaboration, besides digital literacy and communication skills, which are extremely important in the modern world of employment.
Teach a child to type without looking at the keyboard when she is 12, and the journalist she grows into spends less time wondering where ‘Q’ is on her keyboard, and more time focused on her actual story. The common factor to all these skills is communication. While these skills are often talked about in the professional and higher academic contexts, the foundation for these skills is laid in childhood.
By the time children are in preschool and nursery, they begin developing skills such as collaboration and communication while interacting with friends and teachers. Thus, a child who is able to successfully interact with friends and during group activities in preschool, will grow into an adult who can work well in a team and lead a team, because this child has absorbed the basics of teamwork – listening to others, negotiation, mediation and developing a consensus.
These 21st century skills are not explicitly part of the school curriculum, though they are taught indirectly in schools. For example, no school gives exams on adaptability and problem solving. Perhaps the only skill that is measured is English communication. Regardless of the field of study, most Indian competitive entrance exams have an English test as at least a qualifying subject. Students who wish to study abroad will need to write Statements of Purpose and need to prove their fluency in the language through entry exams such as IELTS, and other English language proficiency tests required to go abroad.
Most 21st century skills are not and cannot be taught theoretically but contextually. Therefore, it is important that the context is one which is relevant to children, and something that the child can engage with actively. The most effective learning and highest recall occurs when there is both emotional connect and the subject is engaging. Teaching should work in such a fashion that activities and assignments should connect with information that students already have, which helps build neural connections and strengthens memory storage. Another challenge is to prove relevance to the child. Children learn better if they can participate in a group activity, rather than being passive recipients of knowledge.
Given their attention spans and interest, 21st century skills need to be taught to young children in a ‘playful’ setting, with other children, involving games and activities. Every parent knows from experience that the best way to get a child to learn or to finish a task (like eating dinner) is to turn it into a game. Successful teachers, programmes and initiatives for children are able to incorporate this principle.
This is why educational programmes for children usually include games, cartoons, toys and group activities. While there is a need to engage kids early in life, the method should be fun, engaging and keep the focus on the holistic development of the child that can build upon the knowledge and skills taught during formal schooling, to inspire kids to achieve excellence. All while having fun!
The 21st century is not in the distant future; it is today.
(The writer is Director Schools, English and Skills, British Council.)