Let’s be clear – the general skills we’re talking about have been around for a long time. SACSA curriculum (a South Australian school curriculum that existed before the Australian Curriculum was implemented in 2014) had Key Competencies. The Australian Curriculum has the General Capabilities. We also have the 4 Cs or even the 7 Cs (commonly including critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration). The Foundation for Young Australians refers to Enterprise Skills, which add in digital literacy, financial literacy, and problem solving. Sometimes a similar set of skills are also known as 21st Century Skills. Other thinkers have included, for recent times, the ability to manage yourself as a brand, skepticism, advocacy and adaptability to negotiate a gig economy.
While these capabilities, which we will call key skills, have been embedded in our curriculum for a long time, they often got forgotten as content became the driver. It’s hard to focus on building creativity and problem solving when there’s pressure to cover content! When relying on textbooks or worksheet packages, teaching can be focused on delivering content, then providing practice to apply it in writing.
As we’ve already talked about, we made the decision to throw out our textbooks. We wanted the key skills to be the driver, with content the vehicle.
There are three big reasons why we want to develop key skills as a priority, rather than focus on learning facts, definitions and content.
One: Knowledge is available at the click of a “Search” button on internet. Content is ubiquitous and constantly changing – anyone with access to the internet can find knowledge almost instantly. Knowing more than the person next to you (or robot next to you) is no longer an advantage – rather, it’s what you can do with that knowledge and the skills you bring. It’s not so important to remember lots of stuff – it’s important to be able to apply it, and use it to solve problems. That’s not to say that having knowledge isn’t useful – having a broad knowledge of the field you are working on is important – but it’s also important to be able to learn new things, unlearn some things, and see the connections. In some fields, like science, medicine and technology, there are such rapid innovations and refinements to what we know. What we learn at school may not be relevant or useful (or even true) after we graduate.
Two: The wave of the fourth industrial revolution is changing the way we work. We are in transition, so there are still plenty of ‘traditional’ jobs that require manual, routine tasks. However, as technology disrupts more industries, we will see automation, robots and machine learning take over more ‘human’ jobs. For example, we have the technology to 3D print houses cheaply and quickly. Eventually, the traditional construction industry may evolve to be highly technology driven, with fewer traditional trades. As the new wave of technology-disrupted jobs comes, we will need a new set of skills and traits. The ability to be creative and solve problems with innovative thought and insight is something that (generally) sets us humans apart from machines. So, these skills will be desired – and what better place to start to develop these key skills that in the classroom.
Three: Anyone who’s spent time recently in a middle school outer suburban classroom could probably attest to the fact that it takes a bit to get kids interested. Why would they want to listen to a teacher at the front when they have entertaining videos, snapchat, facebook, games and more on their phones and laptops in front of them? Teaching in a traditional way of delivering content and practicing on a worksheet just doesn’t produce strong and lasting engagement. However, get students involved in a project where they have to build, make, design or create, and they are much more engaged. Projects are more likely to build creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, communication and collaboration than sitting in seats doing written work. If we value these key skills for the future, then this is what we should be developing in classrooms too.
What could it look like?
We’ve thought about what the development of some of these key skills would look like in a classroom, and developed guiding continuums to provoke conversation and thought about how to teach, practice and assess these key skills.
Communication can go beyond the classroom – students can authentically communicate and display their work in ways that experts in the community do, and get advice and feedback from those experts and stake holders too.
Collaboration is not just group work (or pairs of people doing what one person could do alone)- it needs to be big projects where you rely on the skills and expertise of different people to complete different facets of the project to get it all done.
Problem Solving cannot be learnt from a textbook – real problems, questions and opportunities to fail and struggle are needed. We’re talking about questions of inquiry where there is more than one answer, and big problems that require multiple perspectives to consider them.
Critical and Creative thinking is another skill that is authentically practiced when making and creating.
Along with these key skills, there are traits or dispositions that are beneficial for students. Traits like grit and perseverance. Curiosity and innovation. Courage and compassion. Again, these are traits that are not developed in isolation or from reading a textbook. They require social interaction, conversation, community, and the opportunity to take risks and fail.
Deliberately and proactively combining key skills with discipline and interdisciplinary knowledge, along with traits of a learner, is what we think education should be about, and what we hope for our own children.