Skills of the 21st Century: What We Need to Know

Thoughts of the future are especially relevant at the beginning of 2021. What will it be like and what should we be in the future? We talk about skills required for success in the 21st century in our new article for the Future of Jobs special project.
By Asiya Akimzhanova

January 27th, 2022

There is an opinion that now that technology has been actively developing, we should learn more IT skills. However, it is not quite true. Last semester at university I had a course on new information technologies, where we discussed skills of the future and what prevented us from gaining such skills. The course was mostly about theory: we analysed academic papers and presentations and tried to understand them. One popular TED talk with Margaret Heffernan, a writer, entrepreneur and CEO of five companies, sticks in my mind. She talked about why it it was more important to focus on human skills in the unpredictable world today and in the future rather than on technical knowledge. 

She emphasised that imagination and bravery were necessary to solve problems in business and government
“In an environment that defies so much forecasting, the efficiency won’t help us”, says Margaret and adds, “Loose human skills, and we are adrift”.

In the 20s century, basic skills which were taught at every educational institution formed the foundation and essence of education as a whole. In the 21st century, we should be adaptive and continue learning throughout our whole lifetime, thus following the principle of lifelong learning.

The Future of Jobs Report by the World Economic Forum forecasts that the following 10 skills will be highly demanded by 2025:
analytical thinking and innovation;
complex problem-solving;
critical thinking and analysis;
creativity, originality and initiative;
reasoning, problem-solving and ideation;
technology use, monitoring and control;
technology design and programming;
active learning and learning strategies;
resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility;
leadership and social influence.

The modern theory of management divides skills into hard skills and soft skills. Hard skills may relate to specific tasks the result of which can be measured: this is what most educational and training programmes have been focused on. However, discussions are being held now to decide if it is enough to only emphasise the importance of soft skills and whether the current theory is still relevant. For example, authors of the report on Skills of the Future at Skolkovo Moscow School of Management offer a new model:

· Context-specific skills

Skills that are developed and applied in a specific context. Professional skills (programming in a specific language), physical skills (for example, driving a car) or social skills (for example, video blogging).

 · Cross-contextual skills

Skills that can be applied in a larger domain of social or personal activities: the ability to read and write, time-management skills, teamwork skills, etc.

 · Existential skills

Skills that can be universally applied throughout the lifetime and in different living contexts of an individual. They include the ability to set goals and achieve them (willpower), self-awareness/self-reflection (mindfulness, meta-knowledge), the ability to learn/unlearn/re-learn (self-development).

This Skolkovo Report points out that education must be a sophisticated ecosystem which will appear evolutionarily, without abolishing the current one, but arising out of it. This will provide existing institutions with new roles and “ecological niches.”

There has already been much talk about lifelong learning as a key to success in the future. Education is now not limited to school or university. However, parents are still anxious about how to teach and guide their children in order to guarantee their success.

skills, knowledge, education, professions, future
We have talked to Tatiana Magambetova, Director of High Tech Academy, and discussed how school would prepare children for the real world and what the learning process should be.

How did it come that you established High Tech Academy?

We had an idea to create a school which would prepare children for the real world and could enable every child to succeed in learning irrespective of their interests and abilities. The idea of High Tech Academy was developed by Yerkin Tatishev. Our children were classmates, and we often talked about education and shared our observations. When Yerkin decided to establish a school, he offered me to develop this project. First of all we identified leaders in education, found out that educational systems in Singapore and Finland were quite similar, but a lot depended on the national educational systems rather than the principles of one specific school. Taking into account the specifics of the educational system in Kazakhstan, we could not just reply on the experience of these countries, we had to search for other solutions. I went to the USA and met Doris Korda, the author of the Korda Method. According to this method, children solve real-world problems. Doris is now the Chair of the Board of Trustees and our strategic adviser.

We came to the conclusion that the project method was the most natural way of learning, because everything we did in our life was a project
Any event or issue fits the principles of a project: there are a problem to solve, resources and deadline. You can always refer to someone else’s experience, analyse it and apply it to solve your problem.

Today our primary school is based on the Finnish system of education which lays a solid foundation for lifelong learning – children will apply the learned skills throughout their lifetime more easily if the process of learning is associated with joy and other positive emotions. The educational process in the secondary and high schools is based on the project method.

How does school prepare children for the real world?

I believe that everybody who want their children to be prepared for the future should ask themselves this question. Today, everyone talks about the skills of the future: this issue is on the agenda of the World Economic Forum and in the national education development programme in Kazakhstan for 2020-2025. These skills include critical thinking, teamwork, effective communications skills, research and problem-solving, but who should teach our children if teachers themselves do not have these skills?

I agree, school is a place which shapes and guides not only children, but also all involved adults: teachers, associated personnel and parents. Might it be so that they should learn these skills together?

Exactly! If we want to be honest and tell parents that we train these skills, we should learn them ourselves. We hired our first teachers 12 months before opening the school, and for nine months we held intensive training for them. After the training, we had two camp seasons where teachers performed their projects; only after this did we add these methods to the curriculum. New schools emerge quite often and many of them state that they prepare children for the future, but their teachers do not learn new skills. We describe our school as a learning organization – we all learn constantly. We are not afraid of making mistakes, and let children do theirs. When they solve real problems of companies within their projects, they begin with asking their teachers a lot of questions in order to get the right answer, but the fact is that the teacher does not have it, as there are no ready-made solutions. 

The only effective way to prepare children for the real world is to create this real world in school
We have specific requirements to organisations we work with: an organisation must have a mission and solve any social problem; its CEO must be a charismatic and interesting person for children. Of course, we hope that children will have creative ideas which will be useful for organisations; but the initial objective is to create a learning experience for children, and we are happy when someone is willing to support us. During a year children carry out at least four large projects using the Korda method. They improve all the skills they will need in the future from project to project. They work on their projects in different teams. They need to negotiate, settle conflicts and deal with breakdowns – everything that can happen in the real world when you have to solve a problem and there is no correct answer in the textbook.

We are talking about a combination of skills. What key skills would you single out?

Our school has two key objectives. First, we do our best to ensure that our students become active citizens: we hope that through solving issues faced by organisations in their community from their schooldays they will become sensitive to their community’s problems. Second, our children will find creative solutions to such problems. It is important for us to ensure that they are able to apply learned skills to solve various issues.

Each project is assessed by the following criteria: creative approach, teamwork, each student’s contribution to the team’s work and personal growth. What makes our school different from traditional schools is our belief that every child is unique. We understand that every child has its own areas to develop in. Every child has its own needs. Children receive feedback which we discuss and reflect on. Reflection is an important part of the learning process, but it is often skipped by many.

What is wrong with the teaching methods used before?

Firstly, the problem is in threatening with bad marks – this is still widespread. Anyone who knows a little bit about psychology understands that fear will not improve a student’s performance. What is needed is to support them and increase their confidence. The Finnish system, for example, provides three levels of support; they are aware that every child is different, and someone might need two additional lessons a day to get through a programme, while another child can grasp it effortlessly. Finland launched the reform 40 years ago. Their experience proves that the system works: a child who receives more support and additional time returns to his/her class confidently and keeps up with others. 

I think that the issue is not so much about what we did wrong, but about the world around us that has changed radically
And the pace of transformation is still increasing, while the traditional system of education has not changed over the last 130 years. This is the problem, I believe. The role of the teacher must change, that’s for sure. The teacher is no longer a transmitter of knowledge; today children have access to anything through their mobile devices and computers. In our school, teachers are designers of a learning experience. Lessons must be organised as a learning experience where children actively interact with each other. Of course, teachers can explain some concepts and answer questions, but their main task is to ensure that students work as actively as possible during a class in order to find out their needs and interests. For example, our chemistry teacher often refers to anime during his classes and I have heard newcoming students say that they have finally understood chemistry.

We spend a lot of time to train our teachers – three times a week they have professional development sessions and one session a week is devoted to student life, where we discuss students, their progress and problems. Twice a year, Doris Korda holds extensive advanced trainings.

What advice would you give to adults who want to learn new skills?

It seems to me that interest and intrinsic motivation are the keys to effective learning. Irrespective of age, you should find time to know yourself better and recollect what you liked and enjoyed doing in your childhood. It is emotional involvement and keen interest that may become a foundation for choosing a new area or profession.

Illustrations: Aziza Kireyeva
This project is supported by a grant provided by the U.S. Embassy in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. All opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Government or the U.S. Mission to Kazakhstan.

Данный проект реализуется с помощью гранта от Посольства США в Нур-Султане, Казахстан. Мнения, выраженные в материалах, принадлежат их авторам и не обязательно отражают точку зрения Правительства США или Дипломатической Миссии США в Казахстане.


Читать также: