21st Century learning competencies: What are they and how must public education adapt?

In our opening article we asked “Is public education fading in relevance to today’s young learners?” And we invited readers to join and participate in the journey of the Anglophone sector of public education in New Brunswick as we developed a model of public education designed to meet the 21st Century learning needs of our students. 

The obvious next question is: “What are these 21st Century learning needs?” 

The OECD’s Centre for Education Research and Innovation has undertaken leading edge research on the new millennium learner, both in terms of the skills they will require and the learning environments needed to foster these skills (Innovating to Learn, Learning to Innovate, OECD, 2008). 

The European Parliament has adopted eight core competencies and underlying skills it believes their member states in the European Union should pursue within their public education systems. 

In the United States, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, with members from the business community, education field, and policy makers, is advocating its Framework for 21st Century Learning and the skills contained therein. 

These and other think tanks and authors have identified the learning competencies they believe to be critical in positioning individuals and societies to be successful in the 21st Century.  All are calling for these 21st Century competencies and skills to become core outcomes of public education. 

Examples of “21st Century competencies” include: 

  •        Creativity and Innovation
  •        Critical thinking and problem solving
  •        Agility, adaptability and capacity for lifelong learning
  •        Teamwork and collaboration in virtual teams
  •        Initiative, self direction and entrepreneurialism
  •        Effective oral and written communication
  •        Proficiency in the mother tongue
  •        Multiple languages and cultural awareness
  •        Effectively accessing and analyzing information
  •        Digital competence 

A book entitled 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times (Trilling and Fadel, 2009) offers an excellent overview of these skills as well as how public education systems must change. We commend it to anyone wishing to obtain a basic understanding of the changes many are calling for in public education. 

 So what needs to happen? 

First, we know success with 21st Century competencies is rooted in high levels of student achievement in the three foundation subjects: literacy, numeracy and science. This fact is why as officials we are calling our strategy NB3-21C. 

 We know we must maintain our existing focus on improving student achievement in the foundation subjects even as we more deeply integrate 21st Century competencies into our system. We also believe a number of significant shifts must occur within our core business areas in order to achieve a 21st Century learning model. The shifts we have currently identified for consultation purposes parallel what the Partnership for 21st Century Skills in the United States is calling for, customized to our specific needs:    

  1. 21st Century Standards
  2. Assessment of 21st Century Skills
  3. 21st Century Curriculum and Instructional Practices
  4. 21st Century School Leadership
  5. 21st Century Professional Development and Training
  6. 21st Century Learning Environments 

We also know that the key enabler that will facilitate the systemic shift required in public education will be ICT rich learning environments and supporting networks. 

In future articles we will explore the nature of these six shifts and the very significant role of ICT in shaping these changes. 

Are you aware of any articles, books or sources on 21st learning skills or competencies that you would recommend to us

John D. Kershaw
Deputy Minister
NB Department of Education
Anglophone Sector

David M. Kershaw
Master’s Student
Computer Science
Dalhousie University

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