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Integrating 21st century skills across the curriculum
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Integrating 21st century skills across the curriculum

Feature 6 minute read

In 2015, ACER Chief Executive Professor Geoff Masters AO identified equipping students for the 21st century as one of five key challenges in Australian school education. Six years and a global pandemic later, experts from education research and practice gathered to discuss what progress has been made towards meeting this challenge – and what must happen next.

Speakers at the first of ACER’s special webinars on The Big Five Challenges in Education in a Changed World, said that considerable progress has been made on defining 21st century skills, leaving implementation as the next hurdle.

‘One of the biggest advancements we’ve made since Geoff’s initial article is around deepening our understanding of the skills and how they can be developed. That’s been through a process of hypothesising what the skills look like in a detailed way and then trying to validate that through the process of gaining assessment data and using expert judgement,’ ACER Senior Research Fellow Dr Claire Scoular said.

ACER Research Fellow Jonathan Heard cautioned that when defining 21st century skills, particularly for use in the classroom, it’s important to focus on what we can teach and assess and that might not include attributes or personality traits of the ideal learner.

‘We know that the personality trait or the disposition of being inquisitive relates to critical thinking, and possibly being extroverted and empathetic disposes one to being more collaborative, but can you teach students to be these things?’ Mr Heard said. ‘If the skills can be taught and learned, they can be demonstrated irrespective of your natural disposition.’

For University of Melbourne Professorial Fellow Dr Esther Care, the next hurdle for the 21st century skills movement is establishing realistic, appropriate performance expectations.

‘If you think about maths or about literacy, you have a curriculum and most teachers would understand that there’s an inherent sequence in how students accumulate knowledge and skills in those two areas. So where are the guidelines for 21st century skills? What can we realistically expect of a 7-year-old versus a 15-year-old in terms of their creative capacities or their critical thinking?’ Dr Care said. ‘We need to give not only the students guidance – we need to have that guidance ourselves as teachers.’

Dr Scoular noted that a student’s proficiency level in a particular skill may vary depending on the learning context, presenting the complexity in transfer of skills.

‘Typically we teach subjects within standalone silos and in the same sense we’re integrating the skills or embedding the skills into each of these silos independently. If we teach them in a more open and explicit way we can build an understanding for students about how they can take that skill and then apply it in different learning contexts,’ Dr Scoular said, before explaining that building student metacognition in relation to the skills and how they apply them is an essential step in enhancing the skills.

Mr Heard agreed that getting students and teachers to see and to value the skills in the curriculum is critical.

‘There are studies that show that teaching, for example, critical thinking as a set of generic skills doesn’t work particularly well if you want students to transfer them into their subject learning,’ Mr Heard said. ‘It’s much better to teach the skills embedded in the subject-based content but to make explicit that they are skills of a general nature and thus they are transferrable.’

According to Dr Care, the solution to addressing the lack of integration or alignment of the intention for transfer of skills across all aspects of teaching and learning may lie in a shift away from the siloed ways that schools are organised.

‘It’s not only about us getting alignment across curriculum, assessment, pedagogy and resourcing, it’s about modelling it through the way our curriculum is presented,’ Dr Care said. ‘If we maintain a learning system where [subjects] are consistently taught as though each is its own little world then we’re not following the path that we’re preaching.’ ■

Watch the full webinar:

Equipping students for life in the 21st century: The Big Five Challenges in Education in a Changed World.

Other webinars in ACER’s The Big Five Challenges in Education in a Changed World series can be found on our YouTube channel, free and on demand. 

Research Conference 2021: Excellent progress for every student

Research Conference On Demand

Professor Geoff Masters, Dr Claire Scoular and Jonathan Heard presented at our fully online Research Conference 2021. Access all recordings in the main program through our Research Conference On Demand package, available for a limited time only! Find out more.

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