The 21st-century skillset

Kevin O’Malley asks if education is preparing today’s students for tomorrow’s workplace

What are 21st-century skills?

Technology, more than almost any other factor, has changed the world. No sector or industry has escaped its effects, and the pace of change is only accelerating. So what does the modern worker need to navigate the workplace? And is education providing it?

While the importance of new skill sets in the modern age are obvious, the actual definition of what those skills are can be somewhat nebulous. While some aspects of the modern workplace clearly require new competencies altogether, others seem comparatively unchanged by the growing omnipresence of technology. The obvious answer is, of course, digital competency. “Digital skills are very important,” says David Lakin, head of education at the IET. “The rapid development of technology over the last few years is obviously leaning more towards the digital space.” 

In their 2019 DQ global standards report, the DQ Institute discusses the importance of the Digital Intelligence Quotient (or DQ, as opposed to IQ). Those with the right skills “can fully capitalise on new technologies, and thrive in this fast-changing digital age,” the report says. 

23% of the adult population in the UK lacks basic digital skills, which costs the national economy an estimated £63bn per year in lost GDP.*

But it’s not just IT capabilities that need to be considered. In 2017, Nesta released The Future of Skills: Employment in 2030 report. It states: “There are good reasons to believe that interpersonal skills will continue to grow in importance – not only as organisations seek to reduce the costs of coordination but also as they negotiate the cultural context in which globalisation and the spread of digital technology are taking place. Our findings also confirm the importance of higher-order cognitive skills such as originality, fluency of ideas and active learning.” 

Joysy John, director of education at Nesta, says that what has changed is the amount of information available. She comments: “With the rapid rise in big data and social media, young people need to understand how to interpret data, how to understand what information is accurate, and what information is just fake news. The key new skills would be critical thinking and being able to manage the information overload.”

“With the fourth industrial revolution, we know that young people need to adapt,” adds John. “They need to make sure they are well prepared for changing roles and changing jobs.” 

Twenty-first-century skills, therefore, can be seen as the meeting place between technological and interpersonal competencies. Above all, they revolve around the ability to adapt and learn quickly in the face of rapidly changing job markets, industries and societies.

Figure 1

Is education meeting the challenge?

As research continues to reveal this remarkably specific skill set, a new question arises: is education providing the opportunity to develop it? According to John, no. “There is excessive emphasis on league tables and on reading and maths, and not enough emphasis placed on problem-solving, enquiry-based approaches or even authentic learning, which is learning by doing rather than by rote learning. Not enough is happening within the classroom within the curriculum due to the challenges and pressures that teachers and schools face.”

This focus is only made worse when one considers the problem of adaptability. Technology, as already established, develops incredibly quickly. Education, on the other hand (especially state-mandated education such as the school system), takes a lot longer. 

Dr Yuhyun Park of the DQ Institute explains: “[Education has to] understand the trend, go through the research, and go through education curriculum development and teacher development, which takes a minimum of three to four years.”

She adds: “If it takes three to four years it’s very fast. But in three to four years, digital technology’s moving at the speed of light, so there’s unfair competition between government, especially the education sectors, and technology. 

“So by the nature of how it’s been formulated, it’s difficult for the government to take the lead in the shift in the education footwork.” 

The problem only gets worse when dealing with specific technologies. For example, students can be educated in coding languages and technical systems that will be obsolete by the time they graduate.

What’s happening now?

Despite these difficulties, education in the UK is beginning to improve. According to Lakin, there have been “a lot more initiatives both that can be used in the classroom as part of the national curriculum, and enhancement activities and projects that involve coding, and other activites that young people can relate to.”

An example of this can be found in one of the IET’s own projects – the First Lego League. It was created in collaboration with Lego Education and FIRST, an international charity dedicated to promoting STEM education around the world. First Lego League is now the largest STEM competition in the UK. 

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“The students that take part in that programme are developing not only a knowledge-based engineering skill set in terms of coding and building, but also core skills,” says Lakin. First Lego League’s success is shown in its popularity. Over the 2018/19 academic year, over 8,000 students competed as part of 820 teams. This summer, a projected 5,000 students between the ages of six and nine will take part in the first Lego League Junior, and the IET are piloting a new scheme for FIRST and Lego education targeting four to six-year-olds, called Discovery.

It’s far from the only such programme currently in use. Nesta has published a toolkit based on its research into future workplace trends. Unlike First Lego League, the toolkit is aimed at teachers, providing them with a briefing, lesson plans and a video to help them expose their students to the changing modern workplace. “The more we can give young people an understanding of the changing world of work and how different skills and knowledge are likely to see an increasing or decreasing demand in the future, the more that they will be prepared for that future,” says John.

These programmes, and many others like them, are steps in the right direction, but large-scale reform is needed, one way or another. According to Lakin, “the future of education needs to keep up with modern technology. With that comes challenges. Again, we’re trying to teach them skills for things that may be out of date by the time they graduate. Obviously the fundamentals and foundation of skills, particularly STEM subjects, will always be relevant.”

Around one-tenth of the workforce are in occupations that are likely to grow as a percentage of the workforce and around one-fifth are in occupations that will likely shrink.**

Park agrees. “There’s a lot of movement to ensure that in future education will meet the needs of 21st-century skills,” she says. 

What next?

Beyond a heavy focus on up-to-date STEM education, there’s room for more radical changes. “Rather than focusing on narrow subjects, we need to start thinking about how we can make sure that kids are looking at subjects across the sciences and humanities,” argues John. “The second thing is getting industry more involved in what’s happening in classrooms so that students are working on projects that are based on real-life problems. The third thing is collaboration. Rather than assessing individual students, we should start assessing students on teamwork.”

In either case, one thing is certain; in the face of a changing world, the worker of tomorrow will require a changing skill set. It is the responsibility of today’s educators, in both the public and private sector, to ensure they have it. 

You might also like: Three skills for tomorrow’s classroom


*House of Commons, Science and Technology Committee, Digital Skills Crisis

**Nesta, The Future of Skills: Employment in 2030

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