What students really need to thrive in the 21st century

By Connie K. Chung and Fernando M. Reimers

March 14, 2016   |   0 comments


Discussions about how to prepare students to thrive in the 21st century highlight the need to acquire key competencies beyond the basics, such as digital, civic, self-knowledge and interpersonal competencies, among others.

While the phrase “21st century education” often means an education that involves technology, researchers have found that the kinds of competencies needed for work and life during a century that will likely be defined by “volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity” (VUCA) encompass far more than technological competencies.

In this context, how are instructional priorities represented in national curricular frameworks?  How do these curricular frameworks reflect the competencies that students need to thrive in the 21st century, as identified by research?

At the Global Education Innovation at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, we study these and other questions about teaching and learning in the 21st century.

In our new book, Teaching and Learning for the Twenty-First Century: Educational Goals, Policies, and Curricula from Six Nations (Harvard Education Press, 2016), we, in the United States, collaborated with researchers from Chile, China, India, Mexico and Singapore over a period of more than 18 months to discuss these questions and present findings from our respective studies about how national curricular frameworks and policies from our six countries prioritize, define, support and encourage the competencies that students need to thrive in the 21st century.

To RSVP to the Book Signing and Panel Discussion with authors Connie K. Chung and Fernando M. Reimers, click here

The need for new research

HEP_Reimers-200x300 While discussions about educational policies are not new, there exists little research that looks at the mechanisms by which these goals and purposes of education are made into policy and prioritized to help develop and support relevant competencies in students. We know even less about how these processes and skills may be influenced by social, political, and other system contexts.

Our book seeks to address this knowledge gap by adding to the body of international comparative research on educational policy and curriculum studies.

We based our research on the National Research Council’s recent report, Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century.[i] As part of our research process, we interviewed educational stakeholders and analyzed national curriculum frameworks against the three domains of 21st century competencies outlined in the report: cognitive, interpersonal and intrapersonal.

Broadening Educational Goals in the 21st Century: A Study of Six Nations

What we found is that across the globe, educational systems have broadened their goals to include competencies beyond the traditional literacies of math, reading, science and history. They may, for example, include a particular focus on citizenship, as in Chile or Singapore, or they may include teaching higher order thinking skills, as in China or the United States.

Our study found that as the learning goals were broadened in these countries, educational systems are trying to close the gap between aspirations and classroom practice, in different ways, and to differing degrees.

The book’s introduction frames the study and the conclusion to draw cross-case lessons from the national studies.  Below, we briefly highlight a key aspect of each of the chapters:

“Singapore’s Systemic Approach to Teaching and Learning Twenty-First-Century Competencies” found that among all of the countries included in the book, Singapore has one of the most coherent and systems-centered approaches to education that links practice, policy and teacher preparation together under a common purpose. It was written by Dr. Oon-Seng Tan and Dr. Ee-Ling Low from the National Institute of Education at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

“Thinking Big, Acting: Small Lessons from Twenty-First-Century Curriculum Reform in China” explicates the policies and strategies adopted in China, including continuous experimentations and innovations to change the content and ways to deliver education. The chapter also highlights China’s ability to both drive large-scale change at the national level while also allowing room for flexibility at the local level. It was written by Dr. Yan Wang from the National Institute of Education Sciences in China.

“Strong Content, Weak Tools: Twenty-First-Century Competencies in Chilean Educational Reform” looks into the place this approach occupies within primary and secondary education since these skills were incorporated to the national curricula, in the context of a broader educational reform implemented during the mid-1990s.  Chile’s focus on civic education, in the context of recent broader political changes, is emphasized. It was written by Cristián Bellei and Liliana Morawietz from the Centro de Investigación Avanzada en Educación at the University of Chile.

“Curriculum Reform and Twenty-First-Century Skills in Mexico: Are Standards and Teacher Training Materials Aligned?” analyzes how these skills were defined and conceptualized in the new curriculum, and discusses the degree of alignment between standards, learning goals and teacher training materials. The chapter also presents the results of a survey of educational stakeholders about the definition of “21st century competencies,” pointing to the need to engage and educate the broader public about the larger purposes of education.  It was written by Sergio Cárdenas from Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas in Mexico.

“Twenty-First-Century Competencies, the Indian National Curriculum Framework, and the History of Education in India” looks at the evolutions in educational policies in the changed social and political climate in recent years. The chapter includes short summaries of four non-governmental organizations that initiated practices that influenced the current curricular goals. It was written by Aditya Natraj, Monal Jayaram, Jahnavi Contractor, and Payal Agrawal from the Piramal Foundation in India

“Mapping the Landscape of Teaching and Learning for the Twenty-First-Century in Massachusetts in the Context of US Educational Reform” examines the key policies and strategies implemented to develop students’ competencies, including an analysis of the Common Core standards as they were adopted in Massachusetts, vis-à-vis the summary report commissioned by the National Research Council about 21st century competencies. It was written by Fernando M. Reimers and Connie K. Chung from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

We hope the book will foster discussions about how national education policies support students to prepare for life, work and civic participation in the 21st century. We also hope that these discussions about shared challenges and different solutions will spark ideas for next steps in international comparative research.   We welcome your thoughts.

About the Global Education Innovation Initiative

The Global Education Innovation Initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education is a research and practice collaborative established in 2013, with partner institutions in seven countries.  Our goal is to understand in what ways K-12 education institutions are equipping youth with the competencies necessary for life, work, and civic participation in the 21st century.

Recognizing the important achievements of the Global Education Movement started with the inclusion of the right to education in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1947 in expanding access to basic education to the majority of the world’s children, and the ongoing efforts of governments around the world to enhance the quality of education, our initiative addresses the need for enhancing the relevance of education, by supporting the capacities of teachers and other educators to construct opportunities to learn that help students develop a full range of cognitive, social and emotional competencies, that allow them to live fulfilling lives and to participate economically, civically and to contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Our efforts seek to support schools in developing the full range of human capabilities and consequent expansion of agency and freedom, with particular emphasis in the children of the poor and marginalized populations.

Connie K. Chung is the Research Director for the Global Education Initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Fernando M. Reimers is the Ford Foundation Professor of Practice in International Education and the director of the Global Education Innovation Initiative and the International Education Policy Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.