21st Century Competencies

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At the 2nd APEC Education Reform Syposium in Xi'an, China, 21st Century Competencies were defined as the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to be competitive in the 21st century workforce. The symposium theme, 21st Century Skills for All, was chosen by the APEC Education Network because ensuring that the next generation develops these competencies is a pressing international concern. Students today need to learn how to participate appropriately in an increasingly diverse society, use new technologies and cope with rapidly changing workplaces. Multiple APEC Member Economies have been active in defining what these 21st Century Competencies are and how they can be effectively integrated into existing educational systems. APEC Member Economies identified four overarching competencies:

  1. Lifelong learning
  2. Problem solving
  3. Self-management
  4. Teamwork

Teaching tips, role playing scenarios, and other relevant resources for the 21st century were also developed as a part of  International Education Week. In a related development the Association of Pacific Rim Universities Doctoral Students Network (APRU DSN) has identified sustainable development and innovation as key concerns.

Developing 21st Century Competencies: An International Concern

As early as 1996, the International Commission on Education for the 21st Century developed the Four Pillars of a Competency-based Education: 1) learning to do (solve daily problems); 2) learning to know (keep learning); 3) learning to be (ethically responsible) and 4) learning to live together (the ability to respect and work with others). These pillars were included in "Learning: the Treasure Within," a report presented to UNESCO, and have been referenced repeatedly in subsequent efforts to identify and integrate 21st Century Competencies.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), through its project to define and select key competencies (the DeSeCo project), has defined 21st Century Competencies as the things all people need to know and be able to do in order to live meaningfully in, and contribute to, a well functioning society. These include:

  1. Functioning in socially heterogeneous groups
  2. Acting autonomously
  3. Using tools interactively
  4. Thinking (a “cross-cutting” competency)

The OECD report, 21st Century Skills and Competences for New Millennium Learners in OECD Countries, discusses issues related to the teaching and assessment of 21st century skills and competencies. Additionally, 21st-Century Competencies and Their Impact: An Interdisciplinary Literature Reviewsummarizes key insights and empirical findings from a wide range of literature about what competencies are important for the 21st century, and how these skills impact educational and economic outcomes for individuals and organizations.

According to the Asia Society, globally competent students must have the knowledge and skills to:

  1. Investigate the world
  2. Weigh perspectives
  3. Communicate ideas
  4. Take action

The downloadable book, Educating for Global Competence: Preparing Our Youth to Engage the World, offers a rationale and conceptual framework for global education, explains its role in student learning, considers core principles of instruction for teaching global competence, and looks at what schools and educational institutions can do to promote global competence. The Asia Society followed up with their exploration of 21st Century capabilities with the April 2012 report Teaching and Learning 21st Century Skills: Lessons from the Learning Sciences, in coordination with the RAND Corporation.

Integration of 21st Century Competencies into Existing Educational Systems

If the current generation is to develop 21st Century Competencies, existing educational systems must be modified. First, educational systems must generate clear standards that lay out the knowledge, skills and attitudes that students should be acquiring at each grade level. Second, teacher preparation and professional development should be reworked to incorporate training in teaching key competencies. Third, public policies must support schools in their efforts to prioritize 21st Century Competencies. Fourth, researchers will need to develop new ways of measuring mastery of these competencies and tracking the relationship between these competencies and success in tertiary education, the workforce and beyond. Finally, resources and tools to facilitate integration should be designed, tested and distributed. As always, APEC Economies should share their best practices as they proceed through the integration process. 

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills suggests that the "support elements" needed for successful integration include: 21st century standards, assessments, curriculum, instruction and professional development. In addition, they suggest that learning environments must prepare students for learning and working in the real world; this means large-scale integration of technology into the teaching and learning processes, for students and teachers.

A Status Report: APEC Economies and 21st Century Competencies

According to a 2007 survey of APEC Member Economies conducted by the Peruvian Ministry of Education, the identification and integration of 21st Century Competencies across the APEC region is just beginning. The survey was designed to determine to what extent APEC economies have identified a set of 21st Century Competencies necessary to students' success and whether they have made changes to their educational systems to incorporate these competencies into teaching and learning. The ten countries that responded to the survey include China, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, Austrailia, New Zealand, Japan, Brunei Darussalam, the United States, Thailand and Peru. Maria Laura Munoz Villanueva of the Peruvian Ministry of Education compiled the survey results and shared the following key findings at the 2008 APEC Education Reform Symposium in Xi'an, China:

  • Although there are many different definitions of “competencies”, APEC Economies agree that thinking about education as more than knowledge acquisition is important.
  • Some economies use the “competencies” concept only for career and technical education (CTE). In these cases, competencies refer to skills acquisition through professional development.
  • Economies tended to identify the following competencies as key for the 21st century: lifelong learning, problem solving, self-management and team work. In addition, Japan added a "zest for living," Peru mentioned attitudes of solidarity, Chinese Taipei highlighted patriotism and Brunei Darussalam noted the importance of physical skills.
  • Competencies identified within the four priority areas included: 1) math: problem solving, development of abstract thinking and decision making; 2) science: scientific knowledge within specific disciplines (physics, chemistry, natural sciences, etc.), science process skills and scienctific values like curiosity, environmental awareness and a concern for living things; 3) language learning: communication skills such as listening, speaking, reading and writing; 4) career and technical education: employability, entrepreneurship, teamwork and 5) information and communication technologies (ICT): using technology as a tool for communication and lifelong learning.
  • Economies suggested research activities and community-based projects as methodologies for teaching 21st Century Competencies.
  • Economies also indicated varying degrees of progress in creating systems for evaluating the development of 21st Century Competencies.

Lessons Learned: 2008 APEC Education Reform Symposium in Xi'an, China

At the 2008 APEC Education Reform Symposium in Xi'an, China, Member Economies presented on their approaches to 21st Century Competencies. Session 1 was devoted to the 21st Century Competency Framework, developed around the four priority areas.

Typical Competencies in Priority Academic Content Areas

Competency Examples by Academic Content Areas

(types of uses, proficiency levels)

Knowledge Examples

(facts, concepts, rules)

Skills Examples

(procedural, strategic problem-solving, communication, organizational)

Attitudinal Examples

(metacognition, willingness to train, ethics)

English and Other Foreign Languages

Competencies defined in terms of a scale of proficiency levels in using language in different skill areas: novice, intermediate, advanced, superior.

Grammar, vocabulary                 

Reading, listening, speaking, writing

Motivation to take a foreign language; willingness to use language and make mistakes in real world settings.

Mathematics (up to high school diploma)

Competencies defined in terms of using mathematics to solve problems (OECD/PISA): 1) reproduction competency uses practiced math facts and routine procedures; 2) connections competency uses situations that are not routine, but still involve quasi-familiar settings; 3) reflections competency uses non-routine procedures (complex problem-solving reflection and insight, original mathematical approaches, multiple complex methods).

Numbers, measurement, geometry, Algebra, statistics, probability, etc.

Procedural skills, strategies to solve problems (including messy
real-world problems), communicating solutions

Metacognition, motivation to
learn mathematics, ability to understand the need for math in a 21st century world.

Science (up to high school diploma)

Competencies defined in terms of using science to: 1) identify scientific issues; 2) explain phenomena scientifically; 3) use scientific evidence. (Competencies scales are defined by such characteristics as complexities of problem context, familiarity of scientific ideas, level of scientific reasoning, etc.)

Physical systems, living systems, Earth and space systems, technology systems, alternative organization around big ideas, energy, diversity of living things, cycles, interactions within the environment, physical things, etc.

Using science equipment, inquiry process, strategic problem solving, communicating

Interest in science, support for inquiry methods, responsibility towards resources and the environment.

Career and technical education (CTE)

All career clusters.

Academic foundations, information technology applications, systems, safety, health, and environmental issues

Communications, problem-solving and critical thinking, technical skills

Leadership and teamwork, ethics and legal responsibilities, employability and career development.

Sessions 2-4 were titled "Achieving 21st Century Competencies for All: Language, Mathematics and Science, and Career and Technical Education." Presentations covered three of the four priority areas: learning each other's languages, stimulating learning in mathematics and science and career and technical education (CTE). Additional attention is given to the two most developed efforts (the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and Key Competencies in 21st Century Schooling) in the following section. The presentations included:

  1. Key Competencies in 21st Century Schooling (New Zealand)
  2. Education Model for Multigrade Schools in Rural Areas (Peru)
  3. Overview of 21st Century Competencies and Skills (Peru)
  4. Overview of 21st Century Competencies and Skills Policy (Peru)
  5. Preparing Every Child for the 21st Century Experience (United States)

Session 5 dealt with information communication technologies (ICT) and systemic reform. Case study presentations emphasize how member education systems use ICT and systemic reform to move their systems toward achieving the goal of 21st Century Competencies for All. The presentations included:

  1. ICT Roles in Systemic Reform (Korea)
  2. Systemic Reform and ICT (Peru)
  3. Systemic Reform in a Developing Economy (Peru)
  4. Systemic Reform and Cross-border Education in APEC Economies
  5. The Promise of Open Educational Resources

Partnership for 21st Century Skills (United States)

At the 2008 APEC Education Reform Symposium in Xi'an China, Ken Kay, President of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (United States), suggested that 21st century skills are so important because of global competition, global cooperation, information growth, more jobs and careers and the service economy. He reported data from U.S. employers that shows that when hiring a high school graduate, the skills most important for success are work ethic (80%); collaboration (75%); good communication (70%), social responsibility (63%), critical thinking and problem solving (58%). The development of these skills is often overlooked in existing educational systems in favor of spending more time on knowledge acquisition (i.e. "getting through a curriculum"). 

The Partnership promotes mastery in core subjects (economics, English, government, arts, history, geography, reading or language arts, mathematics, science, world languages, civics) and in 21st century themes (global awareness, financial, economic, business and entrepreneurship literacy, civic literacy, health literacy, etc.) In addition, the Partnership promotes the acquisition of:

  1. Learning and innovation skills (critical thinking and problem solving; creativity and innovation; communication and collaboration)
  2. Information, media and technology skills (information literacy; media literacy and ICT literacy) and
  3. Life and career skills (flexibility and adaptability, initiative and self-direction, social and cross-cultural skills, productivity and accountability, leadership and responsibility).

Mr. Kay recommended that the APEC economies: 1) develop a partnership focused on identifying 21st century outcomes that includes the business community; 2) create a teacher professional development strategy for 21st century skills; 3) develop a comprehensive reform strategy for colleges of education and higher education; 4) use a full range of assessments, including high-stakes and classroom assessments, to measure 21st century skills and 5) invest in research and development.

Key Competencies in 21st Century Schooling (New Zealand)

Key Competencies in 21st Century Schooling is a national curriculum launched by New Zealand in November 2007 that features five key competencies:

  1. Thinking: Thinking is about using creative, critical, and metacognitive processes to make sense of information, experiences, and ideas. These processes can be applied to purposes such as developing understanding, making decisions, shaping actions, or constructing knowledge. Intellectual curiosity is at the heart of this competency. 
  2. Using language, symbols and text: Using language, symbols, and texts is about working with and making meaning of the codes in which knowledge is expressed. Languages and symbols are systems for representing and communicating information, experiences, and ideas. People use languages and symbols to produce texts of all kinds: written, oral/aural, and visual; informative and imaginative; informal and formal; mathematical, scientific, and technological. 
  3. Managing self: This competency is associated with self-motivation, a “can-do” attitude, and with students seeing themselves as capable learners. It is integral to self-assessment. Students who manage themselves are enterprising, resourceful, reliable and resilient. They establish personal goals, make plans, manage projects, and set high standards. They have strategies for meeting challenges. They know when to lead, when to follow, and when and how to act independently.
  4. Relating to others: Relating to others is about interacting effectively with a diverse range of people in a variety of contexts. The competency includes the ability to listen actively, recognise different points of view, negotiate, and share ideas. Students who relate well to others are open to new learning and able to take different roles in different situations. They are aware of how their words and actions affect others. They know when it is appropriate to compete and when it is appropriate to co-operate. By working effectively together, they can come up with new approaches, ideas, and ways of thinking.
  5. Participating and contributing: Participating and contributing is about being actively involved in communities. This competency includes a capacity to contribute appropriately as a group member, to make connections with others, and to create opportunities for others in the group. Students who participate and contribute in communities have a sense of belonging and the confidence to participate within new contexts. They understand the importance of balancing rights, roles, and responsibilities and of contributing to the quality and sustainability of social, cultural, physical, and economic environments.

According to a paper provided by the New Zealand Ministry of Education, rather than focus solely on one's ability to do something, these competencies take into consideration one's disposition and attitudes about doing it. There is general agreement that these skills cannot simply be “caught” but must deliberately be taught. For example, in the context of thinking skills, Zohar and Schwartzer (2005) review previous research on teaching to develop higher-order thinking. They say that thinking competencies will only develop when they are explicitly taught. Students learn how to think when they have opportunities to actively practice thinking as they complete cognitively challenging tasks, they are introduced to a variety of thinking patterns and skills, teachers use and share a vocabulary of thinking words, students receive specific feedback on their progress in learning to use these thinking tools and approaches, teachers encourage students to think in a free way, and help them to learn from any mistakes they may make in the process, etc.

New Zealand's efforts to integrate this new curriculum is groundbreaking and will be closely watched by other APEC Economies. Successful implementation will involve locating the key competencies within the existing curriculum, creating supporting tools, templates and "how to" manuals, ensuring administrator and teacher buy-in and collaborating with the business sector, among other things.