21st century skills: Beyond the Three Rs

In recent years it has become increasingly clear that basic reading, writing and arithmetic, while essential, are not necessarily enough. The importance of non-cognitive skills – usually defined as abilities important for social interaction – is also pronounced. A British study found that teacher-assessed levels of social adjustment at the age of 11 correlated just as strongly as a child’s cognitive abilities at that age with an individual’s likelihood of employment at 42, and had about one-third of the impact on adult pay.6 Such social understanding is also integral to a new range of abilities which educationalists have identified as ‘21st century skills’, including communication, working in teams and problem-solving.7

As Andreas Schleicher, OECD deputy director for education, puts it: “The world economy no longer pays for what people know but for what they can do with what they know.” So far, however, understanding how best to teach these skills has suffered from even poorer data than those available for traditional ones, or even from a lack of outcomes definitions. The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is seeking to fill the void. In April 2014 it released the results from a problem-solving section included for the first time in the 2012 test, and in 2015 it aims to test collaborative working.

The task of assessing these skills is unlikely to be straightforward, nor are the results predictable. Data from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) on problem-solving skills in a technology-rich environment found that the economic return from having these abilities is lower than from having advanced literacy or numeracy, especially in terms of higher individual wages. Eric Hanushek, the Paul and Jean Hanna senior fellow at Stanford University, notes that more detailed study is needed: “We know that in the highesttechnology parts of society – which use skills the most – problem-solving is important, but we don’t know how to measure it very precisely or necessarily how to develop [these skills] per se.”

The answer to these questions will be relevant for a debate with the potential to reshape education in the near future. Despite the success of Asian education in inculcating numeracy and literacy, systems in that region are frequently criticised for relying on rote education: one study found that for each of their twice-a-semester exams, South Korean students have to memorise between 60 to 100 pages of facts in order to do well.8

This type of teaching is presumed to impede creativity and the ability of students to address unexpected problems, either alone or in groups. The average test scores for problem-solving in 2014 and for collaborative working in 2015 might lend credence to these concerns or allay them, in which case other countries may need to revisit how they promote creativity.

Nor is any system currently likely to have the optimal approach for education. Just as new technology is requiring students to acquire a broader range of skills, it is opening up the potential for revolutionary new teaching techniques. This could even lead to new models of networking between and among students and teachers, allowing more individualised learning goals and pathways.9

21st Century Skills



6 Pedro Carneiro et al., ‘Which Skills Matter?’, Centre for the Economics of Education, London School of Economics, Discussion Paper 59, 2006.
7 Giorgio Brunello and Martin Schlotter, ‘Non Cognitive Skills and Personality Traits: Labour Market Relevance and their Development in Education & Training Systems,’ Forschungsinstitut zur Zukunft der Arbeit, Discussion Paper 5743, 2011.
8 Randall S Jones, ‘Education Reform in South Korea’, OECD Economics Department Working Paper No 1067, 2013.
9 For a discussion, see Michael Fullan and Maria Langworthy, A Rich Seam: How New Pedagogies Find Deep Learning, January 2014.

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