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The Global Search for Education: What Skills?

“Employers have to remain involved in making their needs heard, and education institutions have to accept that we educate for Life and Work, not only Life.” — Charles Fadel

Employers want to hire people with 21st-century skills and they can’t find enough qualified candidates. The problem, says Charles Fadel, Founder of the Center for Curriculum Redesign, is that our education system “is biased for college entrance requirements via tests such as the SAT which are partially obsolete, and never reflected particularly well the needs of employability.” So given the dramatic transformations we are seeing in the workplace, what are the most effective ways to close the increasingly widening education-to-employment gap?

Today in Part 4 of The Global Search for Education 5-part series with Charles Fadel, our focus is on skills. The OECD’s Andreas Schleicher calls Fadel’s book, Four-Dimensional Education: The Competencies Learners Need to Succeed, a “first of its kind organizing framework of competencies needed for this century which defines the spaces in which educators, curriculum planners, policy makers and learners can establish WHAT should be learned.”

Charles, how do you respond to employers’ concerns that students don’t have the skills needed to be productive in their companies?

For the past two decades, employers have stated that they are looking for employees able to display the “4 C’s”: to think Critically – solve problems and draw sound decisions – as well as working Creatively, and able to Communicate and Collaborate on a systematic basis. This is the framework we developed at the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21).

We have seen surveys done by, among others, the Conference Board and P21, and BIAC at OECD, highlighting that the “4 C’s" described above matter more than ever for employability the world over. This is not a new need, but it has been growing in importance as competition and time-to-market pressures intensify.

It is of course fair to say that employers expect from schools and higher education systems that students be ready for the world of work as well as world of life. They go hand-in-hand and there’s nothing wrong in educating for both employability and life. This is a false dichotomy as we need to educate for all levels of the Maslow pyramid: we all need to take care of physiological needs, but also safety, love/belonging, and self-actualization.

What would you say to a recent graduate who worked hard at a very expensive institution and who has not been able to find full-time work with good benefits? 

First, I’d say, “you have all my sympathy, I am sorry the system did not offer you better guidance, particularly given the price you paid. Brands matter, of course, but so do real skills, and the present system is focused on passing college, not really on employability.”

Then I’d say, “if you are still in college, make sure that you do many internships and projects with industry. And regardless of whether before or after graduation, realistically and honestly document how you have developed those real skills via each course, so you can discuss that during your interviews.”

Let’s talk about skills. What are the essential skills being left out of curriculum or that are not getting enough emphasis in curriculum?

First, let’s be clear in indicating that this is about skills not character qualities—these have been covered elsewhere before. The skills we are talking about are: creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. They are essential for both the world of work and success in life.

Now of course, present-day education achieves a certain amount of that, with varying degrees of success. Firstly, there is the assumption that teaching a discipline will necessarily foster higher-order thinking skills. It is mostly unfounded, as fast and broad coverage of materials typically supersedes the deeper learning that needs to occur.

Secondly, pedagogy needs to change—for instance, it is hard to imagine how a passive listener would learn how to communicate and collaborate.

How do you see the importance of these skills in addressing the key trends and issues we are seeing globally, such as climate change and migration?

The global challenges we are facing require not just modern areas of knowledge, but how to use that knowledge effectively, which is what the "4C’s" are about: how will we design water desalination systems? How will we foster entrepreneurship? Just about any contemporary question requires innovative and critical thinking. And it is also clear that communicating across cultures convincingly, and collaborating ethically and dynamically, are must-haves in an otherwise siloed world.

What are the primary drawbacks in the way current curriculum is organized in terms of developing the needed skills? Are these fundamental issues or constraints that are not overly challenging to modify?

Present-day curriculum in schools and higher education assumes that these skills will be naturally developed as the students acquired knowledge. But nothing can be further from the truth: knowledge can remain completely inert. Skills are how knowledge is used but one can learn in a rote way and never deepen skills.

A long-standing debate in education hinges on the false assumption that teaching skills will detract from teaching knowledge; this is a false dichotomy as studies have shown that when knowledge is learned passively without skills, it is often learned at the superficial level and therefore does not readily transfer to new environments. Deep understanding and actionability for the real world will occur only by embedding skills within the knowledge domain such that each enhances the other.

What steps need to be taken to better integrate the development of the essential skills into curriculum?

There are three steps that need to be taken to better integrate skills into the curriculum: First of all, re-examining the curriculum for obsolete areas so as to free up time and space for deeper learning to occur, hence skill development. For instance, if we are serious about using mathematics to help develop creativity, this must allow for exploration and inquiry about various possibilities. Thus the need for time, which implies carefully curating topics of less importance. Second, the identification of which part of the curriculum is more suited for teaching which skill: every single discipline can cover every single skill deeply, but some are well-suited for specific skills, by their very nature: caricaturally perhaps, maths for critical thinking, language for communication, arts for creativity, etc. And third, the training of teachers to know how to activate those mechanisms, in concert with other specialists helping out on a topic-by-topic basis, from inside as well as outside the school (including professionals from industry). There is no reason for the educators to be so isolated.

Are there any subject areas that should receive greater emphasis to support the essential skill development process, e.g., the arts, computer programming, etc?

Each subject area or discipline has the latitude to teach these four skills; it is a question of pedagogy and how time is used in the classroom, to pay attention to not merely learning of knowledge but also how to apply that knowledge. For instance, one can use maths, if done right, to teach not only critical thinking, but also creativity, communication, and collaboration.

How can employers and educators work together on skills?

Employers have to remain involved in making their needs heard, and education institutions have to accept that we educate for life and work, not only life—this is a false dichotomy. Life is difficult for most people without work, which brings not only income, but also self-esteem and satisfaction in making contributions.

Thank you Charles. In Part 5 of The Global Search for Education series with Charles Fadel, we will focus on WHAT Meta Learning is?

For More Information about Four-Dimensional Education.

For More Information about the Center for Curriculum Redesign.

(All Photos are Courtesy of CMRubinWorld and the Center for Curriculum Redesign)

C. M. Rubin and Charles Fadel


Join me and globally renowned thought leaders including Sir Michael Barber (UK), Dr. Michael Block (U.S.), Dr. Leon Botstein (U.S.), Professor Clay Christensen (U.S.), Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond (U.S.), Dr. MadhavChavan (India), Professor Michael Fullan (Canada), Professor Howard Gardner (U.S.), Professor Andy Hargreaves (U.S.), Professor Yvonne Hellman (The Netherlands), Professor Kristin Helstad (Norway), Jean Hendrickson (U.S.), Professor Rose Hipkins (New Zealand), Professor Cornelia Hoogland (Canada), Honourable Jeff Johnson (Canada), Mme. Chantal Kaufmann (Belgium), Dr. EijaKauppinen (Finland), State Secretary TapioKosunen (Finland), Professor Dominique Lafontaine (Belgium), Professor Hugh Lauder (UK), Lord Ken Macdonald (UK), Professor Geoff Masters (Australia), Professor Barry McGaw (Australia), Shiv Nadar (India), Professor R. Natarajan (India), Dr. Pak Tee Ng (Singapore), Dr. Denise Pope (US), Sridhar Rajagopalan (India), Dr. Diane Ravitch (U.S.), Richard Wilson Riley (U.S.), Sir Ken Robinson (UK), Professor Pasi Sahlberg (Finland), Professor Manabu Sato (Japan), Andreas Schleicher (PISA, OECD), Dr. Anthony Seldon (UK), Dr. David Shaffer (U.S.), Dr. Kirsten Sivesind (Norway), Chancellor Stephen Spahn (U.S.), Yves Theze (LyceeFrancais U.S.), Professor Charles Ungerleider (Canada), Professor Tony Wagner (U.S.), Sir David Watson (UK), Professor Dylan Wiliam (UK), Dr. Mark Wormald (UK), Professor Theo Wubbels (The Netherlands), Professor Michael Young (UK), and Professor Minxuan Zhang (China) as they explore the big picture education questions that all nations face today.
The Global Search for Education Community Page

C. M. Rubin is the author of two widely read online series for which she received a 2011 Upton Sinclair award, “The Global Search for Education” and “How Will We Read?” She is also the author of three bestselling books, including The Real Alice in Wonderland, is the publisher of CMRubinWorld, and is a Disruptor Foundation Fellow.

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