Challenging 21st-century skills


Are '21st-century' skills generic, or are they different for each subject? Can learning content develop deeper thinking skills?

In this episode, we ask Daisy Christodoulou her views on these important questions. Daisy is the Director of Education at No More Marking in the UK, and the author of Making Good Progress?: The future of assessment for learning.

Credits: Recording and production by Jennifer Macey (Audiocraft), editing by Andy Maher, and voiceovers by Sally Kohlmayer. This episode was recorded in 2018. The views expressed in Edspressos are those of the interviewees and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSW Department of Education.


Image: Daisy Christodoulou
Edspresso Episode 6: Challenging 21st-century skills, with Daisy Christodoulou.


Welcome to the Edspresso series from the New South Wales Department of Education. These short podcasts are part of the Education for a Changing World initiative. Join us as we speak to a range of experts about how emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence are likely to change to the world around us, and what this might mean for education.

Are 21-century skills generic, or are they different for each subject? Can learning content develop deeper thinking skills? In this episode, we ask Daisy Christodoulou her views on these important questions. Daisy is the Director of Education at No More Marking in the UK and the author of 'Making Good Progress: The Future of Assessment for Learning'. Daisy makes the case for why thinking skills are gained through learning content and provides some lessons learned from the UK context.


My name is Daisy Christodoulou, and I'm the Director of Education at No More Marking. Why is it that people talk about the 21st-century skills? I think that what people have legitimately seen happening in the last few decades, particularly in developed societies is great changes in the economy which have led to maybe traditional kind of manual jobs that people could do without much education. There are fewer and fewer opportunities for those and fewer and fewer ways to make a living from those kinds of jobs.

So, people have looked at that trend and have said, well, we need to get people into, if you like, the way you can see the economic value is for individuals in societies is perhaps in more cognitive demanding work, and there definitely is a very interesting trend about, if you like, the intellectualisation of work. So, I think there is something perhaps about the fact that the skills that were previously valuable but perhaps not needed beyond a small part of society, we are now saying these skills are now essential for everybody to have.

We should be aware that 21st-century skills, the phrase obviously sounds very new and cutting edge, but we have to remember a lot of the ideas that underpin what a lot of people talk about when they mean 21st-century skills are not new at all. So, should the process of learning look different now than it has done in the past? I would say, yes, it should because we need to prepare children for the world, we obviously have many different tools, many different technologies both that we can use in the process of learning and obviously children use when there are out in the real world.

But there are some ways in which education will not be different. There are some ways in which we as humans have not changed even over thousands of years because we haven't had enough time really and the essence to evolve to change. And I think one of the most important aspects in the way we haven't changed that has an impact on learning is to do with the limitations of our working memory.

So, our working memories are limited, and we handle only four to seven new items of information in working memory at any one time. Our long-term memory by contrast are vast and we can store thousands of pieces of information in them.

We still have limitations about the way we think and learn and why I think that's so important is because one of the most common things people say about how we will be learning 21st-century could be different, they say we have all got smartphones now, we've all got Google, we don't need to memorise things. Because you can just whip something out of your phone in your pocket, and you can look it up. And actually, when you look at the evidence of how we think and how we learn that is profoundly misguided.

Because if you are constantly relying on looking things up, you are taking up that really valuable and precious space in working memory. You can't just rely on it being on Google. I think that thinking skills aren't taught through learning content knowledge, I think thinking skills are content knowledge. I must say I do get quite frustrated when people talk about, "Do we need to learn knowledge or skills?"

It is a false dichotomy and I think we need a completely different conception of the relationship between knowledge and skills, and the conception we need is that skill is the end goal, so the creative thinking, problem solving, thinking critically, these are end goals of education and how do we achieve them? What does the research say about how we develop skills? They are specific to a particular content area in which you develop them. I would like to think to myself that I am a good reader, I've got a degree in English literature, I taught English.

I would like to think if you gave me a passage of English writing that I've never read before, a poem or a non-fiction piece, I would be able to read it, understand it and say something insightful, hopefully, about what it's saying. A colleague of mine he was a biology teacher and he sent me his PhD to read, and I could not understand any of it. I could pronounce some of the words in it, I could read it out loud, could I understand it? No. If you don't have the vocabulary, you don't have the background knowledge, your ability to read does start to break down. So, even something like reading not as transferable as we might initially think.

Whatever field we look at, how you develop expertise, how do you develop the high-level thinking skill, you develop it through immersion in domain-specific content and memorising the right things and getting those things into long-term memory. And the extent to which it would transfer if we want to teach thinking skills, we have to teach the content, not just because the content is something to teach with, but the content is the skill, so we can't neglect it.

I don't think that memorisation and knowledge inhibit creativity. I think that memorisation, I think knowledge, I think repetition, I think they all enable creativity. I think they are the building blocks of creativity and I think when you look at creativity geniuses in any field, actually you find that. Shakespeare is a very creative writer, not just because he writes plays but actually compared to a lot of other play writers at the time, he really breaks a lot of rules. But when you look at Shakespeare's education and in fact when you look at his development as a playwright, you realise that it's entirely dependent on the knowledge that he learnt at school. And we have a pretty good idea of his school curriculum because it was an Elizabethan grammar school and the curriculum survived.

He did do an awful amount of practice and an awful amount of memorisation at school, but as he gets more and more practice and develops, then you get the really fluid and striking dramatic language of the later plays. So, that's one really good example, I think, of how creativity isn't inhibited by knowledge, creativity doesn't happen in a vacuum, creativity and the discovery, you have to know stuff to be able to spot the surprises that happen around you.

I think some of the really interesting scientific discoveries happen where two different disciplines collide and so often its people bringing into bear the techniques, and the knowledge, and the insight from one domain, and one discipline bringing them to bear on another discipline. But self-evidently if that has happened you have to the techniques and the knowledge to begin with.

I'm really interested in how we assess complex skills. I work for an organisation in the UK and we have a technique of assessment called comparative judgement. And comparative judgement is particularly good at assessing open-ended tasks and assessing for open-ended skills. I do think when you are assessing these skills you have to give a lot of thought to exactly what it is you are trying to assess, I do think there is an issue with some modern methods of assessment that they can force children into boxes, maybe. And maybe they don't tap creativity as much we'd like, I think there is a big issue when assessing writing with standardised assessment rubrics essentially encouraging children to all write the same essay.

If you want to set a closed question with only one right answer there's enormous value to that, but if you want to set an open question like an essay, or an extended piece of writing, then I actually think if you then come up with a rubric that's incredibly picky and very tick-boxy, you're defeating the point of the open assessment. Because the point of an open assessment should be for people to take it in different directions.

So, what are lessons from the UK about teaching general capabilities? There was a big review of the curriculum in England in 2007, which pushed it much more down, not completely, but pushed it much more down more of a project-based approach and less of a subject based approach. So, it didn't completely get rid of subjects, but it really encouraged a more kind of interdisciplinary, cross curricular approach. I think at the school level I think that was really damaging, particularly at primary school.

I think projects that are really seductive idea, which a lot of school systems go in for. The problem with projects is that they don't let you break down these complex skills into the smaller chunks. They don't give you the chance to focus on the smaller chunks and build them up. They get pupils in trying to do these very complex tasks, which are actually very overwhelming to working memory.

So, I think that is a real lesson I would say from England but also from other parts of the world, don't throw out subjects particularly in the early years, subjects have a lot of value. When we think about project-based learning we have got to think also about the difference between experts and novices. What we know is that experts think in a qualitatively different way to novices, so actually, it's not helpful to look at what a professional scientist does, for example, to look at what they do and say well that's what the school science should look like. I think we need to be realistic about how it is you develop these very complex skills.

So, what would be the most important thinking skills in the future? It's always hard to make predictions. The thing I would always say is that nothing dates as fast as the cutting edge, if a particular technique or a skill has been useful for a couple of thousand years, it's a good bet it will be for the 50. I think the alphabet system and the number system, these are the two of the oldest inventions of humanity and because we are so dependent on them we've actually set up all of our modern systems to rely on them.

There is a significant proportion of children who leave school functionally illiterate and innumerate. And there is still a proportion of children who if they had better literacy and numeracy skills would do better in life. I think coding is a really important skill, it should be on the upper secondary curriculum at least but I think it does present challenges around you don't want to put something around then that does become outdated.

I think data analysis, so data science, data analysis, the ability to work with large bodies of data, I think that's going to be a really important skill in the future. I feel much happier making the bet on reading and writing for the reasons I've said. But if you were going to get me to make some predictions about more advanced skills those would be the two I would predict. And I would also say that with both of those I wouldn't start them necessarily too early, I'm not convinced that data handling at primary school is a good idea.

I actually think that the risk is you get pupils who are not secure on the basics of number, and they are moving ahead to more sophisticated applications of data analysis, but if they have not got the secure underpinnings of number that will actually hamper them going forward. So, I think if you look at education systems like Singapore, the way they do is to make sure that all children are really secure in the basics. And once they are then they can whizz through some of these later applications.

Now, as I say, I'm realistic to expect everybody to achieve expertise in a whole different range of fields, but I think a very fruitful approach that I find quite interesting is one where perhaps you have your expertise in one area, and then you have maybe not expertise, but you do have some knowledge about some other fields. And I think that's a really potent way of generating creativity but also collaboration because as I said creativity is often when you are bringing ideas from one area to bear on another.

I gave up maths when I was sixteen and I think, actually, if could go back again I probably wouldn't, I'd probably carry on with maths because I think it's turned out to be, even though I did a degree in English literature, maths has turned out to be very important for my career. It's really important and really useful. Some of those things your teacher tells you to do that can seem a little boring, some of those things that maybe you don't always love to begin with, stick with them because I think they can be really valuable.

The things you remember now in school, they are going to go with you through life. They will be really powerful, there will be things that you will look back on and in ways that can't imagine now can have an impact on your life. So, make the most of that opportunity to lay down those memories.


Thank you for listening to this episode of the Edspresso series. You can find out more about the Education for a Changing World initiative via the New South Wales Department of Education's website.


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