Education for the 21st Century

Placing skills development at the heart of education

Hugh Delaney, Chief of Education, UNICEF Thailand
A group of students are learning about how to make cement blocks in their class.
UNICEF Thailand/2016/Thuentap

22 April 2019

The term ‘education for the 21st Century’ recognises that we are living through a period of rapid change in an increasingly globalised environment, to which education systems need to adapt, not just through a one-off reform, but continuously.

Innovation and technological advances are constantly changing the ways we communicate, work, and live together and education systems which reflect this dynamic will be most capable of responding effectively to the current and changing needs of young people, society and indeed the labour market.

Education policy makers and practitioners with whom I have engaged in Thailand are rightly concerned that the education which young people experience should equip them with the kinds of skills that prepare them to live in and shape the society of the future.

Yet, too many students in Thailand are still not attaining expected foundational skills, as evidenced by national examinations and international assessment results. Drop-out rates remain high at the secondary school level, which leaves too many young people exposed to the harsh realities of the labour market without the necessary skills to thrive.

A group of students are using internet to search for information that they are interested in.
UNICEF Thailand/2016/Thuentap

Improvements in education and skills will be important to drive the achievement of Thailand’s 20-year National Strategy and to boost economic potential and inclusiveness.

The challenge for Thailand, however, is how to effectively bring about the change we want to see in classrooms around the country. How to transform teaching and learning so that the development of student competencies and the application of learning and skills are the primary focus of education.

And while foundational skills such as numeracy and literacy remain important foundations for all future learning, students also need to develop 21st Century skills. This requires a renewed focus on a whole range of skills including adaptability, critical thinking, creativity, problem solving and collaboration, to name some of the most prominent.

These skills are often referred to as transferrable skills as they can be used in different scenarios and across different domains, reflecting the growing trend that young people will move across and between different areas of work during their careers where their ability to transfer skill-sets to meet new challenges will be tested.

Reform of the curriculum itself is required, as the curriculum framework sets the vision for education and guides the learning objectives and outcomes expected of all students in the country. The process of curriculum reform should therefore be one which defines and responds to the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values young people will need to thrive in the world, not just today, but in the years to come.

This process should be evidence-informed, taking into account global research and experience on competencies as well as national aspirations and development goals. It should also be consultative, drawing on the voices of young people about the skills they need as well as the learning approaches which are most relevant to them. The private sector should also have a voice in ensuring that any revised curricula is geared towards developing skills required by employers.

A group of students are surrounding their teacher in a school's park, discussing with their teacher.
UNICEF Thailand/2016/Thuentap

The readiness of the teacher education system and the buy-in and confidence of teachers to lead a new approach is critical to the successful implementation of a competency-based curriculum. The teaching profession must be involved from the outset of curriculum reform to get buy-in and to support later implementation. In addition, in-service teachers must be helped to understand the new competency-based approach and must have access to good resources and guidance to help transform their classrooms into settings where students are applying their learning and engaging in more collaborative activities such as project-based learning, research and analysis and problem-solving tasks.

Leaning assessment must also be reformed hand in hand with the introduction of a new curriculum and pedagogical approaches. The current high-stakes national examinations have not been designed with a competency-based lens. Assessments should measure student competencies and abilities to apply learning and can also incorporate project work conducted throughout the year.

UNICEF also strongly advocates that education reforms have an equity-focus from the beginning so that all students in Thailand benefit and that existing inequalities in learning are addressed. The government must take steps to ensure that high-quality teachers are deployed to schools where they are needed most and that under-resourced schools which enrol the most disadvantaged students are provided with the tools and resources needed to transform education and learning. This will mitigate the risk in the coming years that, rather than helping to address inequalities, advances in technology will benefit most those schools which are already well resourced, leaving disadvantaged schools and students who have been unable to harness technology even further behind.

This article is part of a series of opinion pieces by UNICEF Thailand, in which the organization proposes policy priorities for children and young people, for the equitable and sustainable development of Thailand.

 

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