Challenges in integrating 21st century skills into education systems

Giang Thi May teaches a first grade class at the primary school of Van Chai in Dong Van district, on the border with China, north of Hanoi, Vietnam, September 21, 2015. There is no electricity and no books. She teaches the children in the local Hmong language. Nearly three years after Taliban gunmen shot Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, the teenage activist last week urged world leaders gathered in New York to help millions more children go to school. World Teachers' Day falls on 5 October, a Unesco initiative highlighting the work of educators struggling to teach children amid intimidation in Pakistan, conflict in Syria or poverty in Vietnam. Even so, there have been some improvements: the number of children not attending primary school has plummeted to an estimated 57 million worldwide in 2015, the U.N. says, down from 100 million 15 years ago. Reuters photographers have documented learning around the world, from well-resourced schools to pupils crammed into corridors in the Philippines, on boats in Brazil or in crowded classrooms in Burundi.  REUTERS/Kham  TPX IMAGES OF THE DAYPICTURE 33 OF 47 FOR WIDER IMAGE STORY "SCHOOLS AROUND THE WORLD"SEARCH "EDUCATORS SCHOOLS" FOR ALL IMAGES      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - GF10000226464
Editor's note:

This is the second post in a series about education systems alignment in teaching, learning, and assessing 21st century skills.

UNESCO, a leading agency for sustainable development and global citizenship education, has promoted the concept of holistic learning reflected in Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4, and particularly SDG 4.7, based on three pillars: cognitive, socio-emotional, and behavioral. And many countries are shifting their learning goals to respond to the emerging education needs of the 21st century. In the Asia-Pacific region, UNESCO Bangkok, through its regional platforms—Educational Research Institutes Network (ERI-Net) and Network on Education Quality Monitoring in the Asia-Pacific (NEQMAP)—has undertaken a series of collaborative research studies with countries in Asia, focusing on different aspects of 21st century skills learning. Most recently, NEQMAP’s 6th Annual Meeting, held in December 2018 in Bangkok, focused on issues and challenges in the integration of 21st century skills in curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment.

UNESCO Bangkok has a coordination role in monitoring the progress toward SDG 4 by member states in Asia and the Pacific. The globally agreed indicator 4.7.1 aims to measure the “extent to which (i) global citizenship education and (ii) education for sustainable development, including gender equality and human rights, are mainstreamed at all levels in…[education].” However, a limitation is that it addresses a country’s efforts to improve education provisions but does not measure its impact on learners.

It is clear that many countries put significant effort into reflecting the importance of 21st century skills in their education policies and plans. Some countries are taking steps to mainstream SDG 4.7 in the curricula through techniques such as project-based learning and field studies, while many seek to integrate and assess competencies such as critical thinking, collaboration, and global citizenship education through subject areas (e.g., social studies, science, and information and communications technology). Can examinations and other “tests” actually measure abstract areas such as creativity or collaboration in ways that are valid and reliable? How can a teacher, for example, evaluate the degree to which a student is empathetic or compassionate, and has skills for taking initiative?

New report on education system alignment for 21st century skills

In many countries in Asia and the Pacific, assessment still follows the traditional path of measuring students’ literacy, numeracy, and knowledge. A newly published report by the Brookings Institution, “Education system alignment for 21st century skills: Focus on assessment,” describes the challenges to measurement of new learning goals, which include collaboration and communication, as well as complex cognitive skills like creative problem-solving.

The report says “local contexts matter more than cross-national comparability in educational assessments.” Indeed, our member states’ education officials highlight that guidelines developed at the global/regional level are useful for reviewing their policies and practices, but emphasize the need for flexibility for each country to define their own understanding of SDG 4.7. Reviews have shown that existing curricula already include many 21st century competencies, but the challenge lies in the need for systematic implementation of these curricula through alignment with appropriate pedagogy and assessment. In many cases there is also a need to refresh curricula to reflect the skills more explicitly—the Philippines is one example of a country that has reformed to reflect a new vision of education. Another major challenge described in the report is the lack of understanding of “a learning domain, or ‘construct,’” as well as “what increasing levels of competency in a skill look like… without [which] designing assessment frameworks and tasks are impossible.” It is an extremely complex process that requires in-depth discussions among education stakeholders for them to arrive at consensus, to be followed by intensive capacity development for implementation.

UNESCO Bangkok, through NEQMAP, is collaborating with the Brookings Institution on the regional initiative Optimizing Assessment for All (OAA). OAA is designed to support countries’ improvement of assessment, teaching, and learning of 21st century skills focused on critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration in math, science, and social science. UNESCO is most interested in enlarging the scope of assessment by including these skills, and not just the cognitive ones. In contrast with high-stakes assessments that are nationally implemented at large scale and have major implications for individual student progression and system-level evaluation of school performance, OAA takes a bottom-up approach by focusing on strengthening teachers’ capacity in the use of classroom-level assessment of 21st century skills to support learning. In Asia, three countries—Cambodia, Nepal, and Mongolia—are benefiting from this initiative.

School-based data alone cannot monitor and measure outcomes in terms of attitudinal and behavior changes of learners. The impact of family and the community must also be considered. Accordingly, UNESCO Bangkok has recently launched a pilot to provide technical support to education authorities to review their learning assessment policy and practices, as well as data availability for defining the indicators related to SDG 4.7. Vietnam is the first pilot country, and the first consultation meeting recently took place in collaboration with the Vietnam Institute of Educational Sciences (VNIES). UNESCO Bangkok will continue supporting countries in the region to strengthen capacity and enhance knowledge on the interface between curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment systems that can support acquisition of 21st century skills.