Representing 21st century skills in curricula: A new study

Students hold their textbooks and stationeries during recess in a primary school in northeastern Khon Kaen province May 24, 2011. Overcrowding in classrooms is just one of the problems dogging Thailand's education system, where an inward-looking curriculum emphasises rote-learning and basic literacy. Critics say that without an overhaul to bring the system into the 21st century, Thailand will lose out in the race with Asian rivals for foreign investment. Picture taken May 24, 2011. To match Analysis THAILAND-EDUCATION   REUTERS/Sukree Sukplang (THAILAND - Tags: EDUCATION)

“Holistic development” is the watchword when setting educational goals for students. However, what this means in practice differs from country to country and culture to culture. The underlying sentiments, though, are similar: We all want to ensure that our young citizens are equipped to think critically and creatively, and to solve problems in an increasing globalized world—a world in which learning is a lifelong endeavor. The challenge before us is with how nations act on these sentiments and design systems to be responsive to societal needs, all while maintaining traditional educational goals.

21CS MAP, a new study from the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), is designed to address this issue. By taking a comparative curriculum-mapping approach, the study will analyze how curricula give students the opportunity to master 21st century skill (21CS) learning goals.

21CS MAP will look at what competencies are valued within mainstream education systems, how they are integrated, and the expectations for how students will learn, think, and perform. The study will first identify common 21CS across participating countries, and then analyze how these skills are represented across selected subjects at Grades 4 and 8 levels in national curricula. Consistent with IEA’s approach, participating countries will contribute to the study’s framework and survey to ensure relevance and accurate representation.


Previously, Brookings completed research that captured web-sourced information about national education systems’ aspirations associated with 21CS. This research provided convincing evidence of a global shift toward these skills, but the impact on curriculum change was not clear.

Global understanding of most traditional school subjects, such as mathematics or science, is relatively well established, with curriculum studies showing strong similarities in type and sequence of learning for such subjects. That knowledge, in turn, informs continuing curriculum reform worldwide.

As systems incorporate 21CS learning goals, we need similar levels of detail about the components of these competencies, how they are expressed in guidelines to teachers and students, and how they are represented either within standalone subjects or across disciplines. The Journal of Curriculum Studies published a significant review of 21st century competencies frameworks being considered for curricula. The challenges posed in that review, such as the need for common definitions for skills and connections between core subjects and these skills, remain unresolved today. 21CS MAP will provide the first multiple country dataset to inform these issues.

Country variation in the integration of 21CS

There are many instances of individual countries adopting approaches to integrating 21CS. For example, in 2019 the Norwegian Parliament adopted a substantial revision to primary and secondary education, including both structural and curricular content by the introduction of transdisciplinary themes associated with health and life skills, democracy and citizenship, and sustainable development. These reforms enshrined critical thinking and reflection as central to subject studies.

In 2017, Zambia published its “Teachers’ Curriculum Implementation Guide,” which highlighted competencies such as cooperation, critical thinking, and self-management, as the key abilities learners need within the context of competency-based models of education. Earlier, in 2015, Costa Rica’s “education for a new citizenship” curriculum reform used a highly regarded 2012 framework of ways of thinking, ways of living in the world, ways of relating with others, and tools to be part of the world, as a guide in their development process.

These three examples show that the rationale for, and the mode of adoption of, 21CS varies significantly. Currently, how the different approaches and the different structures influence the desired learning goals is not clear. Rather than relying on piecemeal information, 21CS MAP will assemble up-to-date information about the range of 21CS and the structures that have been adopted by education systems to integrate these skills into their curricula. In turn, this will ensure that we are equipped to analyze how the different approaches are both responsive to national differences, and how they facilitate the achievement of learning goals.

Our proposal

21CS MAP will provide an opportunity for educators worldwide to understand how academic, workforce, and organizational discussions of 21CS frameworks are playing out at the point of delivery in formal primary and secondary education.

The nature of these frameworks, the nomenclature used to describe their contents, and the claims concerning 21st century or “all centuries” relevance have been subject to controversy and argument. In the meantime, education systems have been quietly responding to concerns that students are not graduating with the competencies they need to survive and thrive. Case study approaches to exploring this phenomenon have revealed that while some countries adopt a framework, others integrate discrete skills, values, or attitudes in their educational aspirations.

For researchers, 21CS MAP will provide a rich opportunity to explore the context in which these different approaches are adopted, and how they impact curriculum. For participating countries, 21CS MAP will contribute to a better understanding of implementation models.