The Skills of the 21st Century

Why creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration should be the forefront of the science curriculum.

Emma Fazzino, August 2017

We live in a rapidly changing world, with fascinating scientific discoveries, technological breakthroughs and new inventions filling headlines daily. We also face many challenges such as climate change, increasing globalisation and big data. This shifting landscape in which we live requires us to possess the right skill set to tackle these issues. Both decision makers and everyday citizens need to be flexible, to have the courage to take initiative, and to think creatively to solve problems.

Man looking at paper on wall
Young man contemplates plans, via

The Old Way

Fifty years ago, most jobs required technical skills, such as knowing a specific trade like mechanics or having specialised knowledge such as bread-making. Schools did an excellent job at preparing students for these types of careers; with a rigid, textbook-driven curriculum that focused on memorising facts and working in isolation.

But now, we live in the information-age, and many industries are being replaced by automation. The demands of the workforce are different, and the types skills we need for these jobs have changed. No longer is there much value in rote-learning the first twenty elements of the periodic table, as facts like these can be so easily accessed by a single google search.

So why does our current education system still focus heavily on spoon-feeding teaching content?


21st Century Skills

It’s about time that there was a larger shift in focus towards teaching “21st century skills”. These include the “4 C’s” of creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration,.

And what is one of the best ways to teach these? Through science education.

At its heart, science is curiosity, its creativity and it requires collaboration. There is a strong connection between 21st century skills and science education. When taught with an emphasis on skills, science helps develop critical thinking, problem solving and digital literacy, whilst enhancing understanding of content knowledge and student engagement.

group collaboration
Collaboration, via

Science develops creativity

To do this, science taught in schools must reflect science in the real world. When scientific concepts are made relevant to students, they become more accessible and interesting. Real-life examples and hands-on learning foster a deeper understanding of scientific concepts. Encouraging students to look beyond the scientific facts and seek a practical application makes science less daunting and provides an exciting avenue for explanations about their world. Give students the opportunity to explore and wonder, and without knowing it, they will be asking questions, thinking critically, wanting to find out how or why. Science education is one of the best ways to exercise our inherently creative minds.

Science develops collaboration

Science education also promotes teamwork and communication, skills needed to thrive in the workforce of the future. When a collaborative, inquiry-based approach to teaching science is used, students learn to discuss problems, critique theories and negotiate solutions with one another. Being able to explain ideas and express opinions is crucial for success in life, regardless of whether they choose to pursue a scientific career or not. And in reality, scientists don’t work in isolation and just regurgitate facts, they work in teams, and develop new ideas. So why not teach science in this way?

Scientists looking at plants
Scientists working together, via

Careers of the future

Careers with a strong scientific understanding are growing close to 1.5 times faster than jobs in other industries. Many employers have identified that science literacy is one the core capabilities in an ideal employee.

A renewed national focus on science, technology, engineering and maths in schools is critical to ensuring that all young Australians are equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge that they will need to succeed.

                       National STEM School Education Strategy, 2016 – 2026

Additionally, the careers of the future will be increasingly diverse. Rather than following a single linear career path that our parents most likely took, the young people of today will have many jobs in a variety of industries in their lifetime. There will be more choices, more opportunities, and more adaptability needed.

The role of the teacher

The educators in today’s schools need to be preparing students for multiple careers, by designing learning activities that promote 21st century skills.

Easier said than done.

Current teachers need to acknowledge that they are more than instructors, they are facilitators of learning, who are responsible for shaping the culture of their classroom. They must work interactively, have an appreciation for blended learning environment, and always consider innovative ways to promote creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication into the classroom. Ultimately, teachers play a fundamental role in creating an environment where students learn how to be adaptable, analytical and resourceful in order to succeed in a global environment.

stack of laptop, ipad and books
Modern day learning tools, by Marcin Milewski

So what’s next?

It is about time that science education steer far away from the “old-school” textbook-style approach and began focusing on 21st century skills. It is necessary for our future that young Australians are equipped with the confidence to tackle challenges, both in their own lives and in society. These skills should be therefore be made a priority in the science education system.

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One Response to “The Skills of the 21st Century”

  1. Emma Arrigo says:

    Insightful read! The world and the skills people need are changing but the way we learn/teach isn’t, impacting our future. I loved the point (and video) about automation, as we are in the information age, jobs are evolving and require different skills.
    Nice article colleague, made me stop and reflect on our education system.