Teaching kids 21st century skills early will help prepare them for their future
Iram Siraj , 15 Nov 17
       

This is an edited extract written by Iram Siraj, from Future Frontiers: Education for an AI World, a New South Wales Department of Education publication.

It may be a truism that the future will be different, but human expectations have rarely been so high about the degree of imminent change. This century’s rapid development of artificial intelligence and digital systems has convinced us that almost every aspect of our children’s and grandchildren’s lives will be different to ours.

As these emerging technologies evolve, and are then quickly replaced by as yet unimaginable new ones, human society will need to become increasingly nimble and adaptable with lifelong learning as its modus operandi. In this digital age, the need for children to learn and memorise facts is diminishing. It is being replaced by the need to learn how to sieve and assess information critically for any kernel of “truth”.


We don’t know exactly what kind of workforce today’s preschoolers will enter into in 18 years, but there is increasing demand for people skills. Shutterstock
.Today’s pre-schoolers will enter the workforce around 2035. Although we cannot contemplate exactly what their world will be then, we do know that children and adults will continue to need the basics of the 3Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic). They will also need a greater ability to learn how to learn, and to possess problem solving, critical thinking skills, and to be resilient in the face of fast-moving change.

Most discussions about “21st century skills” emphasise the need for schools to focus more on so-called “soft” skills and character traits (such as creative thinking and curiosity) in addition to cognitive skills such as problem-solving, critical analysis, the attainment of core subject knowledge, and strong early literacy and numeracy. Interestingly, early childhood education already includes a strong focus on these so-called “soft” skills. Early years learning has a stronger focus on whole-of-child development than school education.

There is a growing emphasis on integrated learning in early childhood education and care that creates a connection between the academic and the social. Developing children’s competencies in creativity, collaboration, self-regulation and problem solving can be undertaken through projects that harbour real-world knowledge. It can also be undertaken through problems that require young children (especially those age 3 to 5) to communicate and create knowing together. Here, the important task of the educator is to emphasise, and give attention to, the learning process rather than the learning outcomes.

Connected to this is the importance of educators emphasising interactions that support sustained shared thinking (SST). SST occurs when two or more individuals work together in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate an activity, extend a narrative, etc. It is still rare to see SST in early education settings, but research shows children are more successful learners and better motivated to learn where it is practised.

Future learners will need an excellent start in early learning if they are to cope with mid to late 21st century challenges. It is vital that early education curricula emphasise the process and the outcomes of both soft and hard skills to create the most competent learners and citizens. The family’s role is also essential in nurturing and enriching young children’s development. Any early childhood education and care system that ignores this reality will not be able to optimise children’s potential.

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