Equipping the next generation with the skills to flourish

Few sectors are more prone to change than education. Reforms are enacted, funds invested and systems adjusted – all in the hope that kids will receive the necessary skills and best education possible.

Today, though, it’s more than just the curriculum that has changed. Of course, subjects like mathematics remain crucial, but schoolchildren and students are growing up in a world transformed. Interconnected global economies, urbanisation, climate change and digital technology are just some of the trends reshaping our planet. The last of these is of particular significance to those in education.

Education technology: just do IT

Technology, of course, is here to stay. More than 10 billion connected devices around the world are a testament to its deep penetration into day-to-day life, and schools – as you’d expect – have not escaped this ongoing revolution. The internet – a constant presence for so many of us – has heralded a new age of learning, providing students with a vast window of opportunity. Information, data, numbers – all at their fingertips and no longer buried in the dusty tomes of academic libraries.

But it’s not all positive. Determining what is pertinent in this sea of information requires students to do more than just cut and paste. Instead, theirs is a role that demands an ability to identify new solutions and understand what is happening, not only in their own country but around the world. This means that critical thinking, problem-solving, persistence, collaboration and curiosity are all traits that have become essential for success in the 21st century. Unfortunately, students in many countries are not yet acquiring these skills.

That’s not for the lack of trying. Rare is the policymaker who doesn’t cite education as a key priority for their government. We have had the good fortune to work in Chicago, New York, London, Milan, Atlanta, and Boston and in each of these cities education was often at the forefront of public discourse. As a result, schools, colleges and universities frequently receive a bombardment of reforms, all aiming to raise standards and improve results. So, what’s the problem?

Mind the gap

The 21st century skills can be classified into three broad categories: foundational literacies, competencies, and character qualities. But studies have shown that large gaps exist in many of these skills in countries around the world. For example, relative to other OECD countries, Poland and Ireland perform well on a range of indicators representing foundational literacies, but do not perform as well as their OECD counterparts in areas such as critical thinking and curiosity.

This has serious implications for employers. Satisfying their near insatiable hunger for information requires employees who are as comfortable with cutting-edge technology as they are with thinking creatively and originally. If the next generation cannot deliver this elusive combination, then economic growth, investment and prosperity will begin to falter. Technology, though, can assist us.

We recently helped write a new report from the World Economic Forum, ‘New Vision for Education: Unlocking the Potential of Technology’, which looked at how education technology can strengthen learning. Personalised and adaptive content and curricula, open educational resources, and digital professional development support for teachers all came up as key priorities for the future. We also found that technology doesn’t need to replace more traditional approaches but instead can complement activities like project-based learning, while at the same time enabling teachers to strengthen their students’ communication and creativity.

To make this happen, government leaders, as well as other stakeholders such as teachers and educational technology providers, need to work together. Collaboration may have long entered the political lexicon as something that should happen, but in this case it really needs to. Doing so will bring a raft of improvements closer to reality – promoting technology expertise among teachers, developing new products to fill skills gaps, and providing funding to pilot, transfer and scale up technology-enabled models are just a few examples that spring to mind.

Time will tell if this collaboration will emerge. If it does so, then today’s generation of students, as well as tomorrow’s, will be better placed to ride the wave of technology to a brighter future – both here in the US and beyond.

Read Education Technology and the Twenty-First-Century Skills Gap on BCG Perspectives

 

FURTHER READING

  • Power to the people. Few countries have embraced the digital era as successfully as New Zealand. We talk to one of its government’s key digital transformation leaders, Richard Foy, about how they’ve done it
  • Computer says yes. Governments are increasingly reliant on digital technology to deliver public services – and Australia’s myGov service is a potential game-changer, says Gary Sterrenberg
  • Digital dawn. It may not be obvious, but US policymakers have had an important role to play in the creation of today’s digital era, says David Dean
  • Online, on track. BCG’s Miguel Carrasco looks at how policymakers can improve the delivery of digital services
  • Connect to affect. American colleges and universities are intellectual powerhouses that help enable policymakers drive public impact, says Danny Werfel. We just need it to happen more consistently
  • Schools of thought. Declining state appropriations, increasing tuition, rising student debt, growing employer dissatisfaction and critiques from an array of politicians have all led to increased questioning about the impact of higher education institutions in the United States. But what do leaders of colleges and universities think?
  • Look up and learn. OECD education chief, Andreas Schleicher, tells us about his efforts to improve student outcomes around the world
  • Maths mission. South Africa’s youth face many challenges but they are benefiting from the efforts of Sharanjeet Shan, executive director of Maths Centre, a Johannesburg based not-for-profit
  • Class action. Khadijah Abdullah explains how she is spearheading education reform as chief executive of Malaysia’s Education and Performance Delivery Unit.
  • Leadership lessons. We find out why New York’s schools continue to feel the impact of Joel Klein’s eight years as chancellor of the city’s Department of Education.
  • Reading rules. Sir David Bell reflects on a career that has included teaching five-year-olds, inspecting schools, running England’s education department and serving as vice-chancellor of the University of Reading.
  • Character counts. Getting more young people into employment comes down to the applicant’s character, explains Leila Hoteit