Teaching and learning in the 21st century

Volume 8 Number 4 April 9 - May 13 2012

21st century skills can now be assessed in classrooms, thanks to new developments in classroom research. By Catriona May.

Technology is changing how we live and work and educators have been grappling with how to prepare students to work in a digital society for some time. Now, an ambitious international initiative led by the University of Melbourne is making a major contribution.

Sponsored by Microsoft, Cisco and Intel, The Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills project has brought together over 200 academics worldwide.

According to project director Professor Patrick Griffin, the initiative addresses the gap between what students are taught, and what they will need to know in the future.

“Technology is changing and education needs to prepare students for the future. Communication, collaboration and problem-solving are vital skills in the 21st century workforce, and yet we’re not teaching them to our children in schools,” he says.

The project has identified 10 specific skills students will need for 21st century employment, including creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaborative problem-solving, information literacy and personal and social responsibility.

Professor Griffin says the 21st century skills identified in the program are just as important as the more familiar skills of literacy and numeracy, but because they have until now been unmeasured they risk appearing ‘soft’ and can be easily dismissed.

The team designed a series of complex online tasks, which operate like social media games, to assess students in each of the 10 skills. The tasks are truly groundbreaking – not only do they provide a way to assess 21st century skills for the first time, they also assess how students reach their conclusions, not just whether their answers are correct.

“Being able to assess students’ thought processes is a really important step forward,” Professor Griffin says. “It means we can truly assess complex skills and get a full picture of things like collaborative problem-solving.”

In all tasks, students must work with a partner who is on another computer, but unable to see their partner’s screen.

“The system is set up so a student in Melbourne could perhaps work with a student in Singapore,” Professor Griffin says. “This simulates the idea that you can be physically working alone, but actually working in collaboration with other people in different parts of the globe.”

In ‘Hot Chocolate’, a collaborative problem-solving task, students must select the recipe that makes the biggest profit in Europe. Each student can see different pieces of information, and they have to work together, using the chat screen, to solve the problem.

“The pseudo-game nature of the tasks really engages students,” says Professor Griffin. “And they are challenged on a number of levels. Not only do they need literacy and numeracy skills to solve the problems, they also need good communication and problem-solving skills.”

The tasks will be made freely available online from July. Already, the project team has received hundreds of enquiries from educators around the world. The OECD, though its PISA project, has also taken note, and decided to include collaborative problem-solving as part of their global assessment activities in 2015.