Developing 21st-century skills in schools

At the annual Innovation Africa conference, many African educational ministries speak about readying their learners for the 4th Industrial Revolution and developing 21st-century skills to advance their economies. Yet these skills are for some an undefined issue, which many education ministries are attempting to solve by providing digital content and devices to schools, in the hope that these skills will be acquired as a “side effect” of technology usage.

However, it may be time for educational authorities to take a more overt approach and, rather than merely encourage the learning of 21st-century skills, introduce new teaching topics that position learners more robustly for opportunity and success in the new economy.

1. Digital citizenship

“Digital citizenship” sounds like having a sort of passport to the digital world, but it’s actually something quite different. Think of it as the behaviour of following the laws, mores and protocols of social and public interaction with other members of society, except in the digital world. Let’s look at some definitions:

“The capacity to conduct oneself in a responsible and ethical manner within public digital environments (Khosrow-Pour, D.B.A., Mehdi, 2018).

“The practice of legal and ethical behaviour:
1. advocate and practise safe, legal, and responsible use of information and technology

2. exhibit a positive attitude toward using technology that supports collaboration, learning and productivity

3. demonstrate personal responsibility for lifelong learning

4. exhibit leadership for digital citizenship” (Isman and Canan Gungoren, 2014).

“Students understand human, cultural and societal issues related to technology and practice legal and ethical behaviour” (International Society for Technology in Education).

Dr Mike Ribble an American technology director and published author worked on the concept of digital citizenship for over a decade, and defined nine key digital citizenship themes:

  • Access: full electronic participation in society.
  • Commerce: electronic buying and selling of goods.
  • Communication: electronic exchange of information.
  • Literacy: the process of teaching and learning about technology and the use of technology.
  • Etiquette: electronic standards of conduct or procedure.
  • Law: electronic responsibility for actions and deeds.
  • Rights & Responsibilities: those freedoms extended to everyone in a digital world.
  • Health & Wellness: physical and psychological well-being in a digital technology world.
  • Security (self-protection): electronic precautions to guarantee safety.
Digital citizenship would say that having a bitter feud on Twitter is just as unseemly as having a screaming match over the telephone.

Teaching digital citizenship practices to learners is essential because, just as we wouldn’t send young people out into the wider world without equipping them with the knowledge to look after themselves I public, and to treat other peoples’ feelings and rights with respect, so we cannot send them into the digital world without doing the same.

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What skills will be needed in the fourth industrial revolution?

Today we are living in the midst of what some have named the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). The first was, of course, steam power in the 18th – 19th century. It was followed a century later by the age of mass production, revolution two. Then the digital revolution arrived, spurred by the advent of the personal computer and then the Internet in the latter 20th century. Now comes the fourth wave, also called industry 4.0: an era where converging and interlinked advanced digital technologies change the way we live, work and interact. This is the era of the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, virtual reality (VR), machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). 

 Let’s assess some of the broader skills learners should develop to thrive in the workplace – and everyday society – of tomorrow.

1. Critical thinking

Critical thinking may be defined as “reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do” (Robert Ennis, May 2011) and also “thinking about your thinking, while you’re thinking, in order to make your thinking better” (Richard Paul).

It means being able to make progress with any task or challenge, even when the right answers or the way forward are not completely clear. 

Critical thinking involves a high degree of testing and assessment, open-mindedness, and a trial-and-error approach. Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin and Marie Curie are all famous examples of critical thinkers from history. Their work involved years of exploration, questioning, testing and failing before they were satisfied they had found the answers that changed the world. In the academic world, philosophy is one of the purest expressions of critical thinking, because it prioritises profound questions over concrete solutions – something that would probably drive a computer mad (if it had the capacity for emotion, that is). 

Computers can analyse mega data in seconds, but there is also immense value in the human capacity to simply ponder and question – often for a very long time.

Critical thinking has always been the fundamental skill that leads to progress in any endeavour, but why is it so important in the age of 4IR? Because, while automation and artificial intelligence will gradually take over more and more menial activities from humans, the human ability to think outside the box, innovate and make judgements – sometimes based on instinct – will be vital in complementing the automated work. 

For this reason, forward-thinking companies today are prioritising critical thinking just as much as technical and digital knowledge in their workforces. To tie critical thinking back into everyday life, here are some common examples of critical thinking in action:

  • Renting or buying a house: Is the price fair? Is the area safe? How long has it been on the market? Will my family be happy here? Am I basing the decision on logic or emotion?
  • Choosing a career: What am I most passionate about? What are my skills? Will this career be in demand in ten years? How important is money versus happiness?
  • Managing a team: How can I get the most out of the team? Which management style works best? How do I get the right balance between team happiness and productivity? Is there a better way?

Read moreWhat skills will be needed in the fourth industrial revolution?

Preparing learners for the future of work

What will the working world look like for the schoolchildren of today?

Let’s try and paint a picture of human society in the mid-latter 2020’s – around the time many of the learners you are teaching may be entering the workplace. There are not one, but two, significant factors that will be shaping the way we live and work by then — digital technology, of course, but also global warming.

With scientists predicting, by 2019, that the Earth was nearing a tipping point for extreme climate change, governments and the private sector are finally starting to tackle the challenge on a significant scale. There is no doubt that a multitude of future jobs will be created against this context in fields like chemical engineering; environmental science; seismology; marine biology; geology; urban planning; geographical information systems (GIS); hydrology and renewable energy. 

Today’s learners should be made aware of the hardships global warming is set to bring us, from rising seas to extreme weather conditions – but also the career opportunities for those who join the quest to solve these things.

In the battle against global warming, digital technology will undoubtedly play a significant role, from data analysis and programming to 3D modelling and automisation. Meanwhile, as digital technology increasingly filters through broader society, what other jobs are likely to be in demand by the mid-2020s?

Future colleague? (Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash)

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Introduction to Bloom’s Taxonomy

Get the Bloom’s 4.0: Bloom’s taxonomy for the digital classroom book from Amazon.

Benjamin Bloom: the man who changed education

Benjamin Samuel Bloom (February 21, 1913 – September 13, 1999) was an American educational psychologist who examined and then restructured the way teaching should be approached, to maximise learners’ performance. His book, The Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals (1956), set out a series of learning objectives that became known as Bloom’s taxonomy. It continues to impact the way educational curricula are structured to this day. Bloom’s taxonomy divided learning into three psychological domains – cognitive (processing information), affective (attitudes and feelings) and psychomotor (physical skills). 

Within those domains, his taxonomy progressed from Lower Order Thinking Skills (LOTS) to Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS), through six levels: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and then evaluation. Essentially, Bloom’s model evolved education from being a case of learners just memorising information they had been taught to first remembering it; then understanding it; then applying it (in exercises); then analysing it and, finally, being able to evaluate it at a complex level. Bloom’s taxonomy was updated by former students of his in 2001, and the updated version is now widely used in all spheres of education. In 2008, a variation of Bloom’s was created for use specifically in the modern, digitally-enabled classroom. 

 Bloom’s taxonomy: what is it, and how is it used?

Bloom’s taxonomy is a multi-layered model for encouraging learning by progressing through six levels of increasing complexity. The six levels include Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analysing, Evaluating and Creating. Bloom’s taxonomy encourages learners to engage with knowledge at a deeper and more interactive level, working with what they are learning in the real-world sense, rather than just passively taking information on board. Here is how Bloom’s updated taxonomy structures the learning process, from the most basic up to the most complex level:

Bloom’s taxonomy (revised) – Lorin Anderson and David Karathwohl (2001)

Cognitive levels  Explanation 
Creating Putting elements together to form a new, coherent and functional whole. 
Evaluating Making judgements based on criteria and standards by checking and critiquing.
Analysing Breaking information into constituent parts and establishing how they relate to one another.
Applying Implementing what was learnt in the Remembering and Understanding phases.
Understanding Constructing meaning by interpreting and summarising information.
Remembering Recalling information from long-term memory.

Bloom’s taxonomy as an interdependent learning process

While Bloom’s taxonomy arranges learning into six cognitive levels in order of hierarchy and complexity, it also sees each level as being interdependent on the other levels, with all levels contributing to the final, holistic learning outcome. This is why, while Bloom’s taxonomy is traditionally rendered as a pyramid or even an inverted pyramid, it is also rendered in other forms that place more emphasis on the interdependence of the levels:

Bloom's Taxonomy
Bloom’s Taxonomy

The interdependence of Bloom’s different learning levels can be articulated through logic:

  • Before we can understand a concept, we must be able to remember it.
  • Before we can apply the concept, we must be able to understand it. 
  • Before we analyse it, we must be able to apply it.
  • Before we can evaluate its impact, we must have analysed it. 
  • Before we can create something based on the concept, we must have rememberedunderstood, applied, analysed and evaluated the concept.

The non-pyramid forms for expressing Bloom’s taxonomy indicate that learning may not always progress linearly up through the six levels. Rather, learners might move back and forth between different levels depending on the learning situation, or they might spend more time in some levels of the taxonomy than in others. The human brain, by nature, tends to behave in a lateral manner rather than a set linear manner. 

The six cognitive levels of Bloom’s taxonomy 

Now let’s examine the six cognitive levels of Bloom’s taxonomy in more detail, with examples of their application in the classroom. Certain verbs are ascribed to the different levels, to clarify further the kind of thinking involved at each level.

Read moreIntroduction to Bloom’s Taxonomy

A skill for the 21st Century: computational thinking in African schools

At the recent Innovation Africa conference, many African educational ministries were talking about ‘readying’ their learners for the 4th Industrial Revolution and developing 21st Century Skills to advance their economies. These skills are an undefined issue, which many education ministries are attempting to solve through providing digital content and devices in the hope that these skills are acquired as a side effect of technology usage. In Botswana, the MOBE initiated a pilot of digital devices and content, with Microsoft and partners, to foster these skills. In Zimbabwe, a new curriculum is rolling out with a subject Internet Communication Technology, including basic digital literacy as well as sections on digital citizenship and coding skills. The recent curriculum reform in Ghana sees a strong focus on ICT-integration as well as a new subject Computing, which covers ICT (operating a computer, word processing, databases, etc.) as well as internet skills. Nigeria is a tech-aspirational market with a keen interest in internet technology and the entrepreneurial opportunities it offers. In South Africa, the message around the 4th Industrial Revolution is consistently reiterated through government as well as party political communication channels as well as ongoing communication from the Department of Basic Education

South African Coding and Robotics Curriculum

The South African government is developing curricula for coding and robotics for grades R to 9, in order, according to the basic education minister, Angie Motshekga, to create sustainable industrialisation and keep pace with the world.

Computation thinking in South Africa – driven by coding and robotics

Read moreA skill for the 21st Century: computational thinking in African schools