How can we educate young people for success in the 21st century?

Cambridge academic maps out a vision for 21 Century education


The Director of Education at the  University of Cambridge International Examinations, Dr Tristian Stobie, presented at the 21st Century Knowledge and Skills conference organised by the University of Southern California Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice (CERPP) on 11-13 January 2012.

The conference discussed how we can educate young people so that they take an active role in global society, and develop the skills, knowledge and habits needed in the 21st century.  Tristian Stobie  spoke about the skills that 21st century students need to develop – including in-depth understanding, critical thinking, creativity, global awareness, and the ability to communicate and debate ideas clearly.  There is a consensus about the competencies students need in order to function effectively in higher education and the modern work place.

• Most countries recognize that their education system is failing to produce students with these qualities

• Curriculum and assessment practices can be  developed to improve the situation.

We need, Stobie says,  ‘to assess what we value not value what we assess’.

• Assessment has a backwash effect on curriculum and  teacher practice. This must be recognized so that teachers and schools focus on what we value.

• Curriculum, with corresponding assessments, must be broad  and balanced. Students must be assessed on the processes as well as the products of learning and be able to demonstrate understanding and performance holistically in  authentic contexts as well as in examinations and tests.

• The central role of the teacher as a creative professional must be recognized and encouraged.

What about Generic Competencies and their place  in HE?

• Competencies refer to specific patterns of behaviour that enable a person to perform a

particular task to the required standard

• Study conducted by Cambridge assessment 2011 identified 10 areas applicable to all subjects:

– Active Enquiry   – Open Thinking Style

– Motivation         – Self-Discipline

– Organisation     – Copes with Demands

– Resilient           – Emotional control

– Self-reflective   – Organisation Citizenship


And what outcomes are we looking for from Learners?


Desirable Learner Outcomes

• Basic skills: Numeracy / literacy / IT/ languages

• In depth subject understanding

• Problem solving / critical thinking: the ability to investigate and  analyze complex problems in unfamiliar situations

• Information literacy

• Adaptability / flexibility / resilience

• Creativity

• Global / international / intercultural understanding

• Learning to learn for life

• Ability to communicate, argue and debate with clarity

• Ability to work effectively in teams and individually


Learn more about the 21st Century Knowledge and Skills conference

Read Tristian Stobie’s conference presentation: The Educational Challenge
Learn more about Cambridge Global Perspectives at Cambridge IGCSECambridge International AS Level, and Cambridge Pre-U



  1. This is all good stuff. However, there is little new under the sun I guess. We (a group of academics developing what was then ground-breaking compence based degrees programme) were advocating all of this back in the mid-nineteen nineties. This was backed by government funding and trialled and extensively evaluated at the University of Huddersfield and what is now Lincoln University. Assessment and accreditation of competence outcomes, some in house and others in the workplace was one of hall marks of the project.

    Unfortunately the prevailing academic climate at the time was unsupportive (lets face it chaps, academic learning, i.e. what is churned out during a 3 hour examination is SO much more important!!!!!). Subject based knowledge would have had to make way for skills and competence based learning for at least part of the HE curriculum – and one can only imagine the vested academic interests which would find that challenging!!!! I’d be very interested to know whether current attitudes might be thawing a little – and of course claiming these ideas as their orignal and very own!!

  2. I’d be less sceptical of these discussions if I wasn’t so acutely aware of the marketing strategies that lie behind the call for change. The very phrase itself, “21st Century Learning” wreaks of marketing and I believe, originates with the journalist Charles Leadbeater…not with any serious educationalist. It’s there for its rhetorical impact: not for its conceptual value.

    Here’s the OECD on key competencies: “First, individuals need to be able to use a wide range of tools for interacting effectively with the environment: both physical ones such as information technology and socio-cultural ones such as the use of language. They need to understand such tools well enough to adapt them for their own purposes – to use tools interactively.”

    This is a telling prescription because it flies in the face of the actual impact of so much technology on learners and employees. I’ve lost count of the number of times I worked with colleagues who were simply incapable of starting any task, meeting or discussion without a template of some kind to work from. The use of Word, Excel etc has done more to stifle creativity that any other single cultural change in recent decades. Most employees, in my experience, are terrified of a blank page.

    However well meaning and sincere such efforts to map out appropriate competencies are, the brutal reality is that huge numbers of children leave school, unable to function in terms of literacy or numeracy and hence anything like meaningful citizenship goes right out of the window. New 21st century competencies won’t go very far without those basic levels of numeracy and literacy.

    And if anyone can enlighten me as to what is the difference between an “international” focus and a “global” one, I’d be very grateful.

  3. Excellent blog, Patrick – many thanks for drawing attention to this. Of course Penny Wolff is quite right to say these ideas about ‘real education’ versus ‘schooling and testing’ are not new, but on the other hand they’ve never become mainstream in the UK, even back in the 60’s when there was supposed to have been a revolution in teaching methods which were supposed to put pupils and pupils’ individual needs at the centre of the learning process.

    Clearly the counter-revolution in education has been highly successful in the UK – to the extent that some of the ‘free schools’ are now focusing exclusively on academic attainment, with Latin and Greek back on the curriculum for all pupils, and with staff wearing black gowns. To say nothing of mainstream schools that have become nothing but targets-chasing results factories.

    “What about Generic Competencies and their place in HE?”

    What strikes me about this question is the ‘HE’ bit. These generic competencies, and also the ‘Desirable Learner Outcomes’, are also applicable to the primary and secondary phases. In fact most nursery age children are naturally well-motivated, active enquirers with open thinking styles. They lose these attributes as they progress through ‘traditional’ types of schooling. These competencies must be developed from pre-nursery onwards – self-discipline; resilience; emotional, personal and social intelligence, etc. As must creativity, learning to learn, ability to communicate, argue and debate with clarity, ability to work effectively in teams and individually, adaptability & flexibility, information literacy, problem solving / critical thinking, the ability to investigate, and, needless to say, basic skills: numeracy / literacy / IT, etc.

    Tragically, there will come a day when the UK wakes up to the fact that the rest of the world has been moving ahead with creating schools and approaches to learning and teaching that are genuinely fit for the 21st Century, whilst we’ve been busy trying to reinvent forms of schooling that weren’t even fit for purpose back in the 19th Century – as described by Dickens in Hard Times.

  4. Research in Australia over many years shows that a values-driven school sets in train a whole host of appealing benefits, for the individuals, their families, their communities and society generally.
    The Human Values Foundation, based in the UK, has been providing transformative values education programmes suitable for young citizens aged 4 to 14+ since 1995 and their tangible effects provide value in 3 main areas:
    EDUCATIONAL VALUE – for educators, school children and their parents or carers
    SOCIAL VALUE – encouraging fresh thinking, informed choices and ultimately improvements in and more responsible behaviour
    FINANCIAL VALUE – potential to save billions spent each year on remedial interventions, underachievement, youth crime, etc

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