Identifying 21st century capabilities

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  • Int. J. Learning and Change, Vol. 6, Nos. 3/4, 2012 123

    Copyright 2012 Inderscience Enterprises Ltd.

    Identifying 21st century capabilities

    Robert Stevens Schooling Research, Department of Education and Communities, New South Wales, Australia Email: robert.stevens@det.nsw.edu.au

    Abstract: What are the capabilities necessary to meet 21st century challenges? Much of the literature on 21st century skills focuses on skills necessary to meet those challenges associated with future work in a globalised world. The result is a limited characterisation of those capabilities necessary to address 21st century social, health and particularly ecological challenges. In this paper I seek to describe those capabilities necessary to address a broad range of 21st century challenges by conducting a conceptual or philosophical analysis of 21st century capabilities and their relationship to 21st century challenges. If we are to effectively meet 21st century challenges then the next generation will need to be highly adept (even more so than the current generation) in critical thinking, holistic thinking, practical reasoning, creativity and imagination.

    Keywords: capabilities; educational research; holistic thinking; creativity; critical thinking; imagination.

    Reference to this paper should be made as follows: Stevens, R. (2012) Identifying 21st century capabilities, Int. J. Learning and Change, Vol. 6, Nos. 3/4, pp.123137.

    Biographical notes: Robert Stevens is Manager, Schooling Research at the New South Wales Department of Education and Communities. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Western Sydney. He has a Doctorate in Philosophy from Macquarie University. His research interests include teaching and assessing 21st century capabilities, curriculum for the future, applied comparative education and philosophy of education.

    1 Introduction

    Education is a largely future-oriented enterprise. Among its purposes are preparing people to live well in the future, as future citizens and as future workers. A pressing question for education is: what kind of capabilities should we be aiming to develop in young people to prepare them for their future lives? One way of addressing these questions is to consider the key challenges and opportunities that we, particularly in developed nations, face now, and are likely to face in the medium to longer term, and then to consider what kind of capabilities are necessary for future citizens to meet these challenges and opportunities.

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    In this paper I outline a set of capabilities necessary for future citizens to address the major challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. I do not consider in this paper how these capabilities can be taught, learned or assessed.

    1.1 Definitions and caveats

    Challenge

    By challenge I mean a demanding or stimulating situation, something that makes demands on ones abilities (Macquarie Dictionary) and a change imperative. Each of the challenges discussed in this paper also presents an opportunity an appropriate or favourable time (Macquarie Dictionary) to make the world a better place. So the term challenge as used in this paper is short for challenge and opportunity.

    Capability

    For the purposes of this paper, I adopt the US philosopher, Martha Nussbaums definition of capability as the ability to perform functions that are necessary for a good life (e.g. Nussbaum, 1995, p.80). Thus understood, capabilities involve or require knowledge, understanding, values and skills.

    21st century capabilities

    By 21st century capabilities I mean capabilities necessary to address 21st century challenges. Use of this term does not imply that these capabilities are exclusive to the 21st century and had no applicability previously. The use of this term does not imply these capabilities are new. Critical thinking for example is at least as old as Philosophy.

    21st century challenges

    By 21st century challenges I mean challenges, opportunities or change imperatives that are most significant for the 21st century now and in the medium to longer term. I am not considering challenges that are likely to be faced in 2090 for example, as it is impossible to anticipate what these challenges will be.

    Generic and higher order capabilities

    It should be noted that 21st century capabilities are generic, rather than specific to a particular discipline, because the challenges they relate to do not occur within an academic discipline or a particular practice but are real-world, practical challenges. 21st century capabilities are also distinct from basic or foundational capabilities. These are lower order capabilities such as reading and writing which are vital to the development of other capabilities including the ability to think, argue, reflect and debate that are directly necessary to meeting 21st century challenges.

    The 2010 Intergenerational Report Australia to 2050: Future Challenges makes a similar distinction when it notes that:

    The basic skills acquired in early childhood and school years, particularly literacy and numeracy, are necessary foundations for developing higher order skills that contribute to a more productive workforce. (page xix)

  • Identifying 21st century capabilities 125

    To put it another way, basic skills, and particularly literacy and numeracy, are foundations for developing the higher order capabilities required for success in those industries that are fastest growing in 21st century economies. So to describe them this way is by no means to suggest that they are unimportant.

    1.2 The 21st century skills movement

    There is a burgeoning literature on 21st century skills: what they are, how they might be cultivated and assessed. This literature is characterised by the identification of current and future challenges and the skills or capabilities necessary to address these challenges. This literature has been generated largely by a technology industry-led movement, beginning with the US-based Partnership for 21st Century Learning, and the Australian-based Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills a consortium of Microsoft, Intel, Cisco and the University of Melbourne. This movement has generated two recent books, both collections of papers Bellanca and Brandt (2010) and Griffin et al. (2012). The Partnership for 21st Century Learning has developed a practical guide for teachers in cultivating 21st century skills (Trilling and Fadel, 2009).

    A number of organisations around the globe have developed frameworks for 21st century skills. Binkley et al. (2012) analysed 12 such frameworks including the Partnership for 21st Century Learning P21 Framework, the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, Scotlands A Curriculum for Excellence the four capabilities, and the European Unions Key Competencies for Lifelong Learning. While noting significant differences between the frameworks in the ways in which the skills are described Binkley et al. identify ten skills in four broad categories that are inclusive of all approaches. These are:

    Ways of Thinking Creativity and innovation; Critical thinking; problem solving, decision making; Learning to learn, meta-cognition

    Ways of Working Communication; Collaboration (teamwork) Tools for Working Information literacy (includes research on sources, evidence,

    biases etc.), ICT literacy

    Living in the World Citizenship local and global; Life and career; Personal and social responsibility including cultural awareness and competence (Binkley et al., 2012, p.36).

    On the margins of 21st century capabilities literature is Martha Nussbaums Not for Profit in which she seeks to identify what abilities are needed to meet a particular social challenge the promotion of a humane, people sensitive democracy (Nussbaum, 2010, p.25).

    This paper is a contribution to the 21st century capabilities literature, and in particular, to refining the characterisations of 21st century capabilities. I will suggest that much of the literature on 21st century skills emphasises skills necessary to address economic and technological challenges, and to a lesser extent social challenges. It under-emphasises health and ecological challenges and the capabilities necessary to address them. To that extent, these accounts of 21st century capabilities are limited. A richer understanding of 21st century capabilities flows from consideration of a broader set of 21st century challenges.

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    2 Methodology

    This paper is a conceptual or philosophical analysis of 21st century capabilities and their relationship to 21st century challenges. This paper is not intended as a comprehensive review of the literature on 21st capabilities, much less 21st century challenges. Rather, what I aim to do is identify 21st century capabilities through a critical discussion of a selection of literature. The literature I have selected is highly varied. The authors include a leading psychologist (Howard Gardner), a prominent philosopher (Martha Nussbaum), a technology company (Cisco) and a council of Ministers of Education (Ministerial Council of Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs MCEETYA). These authors consider 21st century capabilities from varied disciplinary perspectives: Gardner from the perspective of Psychology; Nussbaum from the perspective of the Humanities; Cisco from the perspective of Economics and Technology and MCEETYA from the perspective of Education. They also consider 21st Century capabilities in relation to different challenges, as discussed below.

    The methodology is comparative in the sense that in identifying 21st century capabili

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