We’re not teaching 21st century skills

The fourth industrial revolution is upon us, and society is facing unprecedented shifts to the nature of work and employment. Artificial Intelligence is getting more intelligent and roles are increasingly being automated. This means that the skills needed to participate in work will be changing radically over the next decade.

Unfortunately, the way Australia measures the success of its education system, means even if teachers wanted to change their approach to teaching they are unlikely to do so. The goalposts for education are changing, but the system remains the same.

The need for 21st century skills

With the automation and computation of most entry level jobs, as well as the rapidly changing conditions in the workforce, young people need what have been called 21st century skills, or general capabilities. We’ve written about these skills in more detail elsewhere, but here’s a generally agreed upon list of the main competencies:

  1. Adaptability: Adapting to changing conditions and needs;

  2. Complex communication skills: interpreting verbal and non-verbal cues and responding appropriately;

  3. Non-routine problem-solving: recognising patterns and reaching solutions by analysing information from a broad range of sources;

  4. Self-management: the ability to work remotely and self-monitor in a virtual team; and

  5. Systems thinking: understanding how entire systems work.

The need for a focus on these skills has been recognised for at least 30 years, and millions of dollars have been spent in attempts to redevelop the approach to teaching that many educators adopt. Unfortunately there has been very little effect for all the effort.

What are we teaching today?

The Incept Labs team has spent over a decade researching the state of Australian teaching, including over 1,000 classroom observations. Unfortunately, there’s very little evidence of change in modern teaching practices. The vast majority of classroom sessions are dominated by teacher-centred and directed pedagogy.

How bad is it?

Over 13 years of research, we developed a teacher observation framework called Teacher Expertise Scaffold & Analytic (TESA). TESA measures a wide range of pedagogies, covering Education 1.0 through to 3.0, and as such looks for the types of practice that supports the development of 21st Century skills in learners.

There are 20 aspects of teaching practice measured by TESA, organised in five broad themes:

  1. Builds deeps understanding

  2. Establishes a learning culture

  3. Provides engaging pedagogy

  4. Supports learning to learn

  5. Organises learning through situated action

Following the application of TESA in various systems, we found two broad styles of teaching present in the Australian education system. While a small minority of teachers exhibit many of the features of Education 2.0 and 3.0 that develop 21st century skills, the overwhelming majority of teachers were firmly grounded in 1.0.

The graph below lays out the median scores across the 20 aspects of TESA for each of these groups. The blue line is the higher performing minority of teachers, while the yellow line represents the majority of teachers.


From the point of view of developing 21st Century skills, these results are disappointing, especially as seven of the indicators had a median score of zero. In other words, some of the pedagogies most important to the development of 21st Century skills are rarely if ever seen in Australian classrooms. It’s not surprising that some people have argued constructivist approaches to education haven’t worked - they’re practically non-existent.

This is generally not the fault of individual teachers. The poor state of teaching relative to the changing goals for education is the result of an education system that has engineered out any flexibility to new methods.

We see too many teachers whose aspirations of progressive pedagogy have been crushed by the requirements of a system intent on measuring students with a 200 year old yardstick. They feel and have an obligation to prepare students for the way they will be assessed. We can’t easily measure 21st Century skills, so they are not assessed.

As long as we measure students on their regurgitation of simple facts, we won’t allow teachers to move beyond the artificial hoop jumping of memorisation-based learning, into teaching that develops 21st century skills.

Jonathan Englert