What skills do students need to succeed?

I recently had the pleasure of speaking at the British Council’s Schools Now! Conference in Abu Dhabi. The conference focused on the challenges that schools face in meeting the expectations of students, parents, examining bodies and employers in the 21st century.

My talk focused on the skills students need for success in the world of work and life. I explored how, working together with schools, Cambridge International Examinations approaches education and assessment to help students develop these skills.

From a personal perspective, I know how valuable it is to develop a set of skills that you can transfer easily to different situations. I spent a large part of my career in interim management which involved working in over 20 organisations in just 10 years. My skills have moved me across 15 industry sectors including the legal sector, technology, publishing and now education. That’s why I believe it’s so important for students to leave school with skills that help them move easily between jobs and between countries – so they are ready to take up whatever opportunities life offers them.

The challenges

The world is changing technologically and economically at an unprecedented rate. Some of these changes present immense challenges for young people and, in turn, governments, schools and educators.

At Cambridge, the five key challenges that we believe face young people today are:

  1. The high demand for skilled people who can think creatively, work collaboratively, take responsibility, and handle uncertainty and challenge.
  2. The falling away of ‘jobs for life’.
  3. The growing concern that skills and knowledge developed in education will not last for a working life.
  4. The rise of technology and the requirement for high levels of digital ability.
  5. The rise of globalisation, in which an increasing number of us compete for jobs with people from other countries, work across borders, and struggle with problems that no country in isolation can solve.

What are the skills students need to overcome these challenges?

The framework provided by the Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills project at the University of Melbourne, Australia, categorises these skills as:

  1. New ways of thinking including creativity and critical thinking.
  2. New ways of working including collaboration and communication.
  3. Using new tools for working including digital technologies.

When students apply for jobs they will need to evidence these different types of skills to be successful. Employers want good communicators, collaborators and problem solvers. I know I do! In the past two years, I’ve been involved in recruiting more than 50 people globally. That’s a lot of CVs! Candidates with a strong skill set always stand out.

How can schools help students develop these skills?

Some schools may choose to offer a curriculum that embeds skills into the curriculum. For example, leadership in sports, groups or drama. Others may decide to have it separate. For example, by offering a Future Leaders Course.

There are advantages and disadvantages to these approaches but I would like to tell you a bit more about the approach we recommend at Cambridge.

Developing these skills with Cambridge

We understand that beyond individual subjects, students need to develop a set of academic skills, life skills and attitudes to be successful.

We support the development of these skills by:

  1. Designing programmes and qualifications that develop deep subject knowledge, conceptual knowledge and the development of higher order cognitive skills.
  2. Designing programmes and qualifications that stretch, challenge and inspire students of all abilities.
  3. Using assessment techniques which develop these skills, including group projects, research projects and presentations.
  4. Encouraging teaching practices that actively engage students in their own learning.
  5. Encouraging a culture of lifelong learning by providing professional development to help teachers improve their performance and professional practice.

A well designed curriculum should provide an opportunity for students to develop and demonstrate skills such as critical thinking. We have always championed these over the rote learning approach.That’s why we developed our Cambridge Global Perspectives courses. Cambridge Global Perspectives is a cross-curricular, skills-based subjects that encourages students to think critically about a range of global issues from a local, national and global perspective.

Higher-order cognitive skills are important not only for getting into university but for getting on in life. When they start their professional lives, our students will need to be able to adapt and solve problems that transcend academic disciplines. I feel an immense sense of privilege being part of an organisation that plays such an important role in helping young people meet these needs.

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