Developing skills the key to learning
The term “education for the 21st Century” recognises that we are living through a period of rapid change in an increasingly globalised environment, to which education systems need to adapt, not just through a one-off reform, but continuously.
While most experts agree that the rise of automation and machine learning will likely have seismic-type effects on the jobs market, it is difficult to reasonably predict exactly what type of specialised skill sets will best equip today’s youths for the demands of tomorrow’s employment market.
Indeed, a World Economic Forum report in 2016 estimated that 65% of children entering primary school today will end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist. What are the major implications for Thailand?
Innovation and technological advances are constantly changing the ways we communicate, work, and live together and education systems which reflect this dynamic will be most capable of responding effectively to the current and changing needs of young people, society and indeed the labour market.
Education policymakers and practitioners with whom I have engaged in Thailand are rightly concerned that the education which young people experience should equip them with the kinds of skills that prepare them to live in and shape the society of the future.
While Thailand has made strong progress over the past two decades in increasing access to education from pre-primary to secondary school as well as instituting important reforms to improve the quality of education, several challenges remain. Too many students are not attaining expected foundational skills, as evidenced by national examinations and international assessment results. Drop-out rates remain high at secondary school level, which leave too many young people exposed to the harsh realities of the labour market without the necessary skills to thrive.
Though official youth unemployment rates are low in Thailand, a more accurate indication of young people’s readiness for the world of work is the rate of young people Not in Education, Employment or Training (Neet), which the ILO calculates at 15% for those aged between 15-24 years.
Improvements in education and skills will be important to drive the achievement of Thailand’s 20-year national strategy and to boost economic potential and inclusiveness. With an ageing population and a declining youth and labour force, skilled human capital will be key to any future competitive edge for Thailand and the relevance and quality of education and skills and competencies of graduates is key in that equation.
Thailand’s national development and education strategies, as well as ongoing education reforms, do recognise this imperative. The challenge for Thailand, however, is how to effectively bring about the change we want to see in classrooms around the country. How to transform teaching and learning so that the development of student competencies and the application of learning and skills are the primary focus of education.
And while foundational skills such as numeracy and literacy remain important foundations for all future learning, students also need to develop 21st Century skills which will allow them to thrive in this dynamic century of everrapid change and uncertainty. This requires a renewed focus on a whole range of skills including adaptability, critical thinking, creativity, problem solving and collaboration, to name some of the most prominent.
These skills are often referred to as transferable skills as they can be used in different scenarios and across different domains, reflecting the growing trend that young people will move across and between different areas of work during their careers where their ability to transfer skill-sets to meet new challenges will be tested.
Many countries are grappling with this same education challenge and we have much to learn from them. Unicef is working closely with the Ministry of Education and other partners such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to help Thailand think through the steps and processes required to successfully move towards competencybased education.
Reform of the curriculum itself is required, as the curriculum framework sets the vision for education and guides the learning objectives and outcomes expected of all students in the country. The process of curriculum reform should, therefore, be one which defines and responds to the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values young people will need to thrive not just today, but in the years to come.
This process should be evidence-informed, taking into account global research and experience on competencies as well as national aspirations and development goals. It should also be consultative, drawing on the voices of young people about the skills they need as well as the learning approaches which are most relevant to them. The private sector should also have a voice in ensuring that any revised curricula are geared towards developing the skills they require.
The readiness of the teacher education system and the buy-in and confidence of teachers to lead a new approach is critical to the successful implementation of a competency-based curriculum. The teaching profession must be involved from the outset of curriculum reform to get buy-in and to support later implementation. In addition, in-service teachers must be helped to understand the new competencybased approach and must have access to good resources and guidance to help transform their classrooms into settings where students are applying their learning and engaging in more collaborative activities such as project-based learning, research and analysis and problemsolving tasks.
The manner in which learning is assessed must also be reformed hand in hand with the introduction of a new curriculum and pedagogical approaches. The current high-stakes national examinations have not been designed with a competency-based lens. Assessments should measure student competency and ability to apply learning and also incorporate project work conducted throughout the year.
Education reforms must have an equity-focus from the beginning so that all students in Thailand benefit and existing inequalities in learning are addressed. The government must take steps to ensure that high-quality teachers are deployed to schools where they are needed most and that under-resourced schools which enrol the most disadvantaged students are provided with the tools and resources needed to transform education and learning.
This will mitigate the risk in the coming years that, rather than helping to address inequalities, advances in technology will benefit most those schools which are already well resourced, leaving disadvantaged schools and students who have been unable to harness technology even further behind.
Hugh Delaney is the Chief of Education of Unicef Thailand.