How do we qualify the skills of the future?

Curriculum change seems to have accelerated over recent years, driven by globalisation and the increased emphasis on the “knowledge economy”.

From Scotland’s emphasis on inter-disciplinary learning, skills development and encouraging personal achievement to England’s plan to equip people for employment in the 21st century to meet the demands of the future, the vision behind these reforms is similar, as governments attempt to equip young people with the skills needed to support the future economy.

Justin Edwards, chief executive of CCEA, the qualification regulator and awarding body in Northern Ireland, says the focus there has shifted towards a skills-based curriculum.

“In Northern Ireland, the majority of employers are small and medium-sized enterprises, with some large-scale industry, and there is the ongoing need to promote peace in the region,” he says. “All of which has an impact on what training and education we need to offer. Higher-order skills, such as critical thinking, have become a key focus area. We had to ensure cross-curricular skills could be assessed, so we moved towards portfolio-based assessment.”

There is no doubt that technology has the potential to improve current examination and assessment systems around the world

Rather than being an afterthought, assessment is seen by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) as an essential part of a successful curriculum. Wales is currently in the throes of far-reaching curriculum reform. The OECD has praised progress made, while emphasising further work needed on “moving towards a new system of assessment, evaluation and accountability that aligns with the new 21st-century curriculum”.

In many ways there has been little change in our thinking about summative assessment since the Chinese first introduced imperial examinations in the Sui dynasty (c 605). Now drivers including the explosion in technological advances offer an opportunity, if not an imperative, to ensure assessments are designed which qualify the skills most valued in the 21st century.

How can we ensure that in a world dominated by technology, our children not only benefit from the advantages to learning available, but also can be assessed in ways they are comfortable with as digital natives?

Mr Edwards continues: “Technology can give us the ability to produce instantaneous, on-demand assessments and it offers granularity in the feedback, enabling us to identify students’ achievement skill by skill.

“We’ve made small steps in using technology for examinations with our Moving Image Arts A-level, which uses an entire e-assessment framework and has been running for nine years. Students critique videos and receive feedback through an electronic interface. But how do we move this on?

“There is great potential with the developments in artificial intelligence and machine-learning. But this is counterbalanced by practicalities. We need to have confidence in the infallibility of the technology when the stakes are so high.

“The level of investment and the length of time needed in research and development to remove all room for error can stifle initiatives before they start. Sometimes technology moves on even while development is ongoing as the coding language changes or someone removes some platform functionality.

“In spite of these challenges, it’s important not to give up on the vision of reform. There is too much at stake more widely. It’s too easy not to engage because reform seems too long or too costly, but you have to keep going because it’s worth it. We must ensure that we have a plan to move the system on as a whole, ensuring the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ are treated integrally.” 

There is no doubt that technology has the potential to improve current examination and assessment systems around the world. The challenge is in harnessing these benefits while maintaining the integrity and quality of existing assessments. Ultimately, however, we must ensure that our education and assessment systems are fit for purpose in the 21st century.

Download the full white paper Qualifying the skills of the future: Education and assessment reform around the world