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Tailoring education for the 21st century: perspectives from educators

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Editor's note: This week our Google for Education team joined thousands of educators at the BETT educational technology show in London. To wrap up the week, today’s post comes from guest author Veronica Lara, Senior Editor of The Economist Intelligence Unit.

The need for education systems to evolve along with the demands of the global economy is certain. But the question of how to implement this change in classrooms is less clear. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), the research and analysis division of The Economist Group, conducted a study sponsored by Google for Education that explores this question in depth. The research examines the strategies that are most effective for developing 21st century skills, or a mix of soft skills (e.g., problem solving and collaboration) and foundational literacies (e.g., mathematics and reading). It also investigates how technology can support such efforts.

Our report, “Fostering exploration and excellence in 21st century schools,” discusses the findings of the research, which draws on a survey of 1,200 teachers and administrators in 16 countries. It builds upon a 2015 EIU study that was also sponsored by Google for Education, in which more than half of the global executives surveyed reported that a lack of skills was hurting their organizations’ performance. Considering that schools are pivotal to laying a foundation for future learning and success, what do educators say can be done in classrooms to promote the needed skills?

Our latest study found that a holistic approach is key. This includes integrating different educational strategies and techniques, and empowering teachers with greater autonomy. Some of our top findings are:

1. Teachers should use a range of strategies to effectively deliver what students need to learn.
Indeed, 79% of educators believe that soft skills need to be developed alongside foundational literacies. Educators most frequently cite the following teaching strategies as “very important” and “most effective” in developing the skills needed in the 21st century workplace: active learning (engaging students in activities, such as reading, writing, discussion and/or problem solving); project-based learning (students working on complex and/or real-world challenges); cognitive activation (encouraging students to focus on the method they use to reach a solution rather than the solution itself); and personalized learning (addressing the needs and interests of individual students).

2. Technology can best support teaching strategies by promoting interaction, engagement and communication.
Out of the educators surveyed, 82% agree that technology is a valuable tool for developing skills for the modern workplace—most often when it’s used to support the top teaching strategies. In particular, 77% of educators agree that technology can make lessons more engaging. It can also help free up time for lesson planning and encourage collaboration. 

3. Teacher autonomy matters.

There is a strong correlation between teacher autonomy and school readiness to teach both foundational literacies and soft skills. For example, educators who assess their schools as having “much better” teacher autonomy nearly twice as often say they are “very well equipped” to teach communication skills when compared with the rest of the sample. A similar pattern holds across other 21st century skills we studied.

4. Budget constraints are the most common barrier to innovation.
More than half of the educators we surveyed cite budget limitations as the most significant barrier to adopting new teaching strategies (51%) and technologies (53%).  When it comes to adopting new teaching strategies, 27% cite lack of technology access in schools and 27% cite a lack of national policy support as the most significant barrier. For adopting new technologies, insufficient technology access in schools is the second-most commonly cited barrier (29%).

5. Educators are divided over how fast to innovate.
Great majorities favor at least some action towards adopting new teaching strategies (85%) and technologies (83%). But opinions vary about how quickly schools should innovate within the classroom. Educators most often advocate a cautious approach for implementing new teaching strategies and technologies. This slower approach allows potential innovations to be investigated and tested before adoption.

The educators we surveyed agree that various innovative teaching strategies can help students develop the requisite skills for the 21st century workplace, and technology can support the effective execution of these strategies. Crucially, teachers themselves are a vital resource with great potential for preparing students for their working lives. “How effective technology is in a learning environment depends a lot on how robust the curriculum is and how much the teachers are working together to continuously improve,” says Justin Reich, assistant professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT, and director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab, one of our report’s featured experts. Explore the full research findings here.

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