Back to school...back to basics?
The new basics for public education: survival skills for the 21st century
As the new school year begins, parents across Ontario can be confident in the knowledge that their children are entering one of the most successful education systems in the world. Provincial, national, and international test results show that Ontario’s schools are doing well in teaching students the subjects that we have come to think of as “the basics”.
While the importance of literacy and numeracy skills is widely recognized, students need a broader set of skills, not only to master the old ‘basics’, but to ensure that they can thrive – now and into the future.
People for Education, working with experts from across Canada, has identified five areas that are foundational to all learning and that encompass the broad skills students need to be productive, engaged, healthy citizens. Each category has a set of concrete competencies and skills that are teachable, learnable, and have an impact on students’ long-term success.
What are the new basics?
Health, citizenship, creativity, and social-emotional competencies, and a learning environment that supports their development: these are the new basics of public education.
But aren’t these just ‘soft skills’? Why should we care about them?
There is sometimes a tendency to dismiss things like creativity or social-emotional competencies as ‘soft skills’ that are not as important as content knowledge in traditional subjects like math, English, or social studies. However, these so-called ‘soft skills’ are foundational for content-learning, and they are increasingly recognized as essential for future success.
Employers want employees who are innovative and can think outside the box. Fostering creativity develops resilience, resourcefulness, and confidence, and is positively linked to student engagement, achievement, and innovation. Some of the creativity competencies we have identified include:
- “Students make connections across disciplines and between objects and ideas.”
- “Students seek new resources to answer emerging questions.”
- “Students take paths or approaches that are different from their peers or teachers.”
Students who are healthy are ready to learn. Health education provides students with the skills and competencies they need to make healthy decisions and engage in health promoting behaviours. Here are some examples of health competencies:
- “Students can assess the risks associated with the health choices they make.”
- “Students develop focus, concentration, and perseverance skills and strategies.”
- “Students can recognize emerging mental health issues in themselves and others.”
Students who are calm and focused, and who can work with others, are better able to engage in learning. Social-emotional learning develops students’ capacity for self-management, interpersonal relationships, and decision-making. Social-emotional learning competencies include:
- “Students develop skills to negotiate fairly.”
- “Students develop personalized learning strategies to master academic material.”
- “Students build and maintain trust in themselves and others.”
Strong citizenship skills support student learning across the curriculum. Citizenship education develops students’ capacity to value different perspectives, builds their sense of agency, and supports them to become responsible, active citizens. Here are some of the citizenship competencies:
- “Students can articulate elements of their own cultural identity and worldview.”
- “Students understand power relationships in everyday life, including within families, at school, and with friends.”
- “Students identify a range of techniques used in public discussion to make points or manipulate opinion.”
The learning environment
The physical and social environment of the school, its connections to the community, and the range of opportunities it provides, are key to the development of the competencies students need for long-term success. The conditions of a quality learning environment include:
- “Objectives of learning are clear and shared with students.”
- “Interactions across the school are characterized by respect and appreciation for individual differences.”
- “Parents feel included and respected in the school community.”
Skills for surviving and thriving in the 21st century
Public education plays a central role in ensuring that the next generation is equipped to address the complex social, economic, and environmental challenges that the world is facing. It is time to stop thinking about health, citizenship, creativity, and social-emotional competencies as ‘add-ons’ or ‘soft skills’. They are the ‘survival skills’ for the 21st century.