Promoting 21st century skills for adolescents

The 21st century is often described as an age of uncertainty and ambiguity with unprecedented challenges. For the youth of ASEAN, I’d like to call this millennium an age of wonder.

New technologies and digital media are facilitating imagination and inventiveness. On the one hand, ASEAN faces challenges such as rapid urbanisation; major disruptions in employment opportunities; and free, equitable and accessible quality education. On the other hand, tremendous opportunities exist, for example, the digital economy will hit US$88 billion by 2025.

What are the youth in ASEAN wondering about? What are their needs and aspirations? Are young people given opportunities and experiences that meet their “individual life-world” and future readiness? What are the 21st century skills that prepare adolescents for a context that currently does not exist?

We know the need for foundation literacies (e.g. language literacy, numeracy) and the “C competencies” of critical thinking, creativity, communication, collaboration, curiosity and character qualities (e.g. social responsibility, adaptability, resilience). How do we facilitate and design environments differently for the education of our young?

Contrary to the pessimistic views of youth being unmotivated, feeling entitled and disruptive we need to see the tremendous potential in flourishing our ASEAN youth. Adolescence is an important phase of life to be relished. It’s a time of discovery, finding meaning and developing independence. Youth everywhere are seeking relevance and the right and space to discover, to fail, and to be respected. They want their voices to be heard and they desire to and can contribute.

The youth of ASEAN are valuable people and wonderful citizens who bring with them fresh ideas, knowledge and learning.  However, they often lack opportunities and are given more of the same. How can we create more space, time, pathways and positive learning experiences for them?

We need an approach which is characterized by BIG and MAD. BIG refers to developing “Big picture thinking”, fostering “Imagination and inquiry” and building “Grit” through social emotional learning and cultivating resilience. MAD refers to the need for “Multiple pathways and multiple perspective taking”, providing for “Authentic learning” of real world relevance and “Dia-logos” with youth. We need to prepare adolescents with ways of thinking that go beyond analytical thinking.

Big picture thinking implies the design of tasks where learning has purposeful connections to the world beyond the classroom and provides for different needs and interests of the learners.

I advocate the use of real-world problems where in solving a problem students need to get the facts of the bigger picture and inter-related issues before going into the analytical and logical reasoning. Big picture thinking develops a different dimension of systems thinking.

With the affordances of technology we can also make better use of the availability of “big data”, that is, large data sets of information, and the possibility of leveraging on the speed of data processing to analyse patterns and associated issues. We need more imagination and spaces for generation of ideas.

The emerging profile of the learner today is one that seeks experiential learning, participation through active involvement, imagery-rich and inquiry-based learning environments, and a high degree of connectivity in the cyberspace.

Finally, we need the grit of anchoring values as well as growth mindsets of positiveness. Learning has to be reinforced in a positive emotional learning environment. Emotions play a key role in putting adolescent learners in a proper frame of mind to absorb new knowledge and pick up new skills. Learning is not only a cognitive intrapersonal process but also an interpersonal one.

The globalised world of today requires individuals to have multiple perspectives to function well. Peer interaction is thus essential to learning because it multiplies learning through conversations and mutual sharing.

I will conclude my speech with UNICEF: Upholding values, Nurturing hearts and minds, Including voices and receiving people across cultures, Connecting and co-constructing across ASEAN, Empowering youth participation and Flourishing growth mindsets and possibilities.

Let us all work with our ASEAN youth to build a promising future.

By Professor Tan Oon Seng, Centre Director, Centre for Research in Child Development, Singapore


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