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Pondering Careers – Edition 41 – How do we talk about core skills at school?

Pondering Careers - Core Skills at School

Welcome to Pondering Careers, where we share ideas and talk about lots of things related to study, work, jobs, and careers, and where, this week, we’ll be talking about core skills at school.

If you’ve been reading along with me, then you’ll know I’ve been talking a fair bit about core skills lately (check out Edition 39 for an overview of where I sit on the topic).

I want to know more about how we talk about core skills within our schools and education systems:

  • Which core skills do we value at school?
  • Which core skills should we be teaching at school?
  • Which core skills do we actually teach at school? and,
  • How do we teach and/or embed them at school?

If we know the answers to these questions it will help us ensure young people have the skills they need to live the type of life they want to live.

So, to start to find the answers I’ve compared core skills curriculum models from around the world, which I’ll cover in this newsletter.

I think this builds into a larger-scale conversation that seems to be taking place right now into what we want to get out of education – what makes something ‘worth it’?

No one is going around denying the importance of 21st Century skills, or that we need to equip young people with these skills to help them succeed in their lives, but this doesn’t seem to translate into action when we look at what ‘counts’ in evaluating educational outcomes.

In Chris Webb‘s latest newsletter, which is always a great read BTW, (read it here if you haven’t already) he started a conversation about what we ‘get out’ of education, in response to an inflammatory doco on the uni vs. apprenticeship debate.

I’ll let Chris explain his point:

“However, what interested me more about the documentary was what I felt it said about our attitudes as a society towards career decision making in general – notably, Geoff Norcott framed much of the focus of the documentary around money and the idea of University no longer being the Return-on-Investment (ROI) that it used to be, in part due to the increase in student tuition fees over the past 30 years (although not, of course, over the past decade, where they have remained locked at £9,250, along with maintenance loans, which have also failed to rise proportionately with inflation). While this in itself is absolutely a fair line of inquiry to pursue (IMO it is always important to weigh up if something is going to be ‘worth it’ before we make career-related decisions, even if what ‘worth it’ means can differ considerably from individual to individual), the idea of applying the same approach to other pathways (such as apprenticeships, and what the benefits/trade-offs of these might be) was conspicuously absent from the programme.”

Chris Webb, #TheWeekInCareers – Episode 71

This made me think back to what Tracy Ryan said in a recent myfuture webinar hosted by Michael Healy about how different groups measure success. Tracy explained that First Nations students often conceptualise success in a way which conflicts with colonial monetary ideas of earning potential and lifetime income.

In other words, we need to embrace a variety of ideas about success if we want to provide inclusive support to a diverse client population.

Core skills, unlike technical skills, are required across the job spectrum, which makes it much more difficult to evaluate their value on the economic yardstick of educational outcomes, but this doesn’t mean they don’t have value, just that we don’t have a clear an easy way of measuring it.

I also don’t have the solution to this larger conversation, but I feel that there are implications for our career development space, as the skills we need to manage our career (or ‘career management competencies’) form a subset of core skills, and, hence, core skill development can influence career management skill development.

Learning to fly

A couple of weeks ago, while researching literature on Careers in the Curriculum, I came across some work from New Zealand by Karen Vaughan and Lorraine Spiller on career management competencies in the school subject classroom.

I would recommend reading their work for yourself, but what I took away was that in ensuring core skill development takes place across the curriculum at school, we meet many of the aims of modern career education programs.

This led me to a deeper exploration of the core skill curricula that exist around the world – I wanted to know what’s already happening, and what the outcomes have been for students.

These frameworks are developmentally appropriate for children and teenagers, and intend to help them develop the skills they need to thrive in the adult world. They tend to relate to work and life, not just work or career management, and a common aim is to prepare children to be ‘good’ citizens.

What makes a ‘good’ citizen is a whole other debate, and I think Foucault might have had a fair bit to say about systems that prepare us to be self-controlling good citizens (and tax-payers), but I’m just going to put that to one side because there are some clear individual benefits alongside the societal benefits.

I found that these frameworks tended to include both core skills, as well as what we would normally refer to as career management competencies (i.e. Finland’s Working life competence and entrepreneurship competency).

I also found that these curricula tended to lump core skills together, so Critical Thinking, Innovation, and Making Decisions would become simply ‘Thinking’ in the core skills curricula – whether this is because they were aiming for simplicity or because they felt it was less important to separate out these skillsets for children, I’m not sure.

Other than Singapore, all of the curricula contained both Literacy and some form of Communication, which I also found interesting. I always think of literacy as something which has its own (and very highly regarded) subject within education systems, and whenever I see it listed again in with other core skills it makes me think of Literacy as a bully who has to make everything about themselves.

Perhaps it’s because I’m not a literacy expert, but I do wonder at the overlap here, and the necessity of restating Literacy (and occasionally Numeracy) as core skills when they have their own subject areas.

It’s important to note that I haven’t explored how any or all of these curricula are implemented, only which skills they identify. That would take me a lot longer than one article.

OK, so here they are one at a time…

There are only a few core skills curricula out there

I’d made the mistake of assuming that every curriculum would include a section in some form on core skills, but that is not the case.

In the end, I looked at five curricula, and the OECD’s Transformational Competencies:

  • Australia’s General Capabilities,
  • New Zealand’s Key Competencies,
  • Finland’s Transversal Competencies,
  • British Columbia’s Core Competencies, and
  • Singapore’s 21st Century Competencies/Student Outcomes.

I then mapped these frameworks to the common set of core skills I identified when I looked at all the Core Skills Taxonomies (see Edition 39 for those), which are as follows:

  1. Critical Thinking
  2. Innovation
  3. Making Decisions (Problem Solving)
  4. Communication
  5. Collaboration
  6. Adaptability
  7. Self Management
  8. Interpersonal/Cultural Awareness
  9. Literacy
  10. Numeracy
  11. Digital Literacy

Here’s what the full mapping looks like:

For anyone without a magnifying glass, I’ll go into it a bit at a time now. Because the OECD’s Transformative Competencies are so massive, I had to map those separately.

I should also say that I’m not the first person to map these curriculums – for example, ACARA completed a significant amount of work to map these curriculums to the Australian General Capabilities over 2017 to 2019, and their work is also fascinating reading for anyone interested in this topic.

Transversal Competencies – Finland

I’m starting here because I really liked this list.

They cover the literacy problem by creating one mega-skill, which gets it out of the way, and re-frame each skill to place it in context. For example, Self-Management becomes ‘Taking care of oneself and managing daily life’, which feels more comprehensive and understandable.

They are also the only ones to include entrepreneurship, which I love to see in a list like this.

Key Competencies – New Zealand

I also liked this list, which is short and simple but also covers quite a bit in it’s brevity, as it leaves room for interpretation. Relating to others can cover both Collaboration and Interpersonal/Cultural Understanding neatly.

It would be interesting to learn more about how these manifest in the experienced curriculum in NZ, and to see if the brevity gives scope for localisation, or if there is a tendency to fall into the most obvious or simple interpretation of the skill.

General Capabilities – Australia

This was one of the more literacy-heavy frameworks, and the only one that separated out ethical thinking from other forms of citizenship and intercultural understanding.

One result of this is that the majority of the core skills get lumped into just two of the capabilities (Critical and Creative Thinking, and Personal and Social Capability), while another two focus entirely on just one core skill of Interpersonal/Cultural Awareness.

I’m all for simplicity, and I know that the General Capabilities come with direction on further distinction, but I feel this consolidation may not give enough scope to develop all core skills.

Core Competencies – British Columbia

If you’re looking for a robust set of core competencies, backed by resources and guidance, then you need to start here. BC has integrated these competencies into the curriculum, and made them foundational to all learning, which I just love.

Their list maps very closely to the skills identified from the Core Skills Taxonomy, and they are the only curriculum that splits out Critical Thinking from Innovation.

There’s enough definition to ensure all the core skills are covered, but the list isn’t overwhelming.

If you can’t already tell, I like this model.

21st Century Competencies – Singapore

Singapore uses a tiered model with three areas that are then split into sub areas, and a heavy focus on collaboration and interpersonal skills. I’d be interested to learn more about how the three areas are prioritised in the curriculum, and whether there are tensions between what is incorporated and what is left out.

One thing I do like is that they have removed the literacies from their list entirely, and left them in the rest of the curriculum. Once again, I’d love to learn more about the outcomes of this approach, and would be interested to see if it changes how teachers view the skills, without the distraction of literacy/numeracy.

The OECD Transformative Competencies

These are a bit of a special case, as they really rewrite the rules for how we think and talk about core skills within a learning context. I found that they mapped to four of the Core Skills (Critical Thinking, Innovation, Collaboration, and Making Decisions), but that the majority of the competencies they identified actually mapped more closely with the Self-Efficacy section of the World Economic Forum‘s Global Skill Taxonomy.

Here’s what I mean:

Ok that’s also pretty hard to read, so I’ll break it into two. Basically, they have three main competencies, which, through reading their rationale, can be broken into smaller skills. Some skills are found in more than one competency:

As I said, most of these skills map to one of four Core Skills, or Self-Efficacy:

And all of this talk about Self-Efficacy leads me back to thinking about how we incorporate it as a skill or competency or if it should actually sit apart, as a mega-skill that allows us to evaluate all our other skills.

The OECD’s Transformative Competencies are really a radical re-conceptualisation of core skills, situating them squarely in outcomes that relate to the real world.

Perhaps boiling all the skills down to the three skill areas would make things easier for teachers, as instead of thinking about how they can work Intercultural Awareness into their lesson on poetry or algebra, they can focus on giving students opportunities to Create New Value, Reconcile Tensions and Dilemmas, and Take Responsibility.

Something else to ponder in the future I feel.

Back to the questions…

At the start of this newsletter, I said I want to know more about how we talk about core skills at school:

  • Which core skills do we value?
  • Which core skills should we be teaching?
  • Which core skills do we actually teach? and,
  • How do we teach and/or embed them?

And I’m pretty sure I’ve not answered all of those, but I hope I’ve made a start on the first one.

It seems that, across the globe, curriculum writers value the same sorts of skills (with some variations) as we find in the Core Skills Taxonomies, albeit with less definition. They also include literacies which, as technical skillsets, would perhaps not normally make a list of ‘transferable’ skills.

Are these the core skills we should be teaching at school? Probably, but once again, we need more research into outcomes for students with and without exposure to explicit skill development before we will know.

As it stands, I’d love to hear what others think. Have you tried to embed core skills within the curriculum at school? If so, how did it go, and what would you do differently next time?

There’s so much potential here, and I’m curious to see how others approach the issue.

Until next week!

You can read previous editions of Pondering Careers here.

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