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College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

21st Century Skills: Case Studies From Asia

By Vanessa Shadoian-Gersing — April 14, 2015 5 min read
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A recent publication and related post from UNESCO’s Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education shines a light on Asia’s shift to 21st century skills and examines how ten systems are integrating them into their education policies. Today’s post highlights additional efforts to foster 21st century skills in Asian school systems, as well as some of the methods used to do so. Vanessa Shadoian-Gersing, international education consultant, shares what she and her OECD colleagues have gleaned from their work in the region.

Innovation is high on the agenda of education systems in the Asia-Pacific region, and the million-dollar question is how schools should change to foster 21st century skills. Education policies and curricula increasingly reflect a broad understanding of the competencies students need to prosper in the global knowledge economy, including critical thinking, creative-mindedness, global competence, as well as character.

Prominent Policy Approaches
While there is a shared understanding in Asia of the need for 21st century skills frameworks that combine technical, social, behavioral, and higher-order thinking skills, countries are pursuing this agenda in various ways.

Singapore is an interesting case study. The outward looking city-state is committed to the 21st century skills agenda, which is explicit in mainstream policy. With its unwavering focus on human capital development, Singapore’s Desired Outcomes of Education has, since 1997, stipulated that students be “innovative and enterprising,” “resilient in the face of adversity,” and “able to think critically and communicate persuasively” by the end of secondary school. In 2010, the Ministry of Education (MOE) released the 21st Century Competencies framework (see image), which further articulates these and other dimensions of critical and inventive thinking, information and communication skills, civic literacy, global awareness, and cross-cultural skills.

Smaller Scale, Pioneering Initiatives
In other systems, nongovernmental and private sector players are driving pioneering initiatives. In India, the Agastya International Foundation seeks to spark the curiosity and creativity of underserved populations through authentic, hands-on science education. In partnership with state governments, Agastya reaches up to one million children a year through its mobile science labs, science centers, and central campus where scientific concepts can be explored in interactive ways. Through this exposure, Agastya seeks to foster students’ scientific and problem-solving capacities, as well as their motivation, confidence, and sense of empowerment. Results seem promising: several participants have received science awards, and Agastya’s peer-teaching program is being scaled-up at the National Knowledge Commission’s recommendation.

Pedagogical Approaches
The types of pedagogies used to foster 21st century skills typically include a mix of project-based, inquiry, and other active learning approaches. In the Asian context, teacher-centered approaches are more prevalent than student-centered approaches due to teachers’ status as authority figures.

For example, in 2000 the Singaporean Curriculum Office aligned subject syllabi to the Desired Outcomes of Education framework to incorporate thinking skills explicitly within core disciplines. Project-based and inquiry approaches were later introduced to help students make connections across disciplines and develop the creative and critical thinking skills articulated in the 21st Century Competencies framework. In mathematics, the emphasis is on problem solving and adaptive reasoning; in science and humanities the focus is on the inquiry process.

At India’s Apejay school network, which seeks to foster creativity, innovation, and holistic growth, students exercise their imagination through interdisciplinary inquiry-based projects. This is guided by a teaching approach that emphasizes developing flexibility, originality, and elaboration in students’ thinking. Teachers are encouraged to be reflective practitioners who engage in a continuous professional development cycle. Also, principals are encouraged to serve as instructional leaders.

Building Teacher Capacity
As with all education reform initiatives, teacher capacity is paramount. Teacher beliefs (e.g., professional identity, self-efficacy, etc.) are important as well, since they mediate teaching practices.

The types of pedagogies that foster 21st century skills depend highly on teachers’ knowledge and skills, so they can be a challenge to implement. With this in mind, Singapore makes concerted, systemic efforts to connect curriculum policy and planning to teachers’ classroom practice. Initial teacher preparation, centralized at the National Institute for Education, introduces relevant pedagogical and interdisciplinary approaches. Perhaps even more importantly, the MOE encourages ongoing professional learning through multiple pathways—such as workshops, school visits, and collaboration with curriculum officers—and master teachers facilitate professional learning communities, teacher networks, and focus groups.

Indonesia’s adoption of the Japanese “lesson study” approach illustrates the complexity of addressing teacher capacity and beliefs, particularly in geographically dispersed countries. This inquiry-based professional learning approach engages teachers in deliberate reflection and exploration of how student learning, thinking, and behavior change as a result of a given lesson. A pilot evaluation study surfaced implementation challenges, including inconsistencies between teachers’ knowledge and beliefs about students’ learning experience—suggesting the need for a more sustained, school-level approach.

Challenges and Strategies
These early experiences are encouraging and suggest that academic excellence need not come at the expense of 21st century skills. These experiences highlight potential challenges and mitigation strategies for other systems—in Asia as well as North America—to consider as they seek to foster 21st century skills within their own contexts:


  • Importance of clearly-defined terminology and learning outcomes to anchor curricular frameworks and assessments and foster shared understanding
  • Traditional mindsets around principal and teacher authority and roles in school governance and teaching practice (particularly in Asian cultures)
  • Teacher capacity-building requirements are time- and resource-intensive
  • Professional identities rooted in traditional academic subjects may complicate teacher buy-in and ownership

Which brings to mind the (likely apocryphal yet instructive) parable that was the basis of Ghandi’s admonishment, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Further Reading:


Follow Vanessa, Heather, and Asia Society on Twitter.

Image: Singapore Ministry of Education, Framework for 21st Century Competencies and Student Outcomes.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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