As our world grows more interconnected, conversations about education are shifting to focus on identifying and cultivating the complex “21st-century” skills children will need to succeed amid global competition and uncertainty. It’s one thing to know what those skills are (for example collaborative problem solving, or critical thinking), but it’s quite another to know where, when, and how to help individual students develop them. And unfortunately, today’s education systems aren’t yet engaging in the kinds of assessments and analyses that will help them do that. Instead, they tend to emphasize summative assessments, which are valuable but do not typically contribute to individual learning.
What’s needed is an approach that strives to understand the nature of the skills that students need (including how those skills develop over time) and to inform teachers how to adapt their instructional support to help students progress toward mastery. In other words, the focus should be on learning progressions—the journeys that students take as they move toward mastering skills in specific areas or disciplines—rather than on outcomes in the form of scores on standardized tests.
As countries around the world broaden their goals for education to include equipping students with a broader range of skills, the challenge of translating their aspirations into the classroom looms large. The actions we take to support empirical learning progressions for 21st-century skills—as educators, funders, education-focused non-profits, and the adults of today—have urgent and far-reaching implications for the adults of tomorrow.