So you are a policy maker and you want to engineer a big shift in learning in schools to embrace “21st Century Skills” – how do you do it?

My starting point is always the same – teaching. This is the bedrock of a good education and any successful reform must start with classroom practice and what would motivate and enable pedagogy to successfully change.

Some jurisdictions and ministers think just telling teachers what to teach will make it magically happen. If you are lucky it may look like that, but it will not be successful without taking the hearts and minds of teachers with you.

Here we have a coincidence of good fortune. Most teachers are demotivated and increasingly hostile towards ever-higher-stakes testing and tables. Witness the current animosity towards Pearson in the USA. A policy shift away from this therefore has a good chance of a fair hearing.

Teaching 21st Century skills of collaboration, communication, character and so on will be well received by some. It implies less content delivery and testing content re-gurgitation. It implies more group, project-based work. More self directed learning. But for others this is very threatening, undermining their whole craft and everything they have been doing for twenty years in the profession.

As a policy maker you therefore have to use both the carrot and stick.

The carrot must be timely, engaging and affordable professional development. Implementation needs to allow time for teachers to be trained to teach with a new pedagogy, and to identify the innovators and early adopters in the system that can be recognized and incentivized to lead this change in staff rooms.

The stick is assessment. Assessment is the tail that wags the teaching dog, whether we like it or not. Employers and accountability systems will inevitably look at test scores. Change the form of testing and you change teaching and learning.

You will have to change assessment away from that content re-gurgitation to effective forms of examining the curriculum using these new skills. Borrowing from music and dance grading exams, this is perfectly possible if there is investment in the expertise of examiners. They can then assess a range of media, individual and group performance, and give valid judgments.

So two simple things. Get the finance ministers to properly resource professional development and then persuade public opinion to throw away testing recall and let Google in to the exam hall. Easy!

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