Twenty-first-century competencies and skills

We live in a rapidly changing world. Simply reprocessing knowledge will not be sufficient to address the challenges facing young people in the future. Teachers have to prepare children for jobs which have not yet been created, technologies which have yet to be invented and a range of unknown opportunities and challenges which have yet to become apparent. Some of our traditional concepts of the world are no longer relevant. For instance, the traditional dominance of America and Europe in global trade is no longer guaranteed due to the rapid growth of the Chinese and Indian economies.

The biggest increase in the number of skilled individuals is not in the West but in those regions where the population growth is greatest — in Asia, Africa and South America. Delhi’s population, for example, currently exceeds 26 million people and is predicted to rise exponentially in the future. Hence, an Indian engineer can do the same job as his or her British or Irish counterpart but for a quarter of the price. In Kenya, the M-Pesa mobile money system allows Kenyans to transfer money by text. It does not require a bank account or an iPhone; all it requires is a 20-year-old Nokia. M-Pesa has allowed Kenya to leapfrog the traditional 20th-century stages of development - infrastructure and banks -with the most basic technology available. A gateway to digital consumerism, M-Pesa has disrupted the traditional function of money by colonising its functions, including purchase of goods, loans, wage payments and even online gambling (Peretti, 2017).

However, the narrative of change is only partially true. Biesta (2015) challenges the universal claim that all aspects of life are changing, illustrating it as half-true and half-false. While change is unprecedented in economic matters and access to information, there are people in parts of the world for whom very little has changed. For instance, many families are struggling to find clean water, feed their families and earn an income. For these families the mantra of universal change offers little hope. Biesta (2015: 6) suggests that the narrative of change and globalisation functions as an ideology in which ‘half-truths mask as much as they express’.This is a powerful reminder for all of us in education to question some of the grand narratives which are taken for granted in school and society today.

Notwithstanding the importance of knowledge, including geographical knowledge, meeting the demands of today’s world requires a shift in how we conceptualise teaching and learning. The adoption of 21st-century skills in our schools is widely recommended (Colvin and Edwards, 2018; Schleicher, 2018). This involves a movement from a measurement of knowledge to measuring children’s ability to think creatively and critically, examine problems, gather information and make well-informed decisions using technology. Twenty-first-century learning involves a strong emphasis on problem-solving and decision-making and the ability to provide justification for the solution offered. Children as 21st-century learners need to be able to understand their world, their place in the world and how to interact with their world confidently and competently. Twenty-first-century learning is about the capacity to live in a dynamic world as an engaged citizen.

However, commentators such as Biesta caution against making this into a universal claim as it is accurate in some cases but not in its totality. He agrees that we need a broader conceptualisation of education, but it has to begin with questions of democracy, ecology and care as ‘orientation points’ (2015: 7). In light of the half-truths which dominate

Table 0.1 Guide to comparative age of children in different geographical jurisdictions



Northern Ireland California State, USA

Creat Britain


Junior Infants

Primary 1


Foundation Stage



Senior Infants

Primary 2


Year 1


1st Class

Primary 3

Grade 1

Key Stage 1

Year 2


2nd Class

Primary 4

Grade 2

Year 3


3rd Class

Primary 5

Grade 3

Key Stage 2

Year 4


4th Class

Primary 6

Grade 4

Year 5


5th Class

Primary 7

Grade 5

Year 6


6th Class

Year 8

Grade 6

Key Stage 3

Year 7

educational discourse, Biesta argues that we need to shift our focus from survival to meaningful living. Survival is about adapting to changing circumstances but perhaps we need to question the essential nature of these circumstances and their appropriateness for us and for society as a whole. Perhaps we need to envision a new set of circumstances which will ensure that we are ‘more sustainable, more caring and more democratic’ (2015: 7). In order to address these circumstances, Biesta returns to the basics of education and suggests that schools are places where children can practise living in a ‘grown-up way’ and where we can ask the question: What is desirable (a) for our own life (b) for others and (c) for the life we live on a vulnerable planet? While these are essentially geographical questions they also provide a valuable context for the development of 21st-century competencies. The development of 21st-century competencies should not in itself constitute the end goal but should instead provide a framework for sound education which facilitates the development of the individual’s full potential while also promoting the development of a more sustainable, more caring and more democratic society.

This book is written for all those involved in primary geography. While the book refers to children in terms of their age group, Table 0.1 provides a guide for children’s ages applied in education frameworks from different jurisdictions.

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